x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Grounds for war: the argument for geography shaping conflicts

Though historical scrutiny debunks the idea that geography defines the nature of conflicts, a new book presents an interesting take on the future place of the United States in the world.

Robert Kaplan tries and fails to tie the start of the Arab Spring in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, above, with a historic border. AFP
Robert Kaplan tries and fails to tie the start of the Arab Spring in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, above, with a historic border. AFP

It's 1986, at "the pinnacle of Saddam Hussein's suffocating regime", and freelance journalist Robert D Kaplan is being driven towards the hills of northern Iraq. His Kurdish driver glowers at the hated "Arabistan" receding in his rearview mirror and his mood brightens perceptibly as they begin to climb from the plain up towards the mountainous region where the Kurdish people reside.

"As soon as we penetrated further into prison-like valleys and forbidding chasms, the ubiquitous billboard pictures of Saddam suddenly vanished. So did Iraqi soldiers," recalls Kaplan in the preface to his latest book. According to the political map, "we had never left Iraq. But the mountains had declared a limit to Saddam's rule".

Fast-forward to March 2004. Kaplan is in Camp Udairi in Kuwait, embedded as a journalist with a battalion of the 1st Marine Division, preparing to travel overland to Baghdad, when again he fancies he tastes the power of geography.

"Vast lines of seven-tonne trucks and Humvees stretched across the horizon, all headed north. The epic scale of America's involvement in Iraq quickly became apparent." But then, "a sandstorm ... erupted. There was an icy wind. Rain threatened. Vehicles broke down. And we hadn't even begun the 700-kilometre journey to Baghdad that, a few years before, those who thought of toppling Saddam Hussein ... had dismissed as easily done."

There is a problem with the prolific Kaplan's romantic attempts to set up the premise for this, his 14th book, which suggests that geography has much to tell us "about coming conflicts and the battle against fate" - and that is that great chunks of his "evidence" fails to survive even casual examination.

So, for example, however unpleasant Kaplan's experience as an embed might have been, the might of America was not seriously troubled by the geography of the advance on Baghdad. And the mountains most certainly did not keep the wrath of Saddam at bay: during the six-month Al Anfal campaign, launched just two years after Kaplan's road trip, about 100,000 Kurds died, the victims of gas attacks and mass executions.

Illustrative tactical considerations aside, Kaplan makes great claims for the strategic relevance of the map - or, at least, for the geography that underlies the boundaries drawn upon it by man. One of his heroes is Fernand Braudel, who in 1946 published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, a work that "broke new ground in historical writing by its emphasis on geography, demography, materialism and the environment ... helping to restore geography to its proper place in academia".

In Braudel's "vast tapestry" of a narrative, writes Kaplan, "permanent and unchanging environmental forces lead to enduring historical trends that go on for many decades and centuries, so that the kinds of political events and regional wars with which we concern ourselves seem almost preordained".

Thus democracy is, quite literally, rooted in the "rich forest soils of northern Europe, which required little to make an individual peasant productive, [and] led ultimately to freer and more dynamic societies compared to those along the Mediterranean, where poorer, more precarious soils meant there was a requirement for irrigation that led, in turn, to oligarchies".

The trouble with taking geography as your template, however, is that it can be shaped to fit any circumstance. Thus tiny Britain's emergence as an aggressive world power and a democratic pathfinder was a product of its protected, island status.

Germany, on the other hand, stuck in the middle of Europe and facing competitors east and west, with no mountains to protect it, developed into a land-hungry bully.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss what Kaplan has to say about anything. Not because he is necessarily right - by his own admission he was very wrong about Iraq - but because he is a writer of considerable influence, whose work is consumed eagerly in high places.

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Kaplan is not your typical academic policy wonk. In fact, though he is prodigiously well read, he isn't even a historian, having graduated in 1973 with an English degree from the University of Connecticut before opting for a career in journalism.

At first, it was more like a career in travelling. He took what today would be called a gap year, exploring eastern Europe and the Middle East before returning briefly to take up a post as a reporter with the Rutland Daily Herald in Vermont. In 1975 he gave that up, embarking instead on what would become a 16-year exile from the US, eking out a living by reporting from various countries.

According to a 2005 interview on C-Span, the US public-affairs network, it took Kaplan a decade of pitching before he placed his first article - a short background piece about bread riots in Tunisia he sold to The New Republic in January 1984.

Kaplan's first book, Surrender or Starve, about the wars and famine in Ethiopia, was published in 1988, to little fanfare. It was followed in 1990 by Soldiers of God, his account of the time he spent with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the guerrilla campaign against Soviet occupation. His third book, Balkan Ghosts, published in 1993, was blessed by good timing and the engagement of American diplomacy with the Bosnian War. Legend has it that Bill Clinton was spotted with a copy under his arm - and that Kaplan's arguments were credited with persuading the president not to put US boots on the ground in the Balkans. After that, Kaplan was on Washington's must-read list.

In short order, the reporter and travel writer had metamorphosed into a strategic thinker. Soon he found himself elevated to visiting professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, a consultant for the US Army, Air Force and Marines and lecturer to organisations such as the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA.

Kaplan says he has come to recognise the significance of geography in world affairs as a result of his years of reporting, which "convinced me that we all need to recover a sensibility about time and space that has been lost in an age when elite moulders of public opinion dash across oceans and continents in hours, something which allows them to talk glibly about what the distinguished New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman has labelled a flat world". There is, of course, nothing flat about the landscape over which journalists such as Kaplan must trudge to find their stories but it is precisely this proximity to the immediate landscape that inevitably prevents the writer on the ground from seeing the bigger picture - a phenomenon evidenced by his reaction to his experiences in Iraq.

For some, the metamorphosis of Kaplan from journalist to strategist is an issue of concern.

Thomas Barnett, in The Pentagon's New Map, wrote that "the problem is, too many in the military see [Kaplan] as a serious strategic thinker, when he's a good reporter and nothing more". Kaplan, concluded Barnett, "offers no vision, no strategy, nothing beyond accurate descriptions of the current state of warfare".

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In The Revenge of Geography, Kaplan says his aim is to introduce his readers to a group of "decidedly unfashionable thinkers, who push up hard against the notion that geography no longer matters". In its first half he sets out to "lay out their thinking in some depth ... in order to apply their wisdom in the second, as to what has happened and is likely to happen across Eurasia - from Europe to China, including the Greater Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent".

Yet these "visionaries", as Kaplan describes them, are thinkers from another age. They include Edwardian British historian Sir Halford J Mackinder, whose theory of a European "Heartland" appeared with hindsight to have explained the dynamics of two world wars and the Cold War, and who believed that a map conveyed "at a glance a whole series of generalisations". And, of course, the 5th-century BC Greek Herodotus, who in his Histories "maintains in his narrative about the origins and execution of the war between the Greeks and the Persians the perfect balance between geography and the decisions of men". It may, suggests Kaplan, "be no accident that this is precisely the world that occupies current news headlines; that region between the eastern Mediterranean and the Iranian-Afghan plateau".

It is, of course, tempting to rediscover lost lessons from the past but what are patent truths in one era are easily outflanked by technological progress in another.

In this regard, Kaplan - tripped up by the events of the Arab Spring, which were unfolding as he wrote - stumbles at the start. The passage in the preface where he attempts to segue from his militant defence of a geographic perspective to these events, and finds it necessary to undermine his own argument, is rather uncomfortable.

The "first phase" of the great Arab upheaval, he concedes, had "featured the defeat of geography through the power of new communications technologies". Satellite-borne television coverage and, of course, social networking had "created a single community of protesters throughout the Arab world".

Kaplan is wholly unconvincing, however, when he goes on to claim a share of the glory for geography - or, rather, for geography aided by history (and throughout the book, even in Kaplan's world view, it is clear that geography never stands alone as a factor of influence).

"But as the revolt has gone on," he writes, "it has become clear that each country has developed its own narrative, which, in turn, is influenced by its own deep history and geography. The more one knows about the history and geography of any Middle Eastern country, therefore, the less surprised one will be about events there."

This smacks of smug hindsight. The reality is that almost no one saw the Arab Spring coming.

"It may," he suggests, "be only partly accidental that the upheaval started in Tunisia." For one thing, because urbanisation in Tunisia started two millennia ago "tribal identity based on nomadism, which the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun said disrupted political stability, is correspondingly weak".

And yet, with a reminder that the Roman emperor Scipio dug a ditch outside Tunis to mark the edge of civilised society after he defeated Hannibal in 202 BC, Kaplan's argument for geography's role in the Arab Spring grows even more tenuous. The towns beyond Scipio's ditch today "tend to be poorer and less developed", while "The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab revolt started in December 2010, when a vendor of fruit and vegetables set himself on fire as an act of protest, lies just beyond Scipio's line".

It is hardly necessary for Kaplan to remark, as he does, that "this is not fatalism. I am merely providing geographical and historical context to current events".

With the awkwardly non-geographic Arab Spring bundled off stage, Kaplan sets out his stall.

"As political upheavals accumulate and the world becomes seemingly more unmanageable, with incessant questions as to how the United States and its allies should respond, geography offers a way to make at least some sense of it all.

"By engaging with old maps, with geographers and geopolitical thinkers from earlier eras, I want to ground-truth the globe in the 21st century ... for even if we can send satellites into the outer solar system - and even as financial markets and cyberspace know no boundaries - the Hindu Kush still constitutes a formidable barrier."

The problem with that argument, attractive as it sounds, is that it simply isn't true. It might have been true when the British Army struggled with the geographical realities of the North West Frontier in the 19th century but it certainly isn't true today, when Americans sitting in air-conditioned comfort on bases in the heart of the US can fly pilotless drones over the most inhospitable terrains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Simply, technology bridges the oceans and levels the land.

It wasn't even true in the second century BC, when Hannibal paid no heed to geography and marched an army, complete with elephants, clean over the Pyrenees and the Alps to spend a decade ravaging northern Italy.

Many of Kaplan's "geopolitical thinkers from earlier eras" appear merely anachronistic.

For example, he expresses his admiration for Nicholas J Spykman, a Dutch-American strategist of the Second World War, who in 1942 wrote that "geography does not argue. It simply is".

Geography, wrote Spykman in the book America's Strategy in World Politics, was the most fundamental factor in a state's foreign policy "because it is the most permanent". Ministers came and went, dictators died, "but mountain ranges stand unperturbed ... the Atlantic continues to separate Europe from the United States ... Alexander I, Czar of all the Russias, bequeathed to Joseph Stalin ... his endless struggle for access to the sea, and Maginot and Clemenceau have inherited from Caesar and Louis XIV anxiety over the open German frontier."

But does the Atlantic matter still, except perhaps as a purely imaginary bulwark against aggression - and exposed as such on 9/11.

Spykman, of course, was writing at a time when the nearest that mainland America was likely to come to foreign aggression was from a drifting incendiary balloon bomb launched by the Japanese in the jet stream over the Pacific. But by August 1945, when America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the US demonstrated conclusively that geography was no match for technology.

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Pinning down exactly where Kaplan stands politically is a shade trickier. In an interview given seven years ago, he described himself as a "moderate, middle-of-the-road conservative" who was not "a proponent of democratic revolution. As a reporter on the ground I don't subscribe to this notion that all we've had are bad Arab dictators who've done terrible things to their people - that's nonsense". Although, on the other hand, he added, "an injection of Wilsonian intervention every now and then is a good thing".

To his own credit, Kaplan admits that, when it came to Iraq, at least, he was "a journalist who had gotten too close to my story". Reporting from the country in the 1980s, "observing how much more oppressive Saddam's Iraq was than Hafez Al Assad's Syria, I became intent on Saddam's removal".

In print "and as part of a group that had urged the Bush administration to invade", Kaplan had supported the Iraq War - and, not without irony, it is clear that his passion for having young men go to war in support of his personal moral framework was fuelled by what he had seen in the Balkans. There, "I had been impressed by the power of the American military" and, "given that Saddam had murdered directly or indirectly more people than Milosevic had and was a strategic menace believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, it seemed to me that ... intervention was warranted".

And still is, for Kaplan, in some circumstances that appear to be almost naively moral. It was, he said in that 2005 interview, "a truism that ... in a world of power, if good people don't engage with the struggle for power, even worse things ... happen. I think nothing would be so irresponsible for the US than to withdraw from ... the struggle for power".

It was not, he said, "the struggle for power that is ipso facto bad or evil, it's the values one brings to it, and the comparative values of your side versus the comparative values of the other side".

This world vision was formed by the Cold War, during which "I was a freelance journalist bumming around, literally, the Middle East, eastern Europe, and the suffering of the people in eastern Europe was not an abstraction to me, it was very real."

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The Revenge of Geography emerges as an impressive yet ultimately bewildering complex web of original and borrowed ideas and theories - and much of the confusion stems from Kaplan hedging his bets on almost every page, undermining the thesis stated so boldly on the title page.

What matters though is where we can expect America to focus its energies if it is read as a blueprint in the corridors of power. And the answer is a surprising one.

Kaplan turns to the example of Rome for his grand plan for America.

The Roman Empire, he says, was at its height when "the client states that surrounded its Italianate core were sufficiently impressed with the 'totality' of Roman power to carry out the empire's wishes, without the need of occupation armies".

Rome's impressive legions were free to be deployed as and where needed. This, says Kaplan, was "power at its zenith, prudently exercised, run on an economy-of-force principle. A surge capacity was readily available for any military contingency and all in the Mediterranean world knew it ... everyone feared Rome."

Rome's mistake was to "territorialise" the empire, to deploy its troops everywhere to secure loyalty from tribes which, though superficially "Romanised", remained allied more to each other than to the alien culture of the empire. "Think," warns Kaplan, "of how globalisation, which in a sense constitutes an Americanisation of the world, nevertheless serves as a vehicle to defy American hegemony."

For Rome, the result was a fatal overstretch, and, says Kaplan, America today is "in frighteningly familiar territory. Just as Rome stabilised the Mediterranean littoral, the American navy and air force patrol the global commons to the benefit of all, even as this very service - as with Rome's - is taken for granted".

America must, therefore, "contemplate a grand strategy that seeks to restore its position" to "impress" its "allies and like-minded others ... to make them more effective on its behalf", and it can do that best "through an active diplomacy and the build-up of a reserve of troops, used sparingly, so as to restore its surge capacity".

And, like Rome, America should look closer to home for the real threat, which Kaplan sees as emanating not from across the oceans but from Mexico in the south-west, "the one area where America's national and imperial boundaries are in some tension: where the coherence of America as a geographically cohesive unit can be questioned".

At first, this seems highly fanciful, but Kaplan makes a compelling case that "the destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west, sea-to-shining-sea of continental and patriotic myth".

It is, he says, a simple case of demographics and economics, with Mexico's poorer, younger and faster-growing population surging corrosively against America's southern border.

For Kaplan, crossing the border from the beggar-strewn streets of an impoverished and slipshod Nogales to the shiny but undermanned US border post was "as much of a shock for me as crossing the Jordan-Israel border and the Berlin Wall".

Mexico and its daily frictions with the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is "geographically distant from the concerns of East Coast elites which, instead, focus on the wider world and on America's place in it". Mexico "registers far less in the elite imagination than does Israel or China, or India even. Yet Mexico could affect America's destiny more than any of those countries". America, says Kaplan, has "spent hundreds of billions of dollars to affect historical outcomes in Eurasia", yet is "curiously passive about what is happening in a country with which we share a long land border, that verges on disorder, and whose population is close to double that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined".

So what to do if Barack Obama is spotted with a copy of this book under his arm? Well, maybe rethink that winter break in Cancun, for a start.

But the more serious answer, perhaps, can be divined in the headlines arising out of America's increasingly bloody hands-on engagement with its southern neighbour's internal problems. Last month two CIA operatives who were part of America's multi-agency support of Mexico's war against its drug cartels were wounded when their US Embassy vehicle was ambushed by gunmen.

Geography, argues Kaplan, is at the heart of America's southern problem - in the shape of the artificial border it shares with Mexico, a country teetering on the verge of becoming a narcostate, with all that implies for the stability of the north. Troublingly, Kaplan may have anticipated the political zeitgeist once again.

Jonathan Gornall is a former senior features writer for The National.