top of page

War on Peace: Book Review

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow (2018), focusing on the collapse of diplomacy in the US and the shift in foreign policy from the State Department to the military and CIA. Farrow worked for Richard Holbrooke when he was Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. About two thirds of the book deals with Afghanistan, covering similar ground to Coll's Directorate S (see earlier review on this book). The difference is the focus on diplomacy and the State Department, where the Coll book was on military/intelligence for the US and Pakistan versus attempting to fix Afghanistan. The result recounted by both books is almost total failure for the US. After 9/11 the Bush administration went straight to CIA/military action with virtually no input from State, a short-term transactional approach to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This worked quickly, an area seemingly ideal for CIA. After that, increased failure at an immense cost. The Bush/Cheney team would not talk to the Taliban, while those Taliban moving back ("surrendering") were often captured and killed. With a sanctuary in (and an ally with) Pakistan, the Taliban could not be defeated, meaning diplomacy was essential but not forthcoming. The opportunity was missed, the war continues at a cost of thousands of US and many more Afghan lives. Considerably more details in the book, but the discussion parallels other books reviewed.

Later chapters include Somalia, Egypt, and Columbia. Each has a difference story, but a CIA/military response proved the wrong one in each case. In Somalia, the US (mainly CIA) supported (presumably secular) warlords, to ward off al-Qaeda. Other options were available, including an African peacekeeping force. These were rejected by CIA/military, the net result being instability and the creation of al-Shabaab. The Egypt result was Mubarak ultimately replace by al-Sisi and increased violence. Columbia faced leftist militants (called communists of course), ultimately FARC, to be defeated by extreme military tactics with a focus on body counts (leading to murders and "false positives"), all much in the image of Vietnam. FARC later turned to cocaine for funding. Some success resulted from an eventual move toward civilian assistance.

The final section turned to the Trump team, the worst of the lot in terms of presidential history; however, the case is made that the basic problem of relying on military/intelligence rather than diplomacy has a long history. It was a disaster under Bush (43), but Obama followed the same basic model of relying on generals rather than career diplomats (he did not like Holbrooke, for example). Perhaps the only president that did not get rolled by the military was Eisenhower. Trump is in a class by himself, with generals seemingly running most departments plus the chief of staff. Tillerson at State was an exception, but he proved incredibly incompetent. The State Department budget was cut about 20%, capable employees fired in mass and multiple positions remaining vacant. According to Farrow, Tillerson had little contact with in-house officials or foreign counterparts. Why he talked to Farrow is anyone's guess because he basically admitted to his incompetence and lack of interest. The issues with the Paris Agreement, North Korea and Iran indicate the major changes occurring.

The final point of the book was the role of China, whose specialty seems to be transactional diplomacy. That is, China is good at it, Trump, not so much. China is likely to be the big winner in Afghanistan and much of the world. Farrow didn't suggest everyone learn Mandarin, but that would seem to be a major take away from this book.

bottom of page