Posted: August 11, 2009
"t's the new small talk!" thus does Professor Henry Higgins gamely come to the rescue of his improbable protégé, Miss Eliza Doolittle, after she says something untoward during her first outing in high Edwardian society. The sedulous professor has managed to get the cockney out of Eliza's accent, but he hasn't yet gotten it out of her brain, so that her thoughts remain silly even though her enunciation is perfect.
In the film My Fair Lady, the new small talk ("and I say, them 'as pinched it, done her in") is played to great comic effect by Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Less funny, as Angelo Codevilla reminds us inAdvice to War Presidents, is the new smalltalk among statesmen, diplomats, policy planners, political scientists, and think tank thinkers, many of whomspent the better part of the last century attempting to wish away the unpleasant facts of international relations by coining sweet-sounding euphemisms. The result, argues Codevilla, has been decade after decade of illusion, with consequences written in blood.
Codevilla, who taught international relations at Boston University for many years, has subtitled his book A Remedial Course in Statecraft. This is somewhat misleading: a book that uses the word omphaloskopia without bothering to define it (it means "navel gazing") is not "remedial" in the usual sense of the word. But Codevilla's purpose is to point his readers to the basics of policy making—the realities of war and peace, the tools used to wage the one or preserve the other, and the abiding passions that drive men and women toward each. And this means cutting through the chatter that now dominates the way we typically speak of, and too often think about, the ways of the world.
Consider, for instance, the endlessly invoked "international community," a termthat has its origins in the Progressive enthusiasms of the early 20th century. As Codevilla deliciously reminds us, it was Nicholas Murray Butler of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who argued, in 1910, that
to suppose that men and women into whose intellectual and moral instruction and upbuilding have gone the glories of the world's philosophy and art and poetry and religion...to suppose that these men and women when gathered together in groups called nations...are to fly at each others' throats to burn, to ravage, to kill, in the hope of somehow establishing thereby truth and right and justice is to suppose the universe tobe stood upon its apex.
Just four years later, however, flying at each others' throats was exactly what Europe's great and civilized powers were doing, for reasons not well-remembered today but which were enough to sustain enormous armies in desperate combat for years.
Yet a war that ought to have put paid to the illusions of Butler and his ilk served instead to inflate them(both in the sense of broadening and cheapening), and create new illusions in turn. The Great War ended; a League of Nations was born. It was premised on a concept of "collective security" which, Codevilla observes, imagines "that nations will place themselves in danger, or even go to war,even though they have no particular interest in doing so." Too late the world discovered that no government was particularly keen to defend Abyssinia, or fight for the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, or die for Danzig.
Nor was the cause of peace well served by a succession of interwar "disarmament" conferences and treaties, another celebrated progressive cause that, as Walter Lippmann wrote in 1943, proved "tragically successful in disarming the nations that believed in disarmament." Yet somehow progressives emerged from the experienceof World War II no less convinced of the need for collective security and disarmament(or "arms control"). Only this time they did so in the framework of the "United Nations," its very name uniquely inapt since it made no distinction between those of its members committed to democracy, peace, prosperity, and human rights, and those committed to dictatorship, war, misery, and torture.
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Naturally, the result has been more war, more tragedy—and more euphemism. Take "peacekeeping," about which Codevilla incisively remarks that "if peace or the inclination thereto really existed between two parties, what need would there be for third parties to keep it?" Instead, the U.N. routinely deploys thousands of troops, at hugeexpense, so that they can scrupulously refuse to take sides between, say, the Hutu genocidaires and their Tutsi victims, or (more recently) between Sudan's Janjaweed militia and their Darfuri victims.Why, then, does the world—and particularly the West—persevere in pursuing what amounts to a policy of make-believe? Codevilla likens it to an addiction to drugs: "Under their influence, you may stagger about the international scene believing you cut a fine figure, expecting deference, but impotent. When thwarted, your fellow addicts are likelier to tempt you into deeper dependency on intellectual hallucinogens."
What follows for the rest of the book, then, amounts to a 12-step program for sobriety in international affairs. Codevilla is at particular pains to stress that civilizations, nations, and sects each have their own ideas about what is right, true, and worth dying for—if they didn't, there wouldhardly be a need for any kind of foreign policy—and that American policymakers err profoundly when they assume that the rest of the world wants to be just like Americans, only they don't quite know how. This goes especially in matters of religion, a much more potent form of "soft power" than the secular MTV variant now peddled as the best vehicle for U.S. public diplomacy.
As a result, the U.S. has repeatedly erred in its foreign policy judgments by imagining, for example, that the Muslim world divides neatly into a handful of "extremists" and a vast majority of "moderates." Yet in the streets of Tehran in 1979, it was the "extremists" who were in the majority, and who were moved by passions and convictions that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency could not comprehend and was thus unable to predict. Elsewhere in the Middle East, writes Codevilla, the words "moderation" and "extremism" are used without the essential corollary questions: "Moderate about what? Extreme about what? And so what?" Unless there is some clear idea about what the words signify, they signify nothing, and obscure much.
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Codevilla raises equally fundamental questions about diplomacy, war-making, intelligence, "homeland security," and economic power. Consider diplomacy, a word now used in roughly the same sense as, say,aspirin. But diplomacy is not something you swallow so as to feel a little better. Diplomacy is the medium itself. And the important question for any administration isn't whether it should "give diplomacy a chance"—as the Obama Administration now intends to do from Tehran to Pyongyang—but rather what that diplomacy means to achieve and how it intends to accomplish it.
Similarly in war: though the word "war" has largely beenreplaced by the euphemisms of "police action" or "humanitarian intervention" or operation such-and-such, the fact remains that U.S. presidentssend U.S. soldiers into battle with remarkable frequency. But what are those troops meant to do, especially now that theword "victory" has been all but erased from the U.S. military lexicon? If wars aren't for winning, they probably shouldn't be for fighting. Nor should they be for fighting if the restrictions imposed on that fightingmake them all but impossible to win. Our efforts to bring the Vietnam War to a close did not benefit from Lyndon Johnson's bombing halt in 1968; they did benefit (for whatever it was ultimately worth) by the mining of Haiphong harbor and the Christmas bombings of 1972, which swiftly forced Hanoi's hand in the Paris peace talks. Similarly with Israel, it is not clear what humanitarian goal the Jewish state achieves, either vis-a-vis its own citizens or toward Palestinians, to stop short of destroying groups such as Hamas and allowing them to fight another day. "Unless statesmen exact multiple eyes or teeth for one," writes Codevilla, "fellow citizens end up paying with arms, legs, and heads."
Also astute is Codevilla's chapter on intelligence, which is of particular interest because of his years spent as a staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Citing Daniel Patrick Moynihan's wonderful aphorism, "Intelligence is not to be confused with intelligence," Codevilla paints a devastating picture of just how unintelligent our intelligence agencies (CIA above all) have been, with six decades of egregious operational failures and calamitous analytical blunders to prove it. More fundamental, however, is his argument that the benefit of intelligence—that is, the acquisition of secret information—does not relieve policymakers from the responsibility of making decisions based on incomplete information. "If you sit back and wait for intelligence to define your task and deliver the keys to success," he writes, "intelligence will become an excuse for evading your responsibilities."
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All of this makes for compelling reading—and a mostly compelling case. But though there is no shortage of wisdom and wit in Codevilla's book, it also has its flaws. One of them is tonal: the book is shot through with rancor and contempt, as if U.S. foreign policy has been an unremitting failure for nearly a whole century. Lost in this account of foolishness and folly are the facts that the U.S. did manage to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, did manage to overcome the stain of the Vietnam War, did manage to bury the Soviet Union, did manage to out-compete Japan, Germany, and the European Union and—it now seems—will manage a win in Iraq. These achievements were not merely products of dumb luck, and any "remedial" course in statesmanship might do well to examine positive instances of American statesmanship. Yes, there are some.
Codevilla also has the habit of driving his analysis too far. He rightly berates modern American policymakers for failing to understand religion and its power to move men to action. But he is too dismissive of the power of American culture as an instrument of suasion or subversion. Not for nothing did Vaclav Havel invite Lou Reed to be his honored guest in Prague after the Velvet Revolution. Not for nothing, either, is Socrates at great pains in the Republic to regulate the correct forms of music in his totalitarian state, since, as he tells Glaucon, "musical training is a more potent instrument than any other."
Similarly, while Codevilla is certainly right that the rest of the world doesn't want to be a facsimile of the U.S., it is simply wrong to suggest that many people, and countries, don't want to be more like America than unlike it. Again, not for nothing are shopping malls from Bangkok to Mexico City to Cairo just like American shopping malls. Not for nothing isIndonesian Idol identical to American Idol. Not for nothing has democratic governance been steadily expanding around the world, albeit in its Huntingtonian "waves." We may have much to learn still from Athens, Rome, and Machiavelli's Florence, but the world really has moved on.
Worse, however, are Codevilla's vituperative attacks on neoconservatism, a school of thought he lumps together with realism and liberal internationalism as part of the same engine of euphemism and wishful thinking that dominates U.S. foreign policy. This is about as convincing as the old Soviet notion that nothing fundamental distinguished American capitalism from European fascism. But his picture of neoconservatism, such as it is, amounts to caricature. Surely one can believe that the spread of democracy is something U.S. foreign policy should encourage without losing sight of the high cultural and political obstacles to that enterprise. And surely one can be attentive to the hard realities of power and the imperatives of prestige and respect without ignoring the power and attraction of American ideals to shape the minds and attitudes of men.
These are serious flaws. That they seriously mar the message and persuasiveness of a bracing, intelligent book should not detract from the fact that Codevilla's argument is, inthe last analysis, bracing and intelligent.