A review of Proconsuls: Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today, by Carnes Lord
As Rome’s armies conquered the shores of the Mediterranean by fits and starts between 300 and 100 B.C., the Republic began sending out provincial governors to rule with supreme executive powers, as if they were Roman consuls (pro consules). The office of proconsulship was gradually institutionalized, but by imperial times simply denoted elite Romans of the senatorial class who ran the vast expanses of the empire—areas often more extensive than Italy itself—with sometimes pitiless severity enforced by a legion or two at their backs.
In the modern era, the Roman concept reappeared as “consul generals” of Western European colonial powers in Asia and Africa, who exercised nearly absolute power in domains as diverse as India and the Congo. Because America was never a true colonial power, however, the idea of proconsulship here was more controversial. As the United States expanded its influence abroad in the late 19th century—especially during the Spanish-American War—and inherited colonies such as Cuba or the Philippines from defeated enemies, Americans were torn between the idealistic desire to grant them rapid autonomy and the sober realization that the immediate result of that independence was more likely to be authoritarianism than democracy.
In the aftermath of World War II, America refined its proconsulships, as it sought to “nation-build” and replace the defeated fascist tyrannies in Germany, Italy, and Japan with democracies. By the postwar era from Vietnam to Iraq, “proconsuls” referred to both civilians and generals who ruled in war zones during the fighting, rather than after victory, and sought to enhance ongoing military operations by winning the “hearts and minds” of war-weary civilians through good governance and promises of eventual democratic self-rule.
Yet, as Carnes Lord, a professor of military and naval strategy at the Naval War College, points out in this incisive study of the history of American proconsulship, Americans were always ambivalent about the concept—and often maladroit at its implementation. On the one hand, as idealistic republicans distant from Europe’s colonial rivalries, Americans envisioned their wars as exclusively defensive and not aimed at acquiring overseas territory. On the other, even when they occupied the lands of the defeated, Americans believed proconsulship incompatible with the principles of their own republic and thus nothing more than a brief interlude preceding the realization of democracy.
After a fine introduction on the Roman origins of proconsulship, Lord chooses eight chronologically ordered case studies—Cuba, the Philippines, Japan, Germany, Vietnam, the Balkans, and two in Iraq. One implicit theme predominates in Lord’s narratives that span over a century: American proconsuls have not necessarily become more effective after decades of trial and error, although it is not quite clear whether the reason is that we have failed to learn from the mistakes of the past, or that in the postmodern era Americans themselves have lost faith in classical concepts that underpin proconsulship: defeating the enemy, occupying his territory, and imparting the victor’s values.
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During the four-decade American governorship over the Philippines some 16 governor generals had the thankless task of preparing the islands for autonomy—inheriting an often brutal Spanish imperial colonial rule that would be followed by an even more vicious Japanese wartime military dictatorship. Future American luminaries like Paul McNutt and Leonard Wood, who had enjoyed a successful proconsulship in Cuba, sought idealistically to facilitate the Philippine transition to commonwealth status on the way to full independence. The best of the lot, such as McNutt, sought in lieu of a viable independent middle class—the glue that holds democracies together—to encourage Philippine elites to take over the colonial bureaucracy. Such success as they achieved derived from eschewing both patronizing lectures and rigid application of the American experience to the Philippines.
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Though Douglas MacArthur is often praised for successfully rebuilding postwar Japan, overseeing land reform and the emancipation of women, Lord argues his proconsulship was more problematic than we think. MacArthur ignored almost all input from Washington, was not eager to reform the Japanese economy, initially downplayed the threat of Soviet expansionism, and intrigued in China and Korea. He gave no credit to either successful Japanese or American State Department initiatives. If MacArthur was not really an inspired or professional proconsul, he nonetheless kept Japan calm and pro-American because he was devoid of overt racism, respected Japanese customs and traditions, allowed the continuance of the emperor, and in general belied his reputation as a 19th-century reactionary out of touch with the modern world.
Perhaps the most successful of all American proconsuls was General Lucius Clay, whose daunting assignment was to oversee post-World War II Germany, preventing a Communist take-over by the Soviet Union, an erstwhile ally, amidst worldwide hatred of the defeated Nazi regime. It’s easy to criticize Clay for commuting some sentences of high-ranking Nazis, but he was indispensable to the establishment of West Germany’s federal democracy, which decisively repudiated Nazism and Communism. He famously oversaw the implementation of the Marshall Plan, and helped save Berlin through the airlift. We forget today that many in the highest echelons of the State Department and military (General Omar Bradley, most prominently) did not see how a free Western Germany could be saved from the overwhelming power of the Red Army, and thus advised concessions and even capitulation if Soviet use of force appeared imminent. Lord rightly emphasizes how Clay’s principled insistence on saving Berlin provided the template for Eastern European containment, the idea that formed the basis of America’s Cold War victory.
Lord shows that Vietnam was an especially tragic case. If the South Vietnamese Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, proved the worst proconsul in American history and General Maxwell Taylor little better, other Americans almost salvaged what these predecessors had lost. By 1968 Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, General Creighton Abrams, and CIA officer William Colby helped to rid South Vietnam of the Viet Cong, giving the Nixon Administration real hope of a sustainable non-Communist South. An American public that had grown indifferent to Vietnam’s fate, and a Congress whose anti-war sentiments were intensified by Watergate, relinquished that potential in 1975. Edward Lansdale—supposedly the inspiration for the novels The Quiet American (1955) and The Ugly American (1958)—appears frequently in Proconsuls. But in Lord’s view Lansdale was no archetypal CIA villain, but a skilled intelligence grandee who tirelessly advocated greater American sensitivity to indigenous customs and politics, and was right far more than wrong.
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General Wesley Clark’s tenure in the Balkans usually evokes the popular perception that he was a vain braggart—and now mostly remembered for two embarrassing episodes. One was the legendary rebuke by British general Mike Jackson who refused Clark’s tempestuous order to block a Soviet airborne unit from reaching the airport at Pristina, Kosovo with, “Sir, I’m not starting World War III for you.” The other was Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s supposed order to the media-addicted Clark to “Get your f—ing face off the TV.”
Lord argues nonetheless that Clark almost alone saw that it would be nearly impossible to remove Slobodan Milosevic without a clear and credible willingness to use force—absent such resolution, NATO and the United States risked abject humiliation in Serbia and Kosovo. In Lord’s telling, the Pentagon brass, specifically Secretary Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton, never understood what was at stake in the Balkans. Had either gotten his way, the Western democracies would have suffered both a military and strategic defeat. Clark may have been pompous, but he was also prescient.
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Iraq, of course, has reawakened our attention to American proconsuls. As in Vietnam, we suffered one of the worst (Paul Bremer) and benefitted from one of the best (David Petraeus). Bremer’s year in Iraq is remembered largely for two unfortunate decisions: the de-Baathification order that cleansed the Iraqi bureaucracy of former Saddamists, and disbanding the crumbling Iraqi army. Lord agrees both were wrong-headed, but shows how Bremer’s alienation of all the key players in Iraq-Centcom commander General John Abizaid, special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and USAID mission director James Stephenson—was as disastrous as it was unnecessary. At precisely the wrong time, Bremer insisted that he exercise sweeping control of Iraq’s government while shutting out reform politicians.
Iraq, however, was saved by the surge and the inspired teamwork of General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who understood hand-in-glove that promoting autonomous Iraqi governance and encouraging a silent majority to participate in politics by quelling internecine violence were the keys to salvaging the peace. The future of Iraq, however, is now uncertain, caught up in the wider geopolitics of Iranian nuclear proliferation and the fallout from the Arab Spring—especially given the Obama Administration’s decision against retaining a vestigial American base to monitor the region. Lord concludes his invaluable study by reminding us of the inherent paradoxes in authoritarian American proconsulships. We are an anti-colonial people for whom “the egalitarianism and entrepreneurial spirit so deeply rooted in American life mitigate the hierarchical structure of governmental institutions and nurture initiative in subordinate officials.” Likewise, we profess a dislike of imperialism, in that “the American national security establishment has never been structured around a consciously imperial mission.” How then to square the circle of a global presence, seemingly inescapable since 1945, with instinctive American distrust of the innate burdens of that role?
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In some sense, Lord advises doing the very opposite of the disastrous Civilian Provisional Authority in Iraq, whose mission, leadership, and lines of authority all worked at cross-purposes. Instead, it would be far better to reorganize the military overseas command itself into semi-independent bodies of civilians and military experts who see pacification and political reform as interconnected rather than as competing interests. Lord sensitively and skillfully outlines a detailed blueprint for how such newly organized Defense Department proconsulships might avoid any resemblance to a colonial office or German general staff.
I hope his recommendations are right—and that those in Washington will heed his advice. Yet I fear that the challenge is as much administrative as it is existential. In the 21st century the ideas of victory and defeat have become passé, as have symmetrical conventional battles, clear-cut distinctions between civilians and soldiers, and frontlines themselves. The level of violence necessary to vanquish an enemy often seems as abhorrent as the enemy itself. And the spirit of moral relativism directs American elites to ask not what we can do to change defeated and occupied nations for the better, but whether we have the moral authority to tell Serbs, Afghans, or Iraqis how to live their lives.