“While America Slept” not only chronicles the fall of American leadership, it outlines a practical road back. It is a collection of essays written about seminal events and trends in modern history at the time they took place, and the author’s ability to identify patterns and forecast the effects of policy decisions is not limited to foreign affairs. For example, in September of 2015, when the media and pundits were predicting permanent minority status for the Republican Party, O’Brien wrote:
I do not agree with the mainstream pundits or share the pessimism of some of my GOP friends about our party’s future for two key reasons. First, Republicans, from the very foundation of their party, have embraced the idea of individual freedom. I believe that in America, freedom and individual liberty will, in the end, always triumph over class division and collectivism with voters of all stripes. Second, the GOP has produced a bumper crop of young reformist leaders who will shape the politics of this country for a generation.
Other than the adjective “young,” nobody could have described the arc of the Trump-Clinton campaign with greater accuracy.
O’Brien really shines when he turns to the U.S. Navy. His analysis, written over the course of the Obama administration, lays out in fine detail America’s naval decline and offers practical solutions. From the 600 ships at the height of the Cold War, the Navy has now only 284 warships, only 10 aircraft carriers, and no minesweepers at all. How do we protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz without minesweepers? How do we project power worldwide without enough aircraft carriers to cover the trouble spots and maintain ships, equipment and morale? O’Brien, like Trump, calls for an increase to 350 ships, and an increase in the carrier force. He gives a simple, compelling explanation, of the 10 carriers currently in service:
…just four would be at sea at any given time. Only one – the USS George Washington – would be forward deployed in Asia. The other three would likely be found in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, (supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan), and involved in training exercises. Of the remaining six carriers, two would be in post-deployment status in their home ports and four would be in short-, medium-, or long-term maintenance and unavailable during a crisis.
That lone carrier to patrol all of Asia may help to explain the rise of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, which O’Brien also predicted with chilling accuracy. Without a strong U.S. presence, and with the implied blessing of President Obama’s regional-power strategy, China began laying claim to the entire South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, the most aggressive maritime expansion of territorial claims in its history. To back up these claims, China has embarked on an ambitious multi-pronged strategy of access denial. This includes an aircraft carrier, anti-ship ballistic “carrier killer” missiles, and a growing modern submarine fleet.
“But China’s maritime capabilities are set to extend beyond access denial into power projection,” O’Brien points out, describing the Chinese “string of pearls” strategy, as it expands its naval bases from the Indian Ocean west to Africa throughout the entire Southern hemisphere.
These are failures of diplomacy, which result from failure to deploy military power smartly, sparingly and effectively. When our enemies no longer fear us and our allies no longer trust us, the field is open for Chinese, Russian or terrorist adventurism.
In American policy toward the Middle East, O’Brien forcefully defends the career foreign service against attempts by the Obama administration to shift blame for its disastrous Egypt policy. He points out Obama’s support for the rioters who overthrew America’s allied government in Egypt, contrasting it with his inexplicable silence during popular revolts against America’s enemies in Iran and Syria. O’Brien treats the war on terror analytically the same way Trump has said he will treat it in practice: with every tool in the American government’s toolbox. He addresses the detentions and military trials of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and argues forcefully for keeping the naval base. His detailed notes and dispatches from the 2014 trials make the reader feel present in the courtroom.
Lest a reader think O’Brien is limited to military matters, he speaks eloquently and in detail of the need for effective public diplomacy. His chapter on judicial reform in Afghanistan uses a compelling human story of Afghan women tasting their first ice cream to illustrate beautifully what could have been a dry policy discussion. He rebuts the argument that democracy and the rule of law are not suitable for some peoples and societies. Like Tony Blair, he believes that “freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law … are universal values of the human spirit,” and rejects the notion “that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia’s savior. … And anywhere, anytime, ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.”
The entire book is a quick read, easy to understand, and leaves a reader well versed in the foreign affairs themes that will dominate the discussion for all of the Trump administration. Any student, teacher or policy practitioner would do well to read it, annotate it and keep it for reference.
Bart Marcois is a retired career foreign service officer, and was the principal deputy assistant secretary of Energy for International Affairs during the Bush administration.
The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.