Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sarah Kreps

Sarah E. Kreps is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. She previously held fellowships at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and the Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Between 1999-2003, Kreps served as an active duty officer in the United States Air Force.

Her new book is Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold War.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Over the break I've been reading popular history accounts of American wars (a nerdy academic's version of the airport novel). In particular, I’ve enjoyed re-reading David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, which I picked up again because I’ve been thinking about the question of how smart people end up getting the US involved in costly wars. It’s obviously difficult to generalize from the Vietnam experience, since it was probably sui generis in a number of ways, but I’m fascinated by a couple of things. First, the role of individuals. There was certainly a sense that intelligence was a sufficient condition for effective formulation of policy, that bringing a bunch of academics from Cambridge, MA to Washington, DC would result in sound foreign policies. Instead, it seems that bringing like-minded individuals into the administration created a good deal of group think and reinforced each others’ biases, including the unflinching belief in American power as a force for good. That France hadn’t been successful in Vietnam had no application to the US experience, according to Kennedy’s and Johnson’s advisers, since France was no longer a great power and the US was the US. Those who challenged these prevailing views, such as George Ball or James Thomson, were relegated to the unenviable position of “devil’s advocate” and not considered particularly credible. The result is these presidents’ advisers offered a limited menu of options and tended to marginalize any perspective other than their preference for escalation.

Second, the role of domestic politics. What’s interesting about Vietnam is that it was not an unpopular war until the late 1960s. If anything, domestic pressures helped contribute to the war. Kennedy had nearly outflanked Nixon on the right in the 1960 election, committing to fight communism with gusto, and making it difficult to back down from fights even in the inauspicious setting of southeast Asia. Johnson came along and had these and yet additional domestic pressures to contend with. He worried that his flagship legislation, the Great Society programs, would be blocked by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress if he withdrew from—or “lost”—Vietnam. So we think of domestic politics as the reason why there was ultimately pressure to withdraw from Vietnam, but they also have something to say about why the US got involved and then escalated its involvement.

As Twain said, history may not repeat but it may rhyme, so I’ve been reading accounts of American wars with an eye towards how the US becomes involved in costly wars and why, once involved, withdrawing becomes difficult. For this reason, Halberstam’s book The Coldest Winter about the Korean War is likely to be my next “airport novel” over the holiday break.
Read more about Sarah Kreps' Coalitions of Convenience at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue