jonathan-stevenson-thinking-beyond-the-unthinkable.jpgJonathan Stevenson’s new book, Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable, should lead to some interesting conversations – not just today on Book Salon, but also amongst the military and intelligence strategists he works with as a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College. His book invites us to consider the evolution of modern strategic thinking – and join ourselves in new ways of thinking about America’s role in the world.

Opening with an interesting discussion of the ever escalating toll of human wars, he suggests that contrary to popular impressions, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was not seen as a weapon so grievous that it would never be used again. I particularly appreciated his reminder of the horrific scale of the conventional bombing in Europe before that blinding August 6 day. His discussion of the immediate postwar period is fascinating and a new take for those of us normally outside this specialist world.

Stevenson then draws us forward to the development of Cold War thinking – as nuclear war becomes “the unthinkable” and is recognized as fundamental threat to human life on earth, strategists moved from how to win a war to how to avoid a nuclear war. Think tanks like RAND took over what had been solely the realm of military professionals. His portraits of the leading Cold War strategists will be a special interest to readers who want to understand how we got from Hiroshima to MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). These profiles recount the personal eccentricities of the key players – from Kahn to Ellsberg, Wohlstetter to Kissinger – as well as insightful overviews of their work on what Lawrence Freedman called the charade essential to nuclear deterrence.

Deterrence – as constituted in the Cold War – does not apply straightforwardly as we move past the nation state conflicts of our recent past and into the era of terrorism. (I, as always hesitate using the word “terrorist” since, as Robert Fisk reminds us often, we do not recognize our own terrorism nor the often legitimate demands when using this term.) As we shift to the current era, we clearly live in a world where the dangers have changed and the conflicts are new. Stevenson argues forcefully – and effectively – that our strategists have been late to the game, analyzing potential threats in terms more relevant to the old bomb shelter days than the world of Al Qaeda . Where MAD rested on the mutual acknowledgment that each party had an essential interest in avoiding conflict, he notes:

In 1991, nobody had imagined a group like al-Qaeda. No enemy in history had designated as legitimate military targets all citizens of Western democracies by virtue of having elected their leaders and thus bearing direct responsibility for their policies…

Where nation states would weigh as too dangerous an attack that called down the wrath of the US,

In fact, al-Qaeda’s shura, or council, sharply debated whether the shock of attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would be worth the probably loss of Afghanistan as a base, and ultimately was persuaded it was. So the threat of devastating retaliation against territory that had proven so reliable a deterrent during the Cold War was unavailing against al-Qaeda’s most powerful leaders.

And in fact, the retaliation, according to Stevenson actually is seen as a benefit:

They seemed to view not only the destruction of 9/11 but also the robust U.S. response as a catalyst to a self-perpetuating and intensifying jihad that would somehow realize the group’s violent eschatalogical vision of an America destroyed. In that light, any feasible punishment, administered by the United States was not merely futile but, in fact, inspiring to the jihadists.

Stevenson leads us to think about a new form of deterrence – pointing out the ineffectiveness of the “misguided” attempt “to reestablish deterrence as a primarily military function” we see in Iraq.

The defensive jihad cut states out of the deterrence calculus by personalizing what is essentially an intergenerational civilizational grievance harbored by Muslims against the West.

Deterrence therefore cannot easily be remilitarized. But thinking on the uses of soft power – for example, diplomacy, information and economic inducement – to establish deterrence against the exaggeratedly hopeless but post-9/11 assumption that those willing to commit suicide in their cause are irreconcilable, has emerged slowly.

This failure to bring the creativity and rigor of the earlier strategic thinkers to the new challenges is the critical warning in Stevenson’s book. As he points out, the response of the Bush administration to 9/11 was not merely inadequate but seriously damaging. Stevenson’s description of the Bush approach is devastating – as is his identification of the “choice” American strategists have presented:

The choice, crudely, seemed to be between negotiation with terrorists, perhaps yielding them victory, or furnishing bin Laden, at prohibitively high risk, with precisely the violent “clash of civilizations” that he wanted to power the apocalypse.

Stevenson instead argues for a third way, a way based on pragmatism that not only responds to the threat of forces like al-Qaeda but also to the potential of progress in the world:

Pragmatism’s central tenet – that even cherished and seemingly immutable principles are just educated bets on the future –will not sit well with those Americans, of which there are many, who see the American way as the culmination of civilization, to which all should aspire. It’s true that victory in the Cold War, among other things, may have certified American-style capitalist democracy as a pretty good bet for the future. But it’s just as true that 9/11 was a bare-knuckled challenge to the American way. Protecting it may involve rigidity in some areas, but it will require flexibility in others: hedging the bet. The lone superpower has to be, as the pragmatists were, respectful of “other ways of being in the world.”

This is a valuable and challenging book. We are rarely exposed to the level of professional strategic thinking that Stevenson reviews in Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable – and yet, as we see all too clearly in the Iraq occupation, such strategies and policy directions impact us all – from the residents of Sadr City to the families of deployed US troops – and yes, us too as we face the world around us. Professor Stevenson provides us with an important guidebook which will hopefully inspire new thinking both in military and policy circles but also amongst us as citizens.



Siun is a proud Old Town resident who shares her home with two cats and a Great Pyrenees. She’s worked in media relations and on the net since before the www, led the development of a corporate responsibility news service, and knows what a mult box is thanks to Nico. When not swimming in the Lake, she leads a team working on sustainability tools.

Email: media dot firedoglake at gmail dot com