Book Review: Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security

Click to go to Amazon.comKurt M. Campbell and Michael E. O’Hanlon’s book Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security is written as a handbook for Democrats, as well as other soft power proponents, to discuss the importance and elements of national security. As the authors argue, Democrats need to stop fearing participation in national security debates and step up to form a dialogue and become a viable political party. National security is a wedge issue that is “often dominated by extremist ideology on one side and muted protest on the other” and Democrats and soft power advocates are ill-equipped to participate in the discussion is how Campbell and O’Hanlon frame it.

The authors begin by establishing the importance of issue ownership and show how Democrats had used the imagery and language of national security forcibly and effectively. Just the same, they document the freefall from the legacy of FDR, Truman, JFK, and the early years of LBJ with the encouragement of Republican party politicking.

From showing the centrality of national security to elections, Campbell and O’Hanlon then proceed to explain the “Myth of Republican Superiority” by looking at 9/11, Iraq, and the future. These issues include heavy security issues like civil-military relations (looking at military as both likely, but convertible, Republican votes and advisors), homeland security, the “Long War”, energy diplomacy, global climate change, nuclear proliferation, and China.

If you keep in mind the purpose of the book, to reshape Democratic (big “D”) views and statements on national security, this book is moderately useful. The failure of this book is the way the authors chose to educate the reader. By adopting the language of the incumbent, they seek to play the same game as hard power advocates. But this adoption-without-question is at odds with their efforts to debunk the “myths” of Republican ownership of national security.  

Examples of furthering the myth and not encouraging “original” thinking includes blind acceptance of L. Paul Bremer’s version of events in Iraq (p116) and Tom Ridge’s rosy image of port security, vaccines, etc (p125). A bare discussion of casualty sensitivity (p89), or did they really mean insensitivity, while assuming a role for it (without establishing if the “in-” belongs or not). A fanciful discussion on global projection requirements and suggesting the US Navy simply wait for UAVs instead of new fighters (p100). Ignorance of wear and tear on the Army’s vehicle fleet (p102), conflicting views on counterinsurgency (p104).

Perhaps more importantly, the authors completely ignore institutional differences between DoS and DoD, which is odd considering the nature of the handbook and its efforts to instruct on the issues of national security. While arguing for Department of State Response Force / SysAdmin / Department of Peace / CRC / or whatever it is, they accept and promote 12 year old arguments that “combat units are best at [peace operations] as they inspire respect and fear in those who would challenge them” (p110).

The authors promote and further the idea of a global “radical-jihadist” movement and promote the branding and promotion of al Qaeda, ignoring reality and an opportunity to debunk one of the most powerful myths. The discussion of Hamas is similarly problematic and accepting of Rice’s “surprise” at Hamas’ victory (p143).

Their choice of the “poverty theory of jihad” (p140) is the heart of their analysis of the world. In examining the world through the lens of poverty=terrorism, they partition the world by Combatant Commands and provide a misleading analysis of minimal value.

As an introduction to the importance of hard power in national debates, this book is useful. The book creates an awareness of the complexity of some of the issues, but unfortunately they adopt the same language and lack “fact-based reality” in some of their arguments and citations. It should, however, help create the debate where it is absent in the coalitions of Democrats who fear issues of national security, Republicans who see things as black or white, and Independents and moderates who don’t know any of the issues.