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My three must-read U.S. foreign policy books for aspring politicians

I know I said I would post by book choices for aspiring senators/presidential candidates yesterday, but current events forced a slight delay.  So, you know the contest:  "if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?"  You now know (and are less than thrilled with) the readers' selections.  Below are my choices. 

My selections were based on three fundamental premises.  The first is that politicians do not lack in self-confidence.  This is an important leadership trait, but when it comes to foreign policy, some awareness of The Things That Can Go Wrong is really important.  So my choices try to stress the pitfalls of bad decision-making. 

The second assumption is that trying to force-feed social science principles onto a politico is a futile enterprise -- any decent advisor should provide that role.  What's more important is exposing politicians to the different schools of thought that they will encounter in foreign policy debates.  As with the zombie book, the idea is that by familiarizing individuals to the different theoretical approaches, they can recognize a realist or neoconservative argument when they hear it.  They should then be able to recall how well or how badly these approaches have done in the past, and think about the logical conclusions to each approach. 

Finally, these are American politicians, which means that they are genuinely interested in Americana and American history.  Books that can connect current foreign policy debates to past ones will resonate better. 

So, with that set-up, my three choices:

1)  Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence.  An excellent introduction to the myriad strains of thought that have permeated American foreign policy over the past two and a half centuries.  International relations theorists might quibble with Mead's different intellectual traditions, but I suspect politicians will immediately "get" them. 

2)  David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (for Democrats); James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (for Republicans).  Americans have a long and bipartisan history of Mongolian clusterf**ks in foreign policy.  Each side should read about their greatest foreign policy mistake of the past century to appreciate that even the best and smartest advisors in the world will not necessarily translate into wise foreign policies. 

3)  Richard Neustadt and Earnest May, Thinking in Time.  Politicians like to claim that they don't cotton to abstract academic theories of the world, that they rely on things like "common sense"  and "folk wisdom."  This is a horses**t answer that's code for, "if I encounter a new situation, I'll think about a historical parallel and use that to guide my thinking."  Neustadt and May's book does an excellent job of delineating the various ways that the history can be abused in presidential decision-making. 

 Obviously, I'd want politicians to read more books after these three -- but as a first set of foreign policy primers, I'm comfortable with these choices. 

If you want to hear more about this, go and listen to my bloggingheads exchange with NSN's Heather Hurlburt on this very question. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Why killing bin Laden is a big f***ing deal

As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics.   We're like this for two reasons:  a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.

Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed.  Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy."   Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world.  Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great.  Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else. 

So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal: 

1)  Pakistan.  You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy.  This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests.  As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it.  So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent. 

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country. 

2)  The United States just re-shaped the narrative.  International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige.  The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's.  According to reports, Bin Laden used his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives.  Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power. 

Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...

3)  The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region.  As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated.  There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda

It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan.  A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it.  They also have the American public on their side

If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner. 

4)  Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring.  Al Qaeda had already whiffed  badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late.  That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support.  It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist. 

Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.

5)  It's a social science bonanza!!!  Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development.  Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim.  The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida."  I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected. 

Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.