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Up From Diplomacy

Machiavelli could not have written a better book.

By From the April 2009 issue

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Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft
By Angelo Codevilla
(Basic Books, 336 pages, $27.50)
 

Machiavelli could not have written a better book to give advice to “war presidents.” But this should not puzzle the reader. Angelo Codevilla is a connoisseur of Machiavelli; indeed he translated and edited The Prince (Yale University Press, 1997). What Codevilla teaches in this book— he calls it a “remedial primer on statecraft”—has a rich historic foundation that ranges from the wisdom of Thucydides, to the sage writers of the Roman Empire, to John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and many more.

The most interesting ideas in this book are its lively critique of the misuse of language—the language used by our diplomats and our statesmen to articulate America’s goals, and by intellectuals who seek to explain what is good and evil in our time. Thus, they wrote in the United Nations Charter that “we the peoples of the United Nation determined to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security…” Codevilla blows this verbal fog away and reminds us that “the world’s peoples had not conceived the UN, and the member governments had mutually incompatible objectives in mind for it.” The misuse of language also attached confusing labels to different nations. The economically more backward nations were called the “underdeveloped“ nations, but that seemed too harsh and so they were renamed the “developing” nations—as if the wealthy nations had stopped developing.

But Codevilla’s criticism of the misuse of language moves beyond these superficial decorations and gets to the heart of the matter: the mistaken axioms that are the pillars of our distorting intellectual edifice. For example, the axiom that all mankind wants democracy. Codevilla recalls that Condoleezza Rice told the State Department staff on taking office in 2005, that all other people want democracy and decency as much as we do. Alas, because of this mistaken axiom President George W. Bush attempted to transform Georgia into a democracy, a blunder that merely aggravated our deteriorating relations with Russia. Codevilla also mentions a “corollary axiom”: All the world’s diverse cultures are compatible and commensurable. This is the road to multiculturalism, which is a downhill path for the functioning, genuine democracies into the abyss of tribal chaos.

Even more damaging is the axiom that there is such a thing as the “international community.” Such hypostatizing has been criticized by the American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who called the excessive reliance on an abstraction “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Codevilla doesn’t pull punches to explain how damaging this fallacy about the international community is. “In today’s struggle with the people who terrorize Americans,” he writes, “the worst thing you can do is to define America as open to any and all cultures and ideas. By so doing you demoralize our people by telling them to risk their lives for the privilege of believing in nothing, and convince anyone who lives by a lively vision that Americans are empty shells.”

Codevilla makes useful points about Islamism, which he calls “the problem du jour.” He explains that distinction between moderates and extremists is an abstraction from reality. “These American categories are artificial, unserious. Taking seriously what actually moves people is a prerequisite for successful manipulation.”

Yet, it is also essential to call a spade a spade. Senior officials in the U.S. government began to worry that “moderate” Muslims would become hostile if they were labeled “jihadists.” And these timid officials also worried that by identifying specific terrorists as Islamists they might bring the wrath of a billion Muslims upon America. Hence, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security urged the U.S. government to refer to actual or potential Islamic terrorists as “extremists.” Even the Defense Department agreed to this appeasement and explained in published documents that the global campaign (or “global war”) against terrorism was against extremists. Which extremists? The drug smugglers in Mexico, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, or the few Neo-Nazis who sometimes paint graffiti with swastikas? One cannot defeat the enemy if one is afraid to identify him.

THE POLITICAL ROLE OF RELIGION is a large and complex topic that this book addresses only briefly. “For those who run American foreign policy,” Codevilla writes, “to regard religion as a negative factor in the world, to be overcome by ‘ moderation,’ i.e. by watering belief down to a point pleasing to unbelievers, is to place America in the role of the enemy to all the world’s sincere believers in God.” Not so fast! Not all religions are equal. Those who run American foreign policy should regard certain religions as a negative factor. For example, the Taliban who kill girls because they tried to go to school, who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan, who decapitate Pakistani policemen in a public square for young boys to see, and who will undoubtedly assert that they are “sincere believers in God.” The irreconcilable disagreements between different religions often lead to violent wars that are fought—it is sad to say—with godless cruelty. Hence, America has to be the enemy of some “sincere believers in God.”

It would be most unusual if a book with such a wealth of intrepid ideas did not have some minor flaws.

For instance, there is the Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, who wrote the book on “soft power,” a clever two-word term that became a frequently used label for influencing nations without the use of military power, but with the ability to purchase a desired policy by offering aid (and bribes), or the ability successfully to use propaganda. This soft power is almost a platitude—although it has been skillfully branded as a two-word epiphany. Yet, Codevilla builds a farflung indictment of Nye’s “soft power” by citing the many foolish ways of attempting to exert influence with propaganda and bribes. To be sure, the United States programs for influencing Muslims and Arab nations with sermons about democracy, broadcasts, and films have been embarrassingly inept. But even more painful has been the frequent ineptness in wartime, when a wrong strategy was used and the tactics were botched.

Codevilla’s “remedial primer on statecraft” incorporates the wisdom of what war presidents and their staff must keep in mind. The essence of his book can be expressed in a wise maxim from the time of the Roman Empire: Whatever you do, do with caution and look to the end. Quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem

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About the Author

Fred Iklé is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.