March 13th, 2008


March Books 20) The Superpower Myth

20) The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might, by Nancy Soderberg

Nancy Soderberg was a senior official in President Clinton's national security council (with a similar role to the fictional Kate Harper in the West Wing, but a political appointee rather than a representative of the military) and then deputy US ambassador to the United Nations. She was then a colleague of mine for several years; I looked over a couple of draft chapters in this book for her and she has been kind enough to thank me in the introduction.

It is a combination of autobiographical memoir and analytical reflection on the differences between the Clinton and Bush administration approaches to foreign policy. She is admirably frank about the early mistakes made by the Clinton White House, a combination of inexperience (after being out of government for twelve years) and a failure to grasp the ways in which the world had changed. She is rightly excoriating about the delusions of superpowerdom which have fuelled the Bush White House's bullying posture, and gives several case studies (most obviously Iraq, but also North Korea) detailing the mistakes made in both strategy and tactics. Although the book came out at the start of Bush's second term, very little in it would need to be changed in the light of events in the last three years.

For me the most interesting insights are into the dynamics of the Washington foreign policy establishment. That the Pentagon were in general opposed to actually deploying troops I already knew; the role of the State Department as a dead hand delaying policy innovation was new to me. Having said that, the role of key personalities with their own individual styles and agendas remains paramount.

Her chapters on terrorism are surprisingly good - surprisingly because a relatively large amount of the material is recycled from other sources (Dick Clarke and the 9/11 report), the key events having happened only after she had left government; but she manages the synthesis with her own earlier experience of institutional working habits very well.

It doesn't always work - for instance, the section on engaging the Arab world in the last chapter is rather weak, though probably right - but it's a fairly digestible and well-informed read of a pretty heavy topic.