David Kilcullen is the former Australian army officer who was seconded to the surge force in Iraq at the special request of then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in lieu of people of much higher rank, and he is brilliant. His Quarterly Essay about ISIS, Blood Year, demonstrated with chilling clarity how the militant group grew in the direct wake of Barack Obama’s best intentions.
The Dragons and the Snakes is a dazzling performance in which the erudite Kilcullen, who holds chairs at both the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University, shows how the snakes – the small stealthy subordinate powers – learnt how to effectively compete with a dragon behemoth such as the United States. Using analogies drawn from Darwin and from anthropology, he shows how terrorist groups evolved sometimes with great brilliance, in such a way as to outwit the US and make it spend trillions of dollars in the wrong direction. He says September 11 remains the most significant achievement of the snakes and points out how remarkable it is that Osama bin Laden survived for nearly a decade afterwards. He also emphasises that in the continuance of al-Qaeda we were dealing with a primarily symbolic quantity.
Kilcullen’s is a great book in this time of plague and international danger and discontent between the West and China because he looks at every kind of data and his account is notably unbiased. He points out the folly of the West in backing Yeltsin, the so-called democrat who placed the wealth of Russia in the hands of a tiny number of oligarchs and left the rest of Russia in poverty.
Kilcullen is a thinker – as cold-eyed and contemplative as you could wish – who is very instructive on everything, not least China and the fact we can so easily miss that what we are dealing with is essentially a rhetoric of war, and that it is crucially important to understand how your political enemies are wielding their warmongering language. He also says the FBI report about the Trump campaign colluding with Russia against Hillary Clinton is only an informed hypothesis – though one that, on the balance of probabilities, he agrees with.
This is a book that will keep you on your toes. It paints a breathtaking, danger-laden picture of a world perennially at war, and of the strange and mesmerising process by which a snake eventually rears up, as fire-filled as a dragon.
Scribe, 336pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "David Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes".
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