Book Review: If We Can Keep It by Chet Richards

Two years ago, Dr. Chet Richards released Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead, a radical treatise on global trends toward the privatization of military capabilities and the erosion of the efficacy of state armed forces. If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration is not a sequel to Neither Shall the Sword but rather a logical extension of that chet.jpgbook’s premises upon which Richards builds a stinging critique of American grand strategy and a profligate United States government that Richards argues wins enemies and alienates allies while squandering hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons systems of dubious usefulness against what genuine threats to our security still exist. It is a provocative thesis that leaves few of the Defense Department’s sacred cows grazing unmolested.

Dr. Richards has a trademark style as a writer: economical clarity of thought. One can agree or disagree with his analysis or dispute his normative preferences but within his parameters, Chet will give his audience an argument that is internally consistent and logically sound, without much in the way of redundancy or wasted words. As a result, If We Can Keep It is about as lean a book as Richards would like the U.S. military to be while giving the reader no shortage of things to think about as he hammers away at conventional wisdom regarding defense policy, national security and the war on terror.

A number of intellectual influences resonate within If We Can Keep It. Unsurprisingly, given Richards’ history as a military thinker, these include the ideas of Colonel John Boyd, Martin van Creveld, Thomas X. Hammes and 4GW Theory advocated by William Lind. Also present as a strategic subtext is Sun Tzu along with elements of Eastern philosophy and the recent work of British military strategist General Sir Rupert Smith, whose book, The Utility of Force, shares a similar title with one of Richards’ chapters. Finally, Richards is channeling, in his call for a grand strategy of Shi and for America to focus on ” being the best United States that we can be “, a very traditional strand of foreign policy in American history. One that diplomatic historian Walter McDougall has termed “Promised Land” but which may be most accurately described as “Pre-Wilsonian“; not “Isolationist” in the mold of the 1930’s but rather a hardheaded realism with very skeptical view of the efficacy of military intervention beyond purely punitive expeditions against violent ideological networks like al Qaida.

In enunciating this case, Richards argues that the “war on terror” conducted since 9/11 by the Bush administration does not qualify as a “war” and that “terrorists” is an empty label slapped on to many types of problems, most of which are best handled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies ( Richards recommends giving the IC the lead and budget for fighting al Qaida, not the DoD); the “war” model is costly in terms of treasure and civil liberty without yielding positive strategic results; While COIN is ” a piece of the puzzle” for fighting “true insurgencies” it is not a strategic magic bullet and COIN is historically ineffectual against “wars of national liberation”; that given the lack of serious external threats from foreign states or justification to intervene abroad militarily in most instances (aside from raids and strikes against violent non-state networks) the American defense establishment can be drastically scaled back to roughly $ 150 billion a year to support a superempowered US Marine Corps with Special Forces and tactical Air power.

(Dr. Richard’s last bit should be enough to kill off most of America’s general officer corps from heart attacks and take a fair number of the House of Representatives with them)

Chet Richards makes a strong argument for the declining utility of military force and the consequent budgetary implications before calling for a radical shift in American foreign and strategic policy. Much of his criticism of the strategic status quo is praiseworthy, bold, incisive and insightful and could serve as the basis for commonsense discussion of possible reforms. However, Richards’ argument can also be contested; in part from what Richards has said in If We Can Keep It, which will mostly attract the attention from specialists in military affairs, but most importantly from what has been left unsaid. It is the consequences of the latter with which the public and politicians must seriously consider in entertaining the recommendations of Dr. Richards.

In terms of what was “said”, I am dissatisfied with the sections dealing with the differentiation between “true insurgencies” and “wars of national liberation which suffers from some degree of contextual ahistoricality. For example, the Malayan Emergency ( which is listed in tables IV and V as being in both categories) has a result of ” UK declares victory and leaves”. True enough, but in the process of doing so, an ethnic Chinese Communist insurgency with ties to Beijing was crushed and the population reconciled to a legitimate, pro-Western state. That’s a victory, not a declaration. Communist Vietnam may have ” withdrawn” from Cambodia but their puppet ruler, the ex-Khmer Rouge Hun Sen, is still Prime Minister today. That’s a victory, even if Hun Sen’s power has been trimmed back somewhat by a UN brokered parliamentary-constitutional monarchy system. The case of the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique have as much to do with the utter collapse of the decrepit, semi-fascist, Salazar regime in Lisbon a brief Communist coup as the military prowess of the insurgencies.

Reaching for a dogmatic rule, which the 4GW school is currently doing with “foreign COIN is doomed”, is an error because the more heterodox and fractured the military situation in a country happens to be, the more relative the concepts of “foreigner” and “legitimacy” are going to become to the locals. Rather than binary state vs. insurgents scenarios, historical case studies in military complexity like China 1911-1949, the Spanish Civil War, South Vietnam 1949 -1962, Lebanon 1980’s, West Afrca 1990’s and Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and Central Africa the 2000’s should be pursued to better understand 4GW and COIN dynamics.

In terms of what has been left “unsaid” in If We Can Keep It, would be the downstream global implications of a radical shift in America’s strategic posture. Richards is no isolationist but his smoothly laconic style belies the magnitude of proposals which entail a top to bottom reevaluation of all of the alliances and military relationships maintained by the United States ( itself not a bad thing) – most likely with the result of terminating most and renegotiating the rest. The extent to which American securrity guarantes originating in the aftermath of WWII, have interdependently facilitated peaceful economic liberalization and integration is a factor ignored in If We Can Keep It and frankly, I’m not sure how we can abruptly or unilaterally exit our security role in the short term without creating a riptide in the global economy.

If We Can Keep It is a fascinating and thought-provoking book as well as an absolutely brutal critique of the numerous shortcomings and strategic mismatches we suffer from as a result of ponderous, Cold War era, legacy bureaucracies and weapons systems and ill-considered foreign interventions. It is also, a pleasure to read. I highly recommend it to any serious student of defense policy, military strategy or foreign affairs.

Cross-posted at Zenpundit

ADDENDUM – Other Reviews of If We Can Keep It:

William Lind


6 thoughts on “Book Review: If We Can Keep It by Chet Richards”

  1. I want to read this. From your review, I think Chet underestimates the consequences of a massive withdrawal of American power from the world. The world economy is premised on hegemonic power controlling the global commons and opening them to trade. Britain did it, until 1914, when it all went crash for 31 years, then we picked it back up in 1945. No maritime hegemon, no global trade, no economic growth of the type we have come to take as normal.

    All that said, what we are doing now is expensive and too often ineffective. There is lots of space for criticism and Chet knows the system.

  2. Any abrupt departure of America from it’s pivotal security role will probably cause globalization to break down into autarkic blocs with beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and give rise to regional arms races and probing, proxy wars. The U.S. would have to be replaced by some kind of cohesive multilateral system to avoid an every-man-for-himself response by other states.

    OTOH, we cannot continue to throw $ 2 billion planes at ragtag guerillas with small arms and IED’s. It’s an insane response, economically speaking.

    I think the entire 4GW school originally dismissed macroeconomic variables from analytical consideration ( some of them do Micro- very well and have Pentagon waste nailed cold) being narrowly focused on the political and cultural drivers of moral legitimacy in a military conflict. To his credit, the anonymous DNI writer, “Fabius Maximus” has been working hard to rectify this and inject economics into the overall framework of 4GW.

  3. I want to read it too. It is not obvious to me that the expenditure of ~4% of GDP on the military (well below Cold War levels) or KIA rates of ~0.5 per division-combat-day are going to break us — but if we could equal or exceed our present effectiveness for 1/3 the money, I’m all for it.

  4. I know this puts me into kooks-ville but if you want to picture a world without an engaged America, read the Book of Revelation.

    That said.. this book sounds interesting.

  5. I read Zen’s review and the ones linked above. I don’t see why the book would have any appeal to me and I do not plan to read it. Some of the prescriptions ($150B Defense budget) seem laughable.

    From the reviews it sounds like an audition for a policy position in the (Heaven Forfend) Obama administration.

    WSJ (and former Jerusalem Post) editor Bret Stephens published an opion piece Tuesday morning, which fits the critique of Richards’ book. “Global View: An Inordinate Fear of Terrorism?” by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal on March 4, 2008 at Page A16:

    … This year, expect to be told to get over your “inordinate fear” of terrorism.

    Among politicians, the case is still being made sotto voce. …

    Among policy experts, however, the argument is being stated more baldly. “The fear of terrorism has reached the bogeyman threshold,” writes Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist formerly with the CIA. His new book, “Leaderless Jihad,” is worth reading if only because it makes the best of a bad case.

    This case has been made before. “Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism,” wrote Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official, in a New York Times op-ed. “They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism. None of these beliefs are based in fact.”

    Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, his op-ed appeared in July 2001, two months and a day before 9/11. …

    Implicit in this argument is the notion that, when it comes to fighting terrorism, doing less is more. As a political prescription, it fits nicely with the idea that the war in Iraq has only made our terrorism problem worse and that we can better address the threat as a criminal justice issue rather than as a “war” (as the U.S. mostly did during the Clinton administration). …

    No doubt the invasion of Iraq did spur a younger generation of jihadis to new fits of apoplexy, particularly in Europe. Yet when Mohammed Bouyeri murdered Theo Van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, he was reacting to Mr. Van Gogh’s film “Submission,” which uncharitably depicts the treatment of women in Islam. … The threshold for jihadist violence, it turns out, falls below whatever levels are set by current U.S. foreign policy to include what used to be known as free speech.

    * * *

    … if recent experience in Iraq demonstrates anything, it’s that nothing is likelier to deter future terrorists than the defeat of existing ones. In letters captured by U.S. forces in Iraq late last year, al Qaeda “sheikhs” lament how the flow of foreign suicide bombers has dried up as the likelihood dims that their “martyrdom” will result in anyone’s death other than their own. There is, said one of these sheikhs about his dwindling minions, “panic, fear and an unwillingness to fight” ever since U.S. and Iraqi troops went on the offensive.

    * * *

  6. Flavius Vegetius Renatus, wrote in the “De re militari” (390 C.E.): “Qui desiderat pacem, bellum praeparat; nemo provocare ne offendere audet quem intelliget superiorem esse pugnaturem“. (Whosoever desires peace, prepares for war; no one provokes, nor dares to offend, those who they know know to be superior in battle.)

    As defense analyst Colin Gray Writes in a recent book about the near-term possibilities of major conflict, “Another Bloody Century,”* when considering optimism and pessimism, “optimism is apt to kill with greater certainty.”

    — “Fear of China” by Robert D. Kaplan in The Wall Street Journal, on page A14, on April 21, 2006.

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