In the theatre of Trumpery that is current US politics, Michael Wolff’s portrait of chaos in the White House, Fire and Fury, is yesterday’s book, succeeded now by the work of another celebrity journalist, Ronan Farrow. The son of actor Mia Farrow and film director Woody Allen, Farrow is already a Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on the Harvey Weinstein affair and the #MeToo movement. The 30-year-old former child prodigy and Rhodes Scholar is also a former diplomat in the US State Department and has used his brains, charm and connections to gain access to nine former secretaries of state. Among the 200 interviews Farrow conducted in researching War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (HarperCollins; $29.99), these are predictable standouts and they make for riveting reading.
The most candid and instructive of them is that of the hapless Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and Donald Trump’s secretary of state for 14 months. This giant of the corporate world began by agreeing to a 27 per cent cut to his own State Department budget that would, among other demolition jobs, gut international health programs on HIV, malaria and polio, halve the US contribution to the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions and shut down financial support for the investigation of war crimes. Later, conceding that he might have lacked experience, Tillerson confessed that the main reason he had failed to advocate effectively for his department’s budget was his assumption that Congress would push back against cuts proposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget and “give us something there”. (Remember the ’80s when many in Australia, including Bob Hawke, argued for the US practice of appointing corporate businessmen to federal cabinets, unelected, because of their superior know-how?)
Farrow has the eye of the New Journalist when it comes to scene-setting and his use of detail can be revelatory. When Tillerson moves into his State Department offices he replaces the portraits of dead diplomats with what Farrow describes as “scenes of the American West”. He asks for departmental briefing memos to be reduced to two pages but preferably one because “I’m not a fast reader”. He declines to take the press with him on an important early overseas foray and includes just one journalist, from a conservative website, prompting George W. Bush’s one-time secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to remark to one of Farrow’s sources, “You have to take the press on the plane. It’s called a democracy.” Meanwhile, 1300 staff in the State Department were marked down for pink slips, recruitment was frozen. Important senior positions remain unfilled and ambassadorships around the world are on hold, all of which has meant a serious decline in available expertise. When Farrow asked Tillerson if the unfilled posts had been a source of anxiety during his tenure, Tillerson responded with Texan machismo. He “puffed his chest and smirked. ‘I don’t have anxiety.’”
It’s easy to mock Tillerson, but in time even he began to perceive the scope of the problem and listen to the diplomats, or what was left of them. Soon he was given his own pink slip. Meanwhile, the military had increased its hold on US foreign policy, with more generals, current or retired, appointed to cabinet positions and the National Security Council, and a massive increase in the defence budget. As Farrow concludes in an online interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, there is “no one at home to make peace or make deals”, and US foreign policy is increasingly a case of “shoot first and ask questions later or not at all”.
The first half of War on Peace takes the Afghanistan conflict and the US’s fraught relationship with Pakistan as an exemplary case study of the rise of the military and its ascendancy over the State Department. By Farrow’s account it’s not all Trump’s fault, and the decline of diplomacy began under Bill Clinton, who diverted resources from foreign embassies and programs in the interests of the domestic economy. The decline continued under George W. Bush, whose War on Terror favoured short-term military responses to September 11, until, in Farrow’s words to Remnick, what was a “slow glide” has become, under Trump, “a nose dive”.
When Farrow joined the State Department in 2009, at the tender age of 21, he was a protégé of the legendary senior diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (and “the closest thing to a father I had”). Holbrooke was famous for having negotiated the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and he was determined to end the war in Afghanistan. A flamboyant and egotistical character, he was not liked in the no-drama Obama White House and survived only by dint of protection from the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. (Clinton emerges well from Farrow’s book, despite his description of her as “fundamentally a hawk”.)
A long-time believer that the US must negotiate with the Taliban, Holbrooke became increasingly frustrated with what he called “mil-think” and Barack Obama’s accession to demands by “superstar general” David Petraeus for a military surge. Holbrooke argued that counterinsurgency was an untenable strategy in Afghanistan for the same reasons it had been in Vietnam, where Holbrooke had served, and was “primarily a colonial concept”. At one point he succeeded in persuading Petraeus’s predecessor, Stanley McChrystal, to at least consider negotiation, but when McChrystal gave an injudicious interview to Rolling Stone, and was forced to resign, the triumph of the military option was assured. In a symptomatic development, another long-time diplomat to the region, Robin Raphel, who like Holbrooke favoured negotiations with the Taliban – and who had spent years cultivating good insider contacts with the Pakistani elites – would eventually be investigated by the FBI as a possible spy and stripped of her job. Old-fashioned diplomacy, writes Farrow, was about talking to people and it was now in danger of being criminalised. When The Wall Street Journal profiled the Raphel case it headlined its article “The Last Diplomat”.
Under Obama the US consolidated its alliance with the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance (“an unpleasant rogue’s gallery”), whose atrocities were, predictably, covered up. One of the most vivid chapters in War on Peace is Farrow’s portrait of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, since 2014 vice president of Afghanistan and a man whose stare is said to have been able to frighten people to death. Farrow conducted an extended interview with Dostum in the vice-presidential palace in Kabul, flanked by heavily armed militia. Dostum’s court, he writes, was “a cross between a James Bond villain’s lair and Liberace’s dressing room”. It featured a live grass carpet, hundreds of potted trees, a tangle of fairy lights, fake Louis XIV tables and “a giant tank full of sharks”.
Holbrooke, who died in 2010, argued for closer cooperation with local Afghan NGOs, but, according to Farrow, whose own role was to identify and liaise with these, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) funding was often misspent. Most of it went to American corporate contractors who took large commissions before subcontracting out to other companies that in turn might subcontract yet again. The result: “Afghanistan was full of expensive, embarrassing USAID boondoggles – from cobblestone roads that Afghans considered unusable because they hurt camels’ feet, to farming projects on land with groundwater too salty to sustain crops.” When Holbrooke tried to focus on working instead with local NGOs, American contractors lobbied to get him fired. When Congress was persuaded to allocate a record $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan, a similar situation prevailed. Former diplomat Robin Raphel: “We pissed away most of that money to contractors.” (Small wonder she was later pilloried as a traitor.)
Pakistan and Afghanistan are what Farrow knows best, and his eyewitness accounts form the most compelling sections of his book. In its second half he includes chapters on countries in the Horn of Africa, Egypt under Sisi, Colombia (an atypical model of “diplomacy led” success), the Middle East, Obama’s Iran deal, and the Syrian mess where the CIA and the Pentagon are each running their own agenda – often in conflict and unmediated by diplomacy (a “deadly farce”).
Farrow has been criticised in the US for failing to give the Obama administration its due for the opening to Cuba and the Paris climate accords, both diplomatic wins, but on his reckoning these are the exceptions that show what might be done with more resolve and resources. His chapter on Korea is a useful history of earlier diplomatic efforts, and a reminder that the large North Korea unit of a decade ago no longer exists, and just days after Trump was sworn in, the White House sacked the State Department’s top in-house expert on nuclear nonproliferation. One can only assume that in preparing for the Singapore talks Trump and his advisers were winging it. They wouldn’t be the first. A secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, Colin Powell makes it clear in his interview with Farrow that the US pretty much winged it on the invasion of Iraq. Powell, formerly a general, claims to have cautioned against Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary for Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tactics at the expense of strategy. It would be easy, he had argued, to “beat the crap” out of a small army, but then what? Iraq, he concludes, was “a massive strategic failure both politically and militarily”. As for the Trump administration’s approach to the State Department, Powell’s verdict is succinct: it was “ripping the guts out of the organization”.
Farrow deplores current American support for “provincial despots”, and Trump’s praise for the Philippines’ Duterte and Egypt’s Sisi. But what is new here? When older generations hear the words “American diplomacy” they are likely to think of a storm cloud of B-52s carpet-bombing small South-East Asian countries with napalm, the subversion of democratically elected governments like that of Salvador Allende in Chile, the installation of puppet governments in countries like Iran before the Islamic revolution and the covert supply of weapons to brutal regimes in countries like El Salvador. Only when the US public could no longer bear the casualty rates of military interventions were peace talks held. In the case of Vietnam, however, they were cynically delayed by Richard Nixon in order to enhance his prospects of re-election, just as Ronald Reagan’s campaign contrived to delay the release of US hostages in Tehran until after Reagan had beaten Jimmy Carter and was sworn in as president.
War on Peace is both impeccably researched and an engaging read, but it could have said more about the wider context in which diplomacy must always struggle to operate, namely US corporate capitalism, and especially its mammoth oil and armaments industries. In Farrow’s account of the military versus the diplomats it’s largely a case of short-term tactics versus long-term strategy; some presidents make short-sighted decisions that are primarily a failure of judgement, and these lead to a default pursuit of bilateral “transactional” deals between generals on both sides of any US involvement. But there is a systemic basis for that development, namely the vested interests of multinational corporations and the acquiescence of their congressional captives to whose election campaigns they are major donors. Those “contractors” Farrow deplores in Afghanistan have long been at the core of major US interventions – most egregiously in Iraq, where the Halliburton Corporation made a profit of US$39 billion out of no-bid government contracts. Dick Cheney had been CEO of Halliburton and received a payout of $34 million when he resigned in 2000 to run on the Republican ticket. According to a New York Times report, the independent Congressional Research Service found that Cheney had received payments that could amount to a continuing financial interest in Halliburton after he took office as George W. Bush’s vice president.
The US arms industry is now the most powerful lobby in the country, one deeply enmeshed in all levels of government, not to mention its funding of think tanks and policy research organisations. For arms contractors, wars like the imbroglio in Libya are a bonanza of massive profits. Farrow does occasionally advert to arms deals, as when he records Trump in 2017 reproving the Qatari government for its ties to terrorists while at the same time the Pentagon announced it was selling the Qataris $12 billion in F-15 fighters. Farrow also notes the leak in early 2018 from the Trump White House of its “Buy American” policy that, he acknowledges, “would give State Department diplomats around the world a new mandate: drumming up arms sales for defense contractors”. But this is not new, only a more public endorsement of long-time practice and part of Trump’s rhetoric to convince voters that he is promoting employment for the American worker despite evidence that defence spending is one of the least effective ways to boost job creation. What is new is a significant surge in that spending. The Obama administration oversaw record increases in defence expenditure, overseas arms deals and sales of heavy-duty armaments to domestic police forces, and yet Trump has pledged to “rebuild the military”. Last year he sought an additional $54 billion in Pentagon funding. A Congress in thrall to the armaments lobby responded by outbidding Trump to propose its own increase of $85 billion. So much for draining the swamp.
As far back as the late 1950s, the Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, himself a former general, drew attention to the dangers of the US military-industrial complex and its potential to corrupt public policy, “a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all peoples”. In his 1961 farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” It was a warning that has largely gone unheeded, and if Ronan Farrow is right about the decline of the State Department the weaponisation of US foreign policy is set to accelerate unfettered.
Morally serious, good-looking and part of the LGBT community, Farrow is a potential poster boy for the new politics beginning to form in opposition to Trump’s Republicans. A large and diverse polity like the US will from time to time throw up privileged insiders who can afford to turn rogue without necessarily destroying their careers. It can make for a robust public debate of the kind often lacking here, and the last local instance I can think of is Andrew Wilkie, the former Australian Army lieutenant colonel who blew the whistle on the true state of Saddam Hussein’s so-called weapons of mass destruction and subsequently wrote a book about it (Axis of Deceit, Black Inc., 2004). Wilkie is now an independent member in the House of Representatives for the Hobart seat of Denison. In recent months, pundits in the US have begun to speculate as to whether Farrow has a political career in mind. He clearly has the smarts, and the nerve.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription