Christian Whiton occupied several posts at the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush, all of them at the juncture where realpolitik meets ideology. Or would meet, anyway, if the department were able to recognize the importance of ideas in international politics. Whiton served under Jay Lefkowitz when Lefkowitz was Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea, where he learned what the department can do to corner and undermine a foreign body it views as dangerous. From his years at State comes this book, half memoir of what the United States government does wrong and half proposal for fixing it.
There is an old joke about a restaurant patron who complains that “the food is inedible and the portions are too small.” Whiton is sometimes left in this position by the State Department, and the government more broadly: We are doing the wrong things, he complains, and we are doing them badly. His main targets are our handling of China, which we insist is not an adversary, and Islamism, of which we only treat the symptom—terrorism—rather than the underlying ideological disease. As he notes, “terrorism is but the preferred tool and vanguard of a much broader political force,” and yet, “surprisingly many among the Washington foreign policy establishment have yet to take [the first step] recognizing and understanding the existence of Islamism.”
These are two of the five main myths of the bureaucracy that he lists and examines: that China is not an adversary; that al Qaeda terror is the only real threat to us; that neglecting our allies softens up our adversaries’ attitudes toward the United States; that the CIA knows all; and that social media can destroy dictatorships.
The range here shows how much Whiton tries to take in, and to do it better he would have needed a longer book. His analyses are often more compelling (and longer) than his prescriptions—for example, Iran gets just four pages. He also has the habit of attacking potential allies—for example, neoconservatives—and writes of “neoconservatives on the right and moralists on the left [who] call for intervention at the drop of a hat” and “whose sole solution to foreign problems so often seems to be sideshow wars.”
As someone seeking recognition of the role of ideology in world politics, and of the new agencies and programs that can use “smart power” best, Whiton ought to realize that he is most likely to find support among neocons—and incomprehension almost everywhere else, in the government and in both political parties. There are also a few too many snarky personal comments here, such as an attack on John McCain (Whiton backed Newt Gingrich in 2012), that add nothing to the serious arguments he is making.
What is “smart power” to Christian Whiton? It is not, he stresses, “public diplomacy,” but rather ideological and political warfare:
If U.S. espionage today is the “pull” of information that America’s opponents do not want it to have, political warfare is the “push” of confrontational ideas, people, forces, and events with which America’s opponents would rather not contend. That push is aided by a strong military posture, whether or not it is engaged in outright combat.
Smart Power is not, then, a paean to replacing hard power with the Internet. Discussing China, for example, he says flatly that “restoring hard power and projecting it into the Pacific is a key to smart power,” and he calls for “a different military posture” against the Chinese. His analyses of our relationship with China are smart, nowhere more so than in his discussion of Taiwan. We generally treat her as an embarrassment, but Whiton suggests a very different policy:
The mainland’s Han Chinese—the majority ethnic group of Taiwan and China—should see in Taiwan’s example their potential too when they become free. Part of this effort, however, requires Washington to treat Taiwan as an asset rather than as a liability in U.S.-China interactions. The freedoms of speech and worship that exist in Hong Kong should also be highlighted to the mainland Chinese, with the goal of prompting them to ask, “Why not here?”
That is, why treat the 1949 victory of the Communists as the permanent solution for China? Why not wonder if the model presented by Taiwan and Hong Kong (and, for that matter, Singapore) will win out in the decades ahead?
But in order to conduct political warfare, the United States will need political warriors—and agencies that allow them to work together effectively. Whiton’s experience tells him that there are very few such people in the government, and that our agencies are incompetent and, in fact, flee from the very idea of political warfare. He spends many pages telling horror stories about the bureaucracy and describing how America successfully engaged in political warfare in the past.
During and after World War II, we seemed to be good at it, able to fight the Communists on their own intellectual and ideological turf. Whiton recalls the success of the CIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom in combating Communist parties and ideology in Europe. Indeed, Smart Power begins with the tale of a CIA agent delivering bags of cash to Italy’s Christian Democrats in the years after the war, allowing them to take on the Soviet-backed Italian Communist Party.
Whiton despairs of teaching new (or, actually, old) tricks to the State Department, though, and argues that “no instrument is available to presidents to initiate and manage political warfare. . . . The closest operation the United States ever had to a peacetime political warfare agency was the U.S. Information Agency.” But the USIA was a victim of success and closed down when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.
The best model he examines is the Political Warfare Executive, created in London during World War II as part of the Special Operations Executive, whose mission Winston Churchill said was “to set Europe ablaze.” Today, Whiton laments, “the United States has neither the tools nor even the serious inclination to engage in a war of ideas against Washington’s adversaries,” a “deficiency [that] represents a no-show for a major part of the smart power spectrum. There is no updated Congress for Cultural Freedom for China today.”
Whiton does not suggest reopening USIA, but wants a new agency instead, one capable not only of information operations but of covert activities. It needs “the ability to act covertly and at times even support political forces that might not want U.S. help but whose progress would advance U.S. interests (e.g., the opposition movements in Iran).”
Whiton’s own experiences in the intelligence bureaucracy should suggest to him that this is very unlikely to happen: The CIA and the State Department would fight it to the death. But it is not Whiton’s specific proposals that make this a valuable book; it is his analyses of today’s foreign policy challenges and our bureaucratic failings in meeting them. His portrait of the Foreign Service is etched in acid, and his description of the jumble of agencies and offices supposedly handling political warfare when they oppose even the idea that we should engage in this type of combat is effective and therefore depressing. But he seems a happy warrior himself, confident that the next Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan is out there and that “American voters will find them eventually.”
This book forces us to hope that “eventually” won’t be too far away.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.