- - Wednesday, June 11, 2014


By Angelo Codevilla
Hoover Institution Press, $24.95, 223 pages

Toward the end of 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 53 percent of Americans see their country as “less important and powerful than 10 years ago.” Seventy percent, said Pew, think “the United States is less respected than in the past,” versus 56 percent a year earlier. Fifty-one percent say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

That’s without having read Angelo Codevilla’s devastating take on American foreign-policy failures and miscalculations — over the past decade and a half, especially — and their resultant effects on national morale, not to mention America’s superpower status.

Mr. Codevilla, a retired Boston University professor of international relations, now affiliated with the Hoover Institution and the Claremont Institute, has written a powerhouse of a book — possibly the best explanation currently on the market for the nation’s varied vexations, at home as well as abroad. Don’t be put off by the soporific, seminar-roomy title. This is a terrific and eye-opening book.

Mr. Codevilla — who inhabits none of the pigeonholes routinely assigned to foreign-policy “internationalists,” “isolationists” and “realists” — perches on a loftier aerie, from which he trains the eye of history on our perplexities. He looks at what works for this country’s well-being and what doesn’t. The part that doesn’t can be equated with the outlook of our historically illiterate “ruling class” — Mr. Codevilla’s recurrent label for the political-media-intellectual establishment.

The ruling class, which comprises Republicans as well as Democrats, is all in when it comes to “nation building,” foreign aid, and gestures that substitute for minimal understanding of the country’s actual interests. Peace is an interest too infrequently served, Mr. Codevilla contends; peace permits normal life. Normal life is good.

War? It comes sometimes. When it does, you have to fight. Mr. Codevilla is no weepy pacifist. He simply thinks, as was common for pre-20th-century American leaders to think, that you don’t kill thousands and elevate social tensions so as to raise your adversaries, and assorted bystanders, to your own civilizational level. (Do comparisons come to mind? Iraq? Afghanistan?) The Iraq war “did serve peace by placing the U.S. government in the position to warn Middle Eastern governments that they might expect the same fate as the Taliban, if any anti-U.S. terrorism” came from their shops. However, then we fell into the business of remodeling other countries to our own satisfaction. We “got in everybody’s way. Hence, Americans got killed and maimed on behalf of no objective relevant to America’s own peace.” Did we ever really think through what we were trying to do? In Mr. Codevilla’s telling, that’s what the ruling class rarely does — think through and answer the question, what are we getting out of this at the cost of our treasure and blood?

Well, we get the chance to “reform” others, but is that what we want, or even need? Does the job of keeping Americans safe entail the manipulation of political and strategic outcomes in other countries? Mr. Codevilla bears down on John Quincy Adams’ analysis: America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings,” shunning “all the wars of interest and intrigue, of avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

Speaking of freedom, Mr. Codevilla censures emphatically the anti-freedom policies of “Homeland Security” — not just the airport patter-downers, but the “random harassment” that precedes the “political policing of public life.”

“The new American security state’s refusal explicitly to distinguish good citizens from terrorists proceeds from the very same agnostic pretense by which our ruling class refuses to pass explicit judgment on the international causes and cultures in whose quarrels it partakes.” Did you know Islam is “a religion of peace?” If not, you haven’t listened attentively to our leaders.

In the absence of clear goals, and of a clearly defined enemy, the ruling class makes up its own standards, policies and rules. In consequence, old-fashioned trust among citizens erodes; gun-carrying increases; bitterness ruins constructive politics. I think this is where we came in, eight or nine years ago.

What do we do in that case? A “new generation of statesmen” wouldn’t hurt, says Mr. Codevilla — one that views “minding America’s business and winning America’s wars not as a demotion, but as a calling that absorbs the highest human talents and confers the highest honors America’s paramount interest is remaining itself,” rather than turning into the late Roman empire. For which point there seems to be a growing audience, ripe for fertilization and careful shaping. Would-be statesmen desirous of connecting with such an audience will find in this pulsating, easily read, easily absorbed treatise that rarest of modern commodities: old-fashioned, down-to-earth horse sense.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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