Book Review:  War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

This book explores the efforts of the United States to deal with troubled parts of the world in light of the author’s premise, which is that more and more in recent decades, presidents are sidelining diplomacy in favor of military solutions. Farrow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has also worked in the State Department, and so he is able to add firsthand accounts to his extensive research. He conducted interviews with all the living Secretaries of State and many of the other key players involved. Most of the book is taken up with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the decades following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, but he also gives examples of how the U.S. military approach overwhelmed diplomacy in dealing with situations in Somalia, Egypt, Columbia, Iran, and North Korea.

War on Peace is not an easy read. Part of the reason is that it attempts to be so many things at once: a history, a memoir, and a critique of the way that military solutions are being chosen above diplomacy in the modern era. Part of the problem also has to do with its organization. It often initiates one argument or story thread, leaves it hanging, and then gets back to it chapters later, a technique that works well in novels but is confusing in nonfictional works that introduce multitudes of characters and situations. It would have been much easier to grasp if Farrow had told it chronologically as history or memoir instead of skipping around so much. It tries to do so many things that sometimes the facts seem to get all jumbled together. As a result, at one point a couple hundred pages in, I almost gave up. Having said that, however, I must emphasize that it is an important book that will reward a thorough, persistent read.

If nothing else, the comprehensive study of diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last few decades highlights the complexity of the region’s political and social realities, the impossibility of providing a solution from outside even by a nation as powerful as the United States, and the failure of the military approaches that have been taken thus far. Basically these approaches have been based on the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It began with the arming of Islamic extremists to evict the Russians from Afghanistan and continued with the arming of oppressive military regimes in Pakistan to combat Islamic extremists. These regimes, bankrolled by the U.S., tended to give lip-service to fighting terrorists by day while arming and supporting them by night.

As I write this, Afghanistan is once again the focal point of international attention. President Biden has ordered a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban has swept in and taken over, and much violence has ensued. This book makes it clear that the present situation is only the tiniest tip of a very large iceberg. It also clarifies why all of our decades-long efforts have come to naught so quickly. From the very start, our presence there has always been based on confusion, lies, subterfuge, cover-ups, and cross-purposes.

As I read this book, I found it hard to imagine that this was the same region I hitchhiked and took local transportation through back in the mid-1970s. On one trip, I hitchhiked from Europe as far as Kandahar, Afghanistan, and then took buses to Kabul and over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan. On another trip I hitchhiked through southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan, bypassing Afghanistan because I didn’t have seven dollars to spare for an Afghani visa. In those days, both Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan had “freak streets,” which were roads lined with cheap hostels and restaurants catering to budget western travelers. It was dangerous to travel in these countries, sure, especially if you got caught with illicit drugs and tossed into one of the black holes they called jails or if you wandered off the roads and pathways that tourists usually stuck to, but these areas were not yet the permanent war zones that they would soon become.

In conclusion, in this book Farrow tells a fascinating history of diplomatic efforts in very troubled regions. I don’t know if he succeeds in making his point that diplomatic efforts might have provided solutions where military efforts failed. However, it is clear that whether or not diplomacy succeeds, it is a far better approach than shooting first and then attempting to sort out the resultant chaos.

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