Host, Zaid Jilani:
As a Pakistani-American, I’ve grown up caught between two worlds: the United States, the rich country that is the world’s lone superpower, and Pakistan, the troubled land of my parent’s birth. Thus, I’ve always been drawn to the interaction between the two countries.
As U.S. drones continue to take flight over Pakistani soil and that country’s restive population becomes more and more resentful of what it views as excessive foreign meddling in its affairs by various actors – the West, Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists, and its old rival India – I think the topic of empire is more relevant than ever to the two countries that I consider my own.
And when it comes to the topic of empire, Stephen Glain’s book State vs. Defense: The Battle To Define America’s Empire, provides a well-researched and exhaustive look at how the United States finds itself enmeshed not only in conflict on Pakistani soil but also with a large military presence across the world.
Glain traces the roots of American empire back through the Second World War, and demonstrates how policy planners who favored an aggressive and militaristic response to the rise of the Soviet Union and nationalistic movements in the developing world beat back those who favored more diplomatic approaches to world affairs.
Thus, a powerful Pentagon was born and the State Department’s ability to engage in diplomacy and peacefully resolving global conflicts was slowly diminished. By documenting the activities of civilian figures such as Paul Nitze and military leaders like Douglas MacArthur, Glain demonstrates how hawks built political power in the United States.
State vs. Defense examines the various military engagements the United States has participated in, documenting how the country found itself in a disastrous Indochina war that took 58,000 American lives and the lives of millions in Asia.
Yet there are hopeful stories to be found in Glain’s book as well. The author shows how even relatively hawkish presidents such as Ronald Reagan were able to engage in successful arms control negotiations and significantly reduce the threat of nuclear war. A wide array of civilian and military leaders are praised for warning against escalating tensions with foreign powers, from Kennedy adviser George Ball to Nixon’s Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
The book’s last sections deal with the September 11th attacks, which is a fitting conclusion not only because these terrorist atrocities occurred most recently in history, but also because they originated, at least partly, as a result of the foreign policy that Glain documents in the rest of the book. The author notes that the motivations of Al Qaeda were obscured or misinterpreted in the major media narratives about the attacks, and that the terrorists viewed themselves as retaliating against American foreign policy that sided with dictators and the state of Israel over the welfare and well-being of captive Muslim populations.
Glain’s book is an enticing entry into the growing and needed field of literature dealing with America’s rise as a military empire and its perilous disregard for diplomacy.
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