From the National : Grounds for war: the argument for geography shaping conflicts
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".
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
"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.
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.
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".
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,
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.
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
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
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".
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.