Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Most Admirable Journalist

In the New York Times a few days ago, the traveling journalist Robert D. Kaplan wrote an op-ed recommending that the U.S. reshape its military strategy to plan for natural disasters abroad. He argues that the U.S. can win the hearts and minds of people adversely affected by earthquakes, flooding and typhoons, by leading in relief effortsl, similar to what took place during the Christmas Day Tsunami of last year. The American military has a tremendous logistical advantage over any other relief agency as well as the discipline to carry through operations inspite of a hostile environment. Especially now that the military is professionalized, with more troops engaged in highly specialized tasks, the effectiveness of an American military response to any natural disaster is tremendous. Looking closely at the actions of the armed forces in response to Hurricane Katrina, one can't help but be amazed at the swiftness of action, the heroic feats of the coast guard, and the integrity of its commanding officers such as General Honore. Even under more civilian type tasks performed in Iraq and Afghanistan the past few years, the armed forces have demonstrated remarkable patience, persistance and flexibility that is sure to pay dividends in the U.S. relation with the people in those countries.

Kaplan writes on his impressions of soldiers in much greater depth than I ever could in his latest book, Imperial Grunts. He travels with the special ops forces in various countries, particularly poor ones in the third world who hope to develop closer ties to the U.S. This volume is just the latest in a series of books in which the writer for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, journeys through the most overlooked corners of existence throughout the globe and explains with tremendous historical detail and keen observation the surrounding environment. I read most of his books, such as Balkan Ghosts, Ends of the Earth, Eastward to Tartary, The Arabists, An Empire Wilderness, and Soldiers of God. He has also written two more theoretical books on politics, Warrior Politics and The Coming Anarchy, in which he posits many insights about international relations which were very prescient in predicting future events. His prose is vivid while his analysis is accurate and his conclusions are original. Kaplan often sees the hidden social and historical patterns of a place and makes predictions therefrom. Many of his contemporaries would consider him a political realist, in that power is determined by national self-interest, and foreign policy should be governed on purely pragmatic grounds rather than on moral principles. To the casual reader, many of his insights seem too grim to bear. For those who make no illusions about the perverse behavior natural to humans, he speaks to you directly. If the journalist's job is to report as well as to analyze with as much information as necessary, Robert Kaplan has been among the very best in his field. It has achieved for him a high respect from foreign policy makers as well as both presidents Clinton and Bush.

I once recall quickly browsing through an edition of Newsweek or some other similar weekly a few years ago. Inserted in a larger story about globalization dual opinion column between Kaplan and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Friedman's take was typical of the author, which is big on the marvels of technology, and the social transformations in third world countries brought on by globalism. In short, the same tone of enthusiasm and fascination typical of his opinion columns and last several books, and nothing so different from typical boosterist literature found in business magazines. I used to regularly read his writings, but increasingly found his arguments to be lacking in sophistication. Kaplan's take on globalism was radically different from Friedman's and was peppered with cautionary points and unexpected conclusions about the future. He warned of threats of terrorism (this was before 9/11,) failed states, and native reactions to globalist forces, conceding that modern technologies were more widely diffused, but that it would empower the enemies of globalism like never before. To summarize, Kaplan's half was far more critical yet far more convincingly argued than the foreign policy 'expert' from the New York Times. I look to reading his newest book, and I recommend all of his books to anyone interested in international politics and the nature of military conflicts.

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