A Conversation with Kurth

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last week, the Daily Gazette got a chance to sit down with one of Swarthmore’s most notable professors, Claude Smith Professor James Kurth from the Political Science department. Professor Kurth is the editor of Orbis. According to Wikipedia, “Kurth has served in numerous think tanks, including the Council of Foreign Relations, Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and The Center of Study of America and the West at FPRI.”

When did you come to Swat?

In 1973, at the very end of the Vietnam War and in a way, at the very way in the end of the 1960’s.

James Kurthby Eleftherios Kostans

Where were you before?

Harvard, teaching in the government department.

How long have you been teaching Defense Policy?

Since the fall of 1980, which was the season of the election of Ronald Reagan, and it was clear that Defense Policy was going to become a little bit more than just defense.

And what about your new class, the American Way of War?

This class will go back further in time than Defense Policy. Defense Policy really begins with the Vietnam War and goes into detail about the wars and interventions since then. This class, on the other hand, goes back to the origins of the uniquely American Way of War, the Civil War. This way of war had two defining characteristics, each championed by a leading general: Grant’s concept of overwhelming force, and Robert E. Lee’s idea of wide ranging mobility.

In all successful wars, the US has tried to copy this, most obviously and successfully in World War Two. When America can’t do this, like in an insurgency war, the US usually fails. So, the course will go into the historical origin and the historical development way of war, and its current chapter in the context of Rumsfeld’s transformation project and the Iraq debacle.

We’ll pay some attention to World War 1, and the Korean War, as well of WW2, and the wars of Nam since, but we’ll also pay some attention to a kind of shadow or “marginal” or different American Way of War, a kind of little brother to the big American way of war, that was a particular kind of war that the US developed against what we could call insurgents or guerillas….the American Indians. Finally we’ll talk about the various ways for the US to take on guerillas between the Philippines and the Caribbean and South American anti-insurgency operations.

Where was your schooling?

Undergrad: Stan[ford], grad: Harvard, after this: taught at Harvard.

What’s the departmental difference between Harvard and Swarthmore?

I’ve been treated very well at both schools. Actually, after many years, I don’t have any complaint. I find this astonishing because most of my colleagues at other colleges complain. Indeed, most of my colleagues at Swarthmore complain. I’ve been very fortunate. In fact, I’ve found that even the unpleasant experiences, I’ve forgotten and remembered the good things.

Both Swat and Harvard, provided ample resources to support the resources and the professional travels of the faculty. But Harvard’s support was more conditional of the approval of this or that foundation. And then and now, foundation grants are biased to the political fads of the day. In contrast, Swarthmore, seems to have much fewer conditions, permitting the faculty member to have a great deal of intellectual and political independence. That’s one of the main reasons why I came to Swarthmore. I felt I would have more independence at Swat, and this was confirmed.

Would you recommend going into the service for a few years after college?

Well, this is a very challenging and very complex question, after all the stakes are high in regards to life and health to say nothing of politics and principle. I firmly believe that for many young people, a couple years in the military is a very good experience that they will draw upon for a valuable resource for the rest of their lives. That was certainly the case, with my 2 years as a gunnery officer on the 7th fleet flagship, based in the Western Pacific. On the other hand, its one thing to have that experience during peacetime, or what was then called Cold War, my experience was just before Vietnam, but not during the hot period of the war itself. And it’s quite another thing to have that experience when the country is at war and your life is a risk, and it’s still another thing if the war and the risk is something that you feel contradict your basic principles.

The problem with the military is you don’t get the chance to choose your wars, they choose that for you. You might be fortunate enough to be serving in a time when these issues don’t arise. That was my case, but if you were in the military today, it would be very different.

Now, it is true the answer to the question really depends on the particular military services, actually, from all practical points of view, the Navy has been de facto in peacetime through virtually all the Iraq war. It’s almost like when I was in the Navy. As for the Air Force, they’re a bit more engaged in the war, they don’t put their lives at risk too much, on the other hands, they put the lives of Iraqi civilians at risk, which would raise issues of principle. As for the ground forces; the grunts who are in the grass and spill their blood in the mud, fighting a counterinsurgency war that the American Ground Forces are not organized to fight, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone; a former student of mine, Shawn Barney was gravely wounded as a Marine corporal in Iraq and all the more so, since the son and namesake of one of my close friends and the author of books that I assign in my courses, Andrew Basavich, his son was killed in Iraq in May.

What is the direction you’d like to see US foreign policy going in the next administration?

I’d like to see a foreign policy labeled as Realist, or conservative, or prudent. An example of an architect of such policies have been Secretaries of State such as George Marshall, Dean Atchison, and Henry Kissinger and James Baker.

But what about Clinton-esque liberalism especially vis-a-vis Kosovo?

It was mostly due to unique conditions. In fact, after 2 months of bombing Kosovo, in May, Clinton was nervous about sending Ground Troops in. I think he was surprised in June when the Serbs folded, and I bet he thought he was very very lucky. As one NATO general said, “Kosovo was such a great success that no one in NATO wants to be repeated again.”


  1. 0
    Susan Perkins Weston '81 says:


    I can offer 30 years that match your one, including long conversations where there could not have been any misunderstanding on that point.


    The office hours suggestion is a very good one. I think you will find the exact opposite of what you have inferred so far.

  2. 0
    Matthew Tilghman says:

    People who disagree with Realists like to ascribe more ideological orientations to them in order to explain away political positions that the (disagreeing) Idealists find disconcerting. Like Walt and Mearsheimer, who are now infamous in some circles, Kurth bases his positions on what is observable and what real people have proven themselves capable and incapable of accomplishing — not on predispositions against groups defined by other-than-political factors. For example, when Kurth wrote “Crush the Sunnis,” he did so out of belief that such a policy in Iraq would leave the country more stable and amenable to good relations with the West; he was referring to the political manifestation of Sunnis as insurgent and otherwise uncooperative groups in Iraq, not to the entire denomination. Kurth’s view on this point is based, in part, upon his observation that no Shia group has ever attacked the United States, except in Shiite territory.

  3. 0
    David Pupkin ( User Karma: 1 ) says:

    In the year that I’ve known Professor Kurth he’s shown no anti-semitic sentiment. In addition to this, as skeptical said, this is an introductory style interview, not a cross-examination. You could ask him yourself about this during his office hours.

  4. 0
    skeptical says:

    Because that’s perhaps not what your linked article says. There’s not enough information there in my opinion to make that serious a judgment.

    Also, this is an introductory style interview, not cross-examination.

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