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  • The Myth of the Water's Edge
  • Barry Blechman (bio)
Review of Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism by Julian E. Zelizer (New York: Basic Books, 2008)

Julian Zelizer has written a comprehensive history of the major U.S. political/military engagements around the world during much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Impressive in its scope, Zelizer throughout juxtaposes the thinking and analyses of executive branch policymakers with the politics of the time, posing throughout his history the four key questions raised in the book's introduction:

  1. 1. Do Congress or the President drive national security policy?

  2. 2. Do Democrats or Republicans hold the national security advantage?

  3. 3. How big do Americans want their government to be in order to defend their security? and

  4. 4. Should the United States go it alone or stress multilateral strategies?

Not surprisingly, the answers to all four questions are: "It depends." Indeed, at the end of the book, Zelizer states, "The next generation of presidents and congressional leaders will certainly confront the same four basic issues that have shaped history since World War II: the balance between congressional and executive power, the partisan advantage on national security, the size of government the nation is willing to tolerate in the pursuit of peace and security, and the benefits of a unilateral as opposed to a multilateral approach to foreign relations" (506).

This humble projection avoids postulating a grand unifying theory, but after 500-plus pages, one would have hoped for a conclusion with a bit more bite. The reason, though, is clear. Though a mile wide, Zelizer's history is only an inch deep. It reads like a compendium of nearly a hundred years worth of daily newspaper headlines, almost like scanning through an old microfiche collection of the New York Times' front pages. Zelizer reports the main events occurring on the world's stage, some of the give and take between the executive branch and the Congress, as well as the fundamental policy analyses that led to the [End Page 374] decisions eventually reached by presidents, and he is to be commended for this, but rarely does he (or can he, given the book's reach) look beneath these fundamental facts to get at the underlying factors motivating the various actors.

As a result, the book's fundamental conclusion, at least according to the publisher's publicist, that "partisan fighting has always shaped American foreign policy and the issue of national security has always been part of our domestic politics," is trite and comes as no surprise to any halfway serious student of foreign affairs.1 There is nothing in it that will surprise political scientists or historians that cover these types of events, even though it does make a very readable introductory text on national security policy.

Too little attention is paid to the roles played by personalities and bureaucratic infighting, the influence of constituencies to whom the Congress and the executive branch pay special attention, as well as the role of money—in the form of campaign contributions, hired lobbyists, etc. These are not deliberate omissions. Zelizer clearly understands their importance, and sometimes mentions them in passing, but he simply cannot devote the time and space necessary to truly explain why the various decisions were taken and what was the real explanation for each, given the span of history that he is covering. But the consequence is to present events at a superficial level, producing a book that is more journalistic than analytic. To give just a few examples:

  • • In chapter 5, on how the Republicans used the China issue to regain the high ground on national security, there is only a brief paragraph (page 88) noting that the Republican Right received support from an informal network dubbed the "China Lobby," but pages are devoted to the intellectual debate among conservatives about the pros and cons of rebuilding the national security apparatus, and about the give-and-take in the Congress. The story of how the United States became wedded to, and several times almost went to war over, and might yet in the future go to...


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pp. 374-377
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