Good books

Two new books worth reading: Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War by Robert Jervis (Cornell, 2010) and The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson (Henry Holt, 2009). Jervis’s book is especially useful because it reproduces a CIA report on analytical failures leading up to the Iranian Revolution, probing and explaining why American observers by and large failed to see it coming. The section on the Iraq War lacks this level of depth because not enough information is available yet. But many of Jervis’s observations are pertinent and hot, even if the book is vastly more interesting in its first case study. Thompson’s book is one of many books on Kennan that have come out in the last couple of years; it does a dual biography with Nitze that is fascinating, regardless of whether it comes off with more affection than might be necessary. But it still offers a unique take on both men that makes for engrossing and worthwhile reading. One sometimes grows weary of reading descriptions of George Frost Kennan’s cool temper and geeko-stratego disposition in a world full of capricious and jocular policymakers and hacks. Thompson’s book keeps some of this but buries it under the more interesting intellectual back-and-forth between Kennan and Nitze and constructs a tight narrative that grabs the reader in a really meaningful way where the evolution of grand strategy is concerned. Compared with other recent biographies of Kennan, Thompson’s is one of the better ones at focusing on intellectual content. Both books are highly recommended.

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