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Thursday, October 20. 2011
With temerity I critique one of the clearest foreign policy analysts in America, Angelo Codevilla. We share some friends and common roots in the teachings learned at the knee of Robert Strausz-Hupe of laser focus on core US interests over distractions, especially those wasteful or unproductive. With timidity at facing Codevilla’s sharp pen and keyboard with which he punctures and flattens flabby or fatuous thinking, I face his latest essay, The Lost Decade. Codevilla disembowels the foreign and domestic policies of the US since 9/11, with many telling arguments. Yet, I stride forth to face his iconoclastic critique with iconoclastic critique. I agree in temper and some hindsight but disagree with some of Codevilla’s specifics that go too far or which share some common illusions with those Codevilla criticizes.
There are two core arguments in Codevilla’s almost 8,000 word essay, a self-serving, misfocused and exclusionary US elite that failed to identify or act against domestic and foreign threats. Instead, they enriched themselves and intruded into all Americans' freedoms with the overly expensive and expansive, ill-suited to US liberties, feeble Homeland Security, and got bogged down in self-limited wars of illusory nation-building that distracted funding from the major weapons systems necessary to US strategic superiority and failed to confront real enemies. Combined with irresponsible profligate domestic spending and programs that have led to our deep ongoing recession, our means and will to continue our foreign engagements or rebuild our needed future weaponry and military has deteriorated. No wonder most Americans distrust these elites and the federal government.
Codevilla’s essay first sentence says, “America’s ruling class lost the war on terror.” Codevilla looks below tactical disagreements to say of this class of Democrat and Republican leadership, “It is more or less homogeneous socially and intellectually.” Democrat and Republican elites created a public-private industry that expanded their own powers over our lives while not focusing on the root of our adversaries’ antagonism toward our way of life, Moslem societies dysfunction and anti-Western propaganda, that was further encouraged by our feeble reactions. “But U.S. policy has made things worse because the liberal internationalists, realists, and neoconservatives who make up America's foreign policy Establishment have all assumed that Americans should undertake the impossible task of changing such basic facts, rather than confining themselves to the difficult but vital work of guarding U.S. interests against them.”
Here’s where I have reservations on Codevilla’s analysis and prescriptions.
Codevilla says we should have overthrown hostile regimes without getting mired in “nation building”, and imposed our will on other Middle Eastern states. For overthrow, Codevilla’s hindsight targets Iran, Syria and the PLO. For imposing demands to cease their state support for anti-Americanism, he targets most of the remaining Middle East satrapies, having the fear of our wrath at hand.
Post-9/11 and our overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, this course was both promising and showed concrete results. But, Codevilla avoids mentioning intervening realities that required the US to not stop there, even though the benefits either are not what we most expansively hoped or may be transitory. Next door to Iran’s subversive activities against the West was the more geopolitically important Iraq doing the same but deemed by the world’s intelligence services to already have WMDs of greater danger to the West and creating greater threats to friendlier allies in the Middle East. Next door to Afghanistan and its resurgent Taliban was the nuclear arms of the feeble, ethnically and culturally aligned Pakistan. Our measures there and elsewhere, even at their best, were seriously undermined at home by determined liberal Democrats and their allies in media and academia whose first priority was the destruction of George Bush rather than our enemies overseas. Then, as we've seen with the misnamed Arab Spring, the post-satrap order in Egypt shares the same and more hostility toward the West and has done less to restrain its proponents.
Codevilla argues that we should have paid more attention in the US to Moslem apologists for foreign antagonists or terrorists there and here, and less to TSA and the like. Yes. Yet, at home, a much more laser-like identification and attention to Muslim threats – although they have not gone unattended -- just wouldn’t have flown past our laws of innocent until proven guilty or culture of extending tolerance, and abroad faced the ostrich-like avoidance in Europe of confronting Moslems due to their large immigrant populations and profits from trade with Moslem states. Although some of our domestic protections have reached seeming absurdity, far less would have left us more open than we already are, almost irreducibly in a complex, free and technologic society.
In other words, Codevilla’s list of our misfortunes and mistakes takes us to the present but his retrospective prescriptions lack sufficient insight and full honesty. In historiography this might be called the “Cleopatra’s nose” fallacy: If Cleopatra wasn’t so beautiful, Caesar and Antony wouldn’t have fallen in love with her and the course of history better.
Lastly, Codevilla’s view of our ruling class lacks precision. If one goes far enough from Earth, or deep enough into humans’ DNA, all seem alike. However, from our Founding Fathers Virginians dominating our presidency through the first administrations to today there are commonalities of interests and strength of arguments that tend to draw leaders together that need not call into question either conspiracies nor crass self-serving to the neglect of national interests. Sure, leading classes neglect or don't give enough weight to contending worthy arguments. But our more open systems of governance and free expression do tend to take them into account. The Bill of Rights tendered to the anti-Federalists. What about today, however? Codevilla, with much justification, says we have a ruling class that has common interests and exclude contenders. Codevilla expands on this in his brilliant 2010 essay America's Ruling Class.
Neither giant ships nor ships of state do fast 180-degree turns. Even a less sharp turn from our present economic diseases and foreign fecklessness is difficult, and requires top skills, experience and application of training at building the ship, atthe helm, in engineering and above decks. Yes, there is today a dominating -- and dangerous -- misdirection and lack of direction away from the rocks toward safer seas. However, among conservatives there is also a lack of unity on specific courses and even more a lack among Republicans generally. The failure of the ostensibly more conservative Republican presidential hopefuls to take control owes more to their lack of preparation, knowledge and abilities to convince than to all the liberal forces arrayed against them. That leaves the field to the better-than-nothing but still quite chancy Romney. We simply don’t have a Reagan on the field who despite failings and errors and not going for or achieving conservative nirvana at least convincingly raised consciousness and unity on the right course and considerably moved the compass.
Like many of us, Codevilla is something of a romantic, extolling the past and seeking present glories. In fairness, his analyses are harder headed than that and his course better planned and worthwhile. However, in the real world he and we must put aside wishful thinking in favor of the nitty gritty of dealing with facts.
Returning to Robert Strausz-Hupe, as cogent a national interests analyst as the US had during the Cold War, calling for loud exclamation of American values and potent use of threat and force to counter the Soviet Union, he too failed to accurately foresee the future in December 2001, shortly before his death at 98. His last essay, The New Protracted Conflict, drew its title from his most popular book The Protracted Conflict published in 1951.
Looking forward from 2001, Strausz-Hupe concludes:
Obviously, we and our leadership could have done much better, as one can see from the failure of Strausz-Hupe’s hopes. And, still, one must recognize that even then we would face much the same unfortunate turns of events abroad as now. There are limits to American influence and power, and there are limits to our wealth, regardless of self-exertions. On the other hand, as critiques of the Obama administration make clear, his policies have largely expanded our own and others’ limitations upon our influence and power, and undermined those who would be our allies.
We’re not in the age or hands of Eisenhower with his experience and precise uses of power backed by our relative economic and military strength. We are in the age of our Founding Fathers, however, with faith in our way of life and freedoms and the natural economic resources of land and people. That stands against the continuing sway of dysfunctional Moslem societies and rulers, and the ongoing czarist policies of Russia and imperial ambitions of China, as well as the weak pretensions of liberals that the US should not be true to the course that grew and maintained our powers and freedoms. Even Strausz-Hupe would admit, I believe, that our foes have not fundamentally transformed. Codevilla, too, must admit that neither have our winning strengths in the ongoing protracted conflict, and not get lost in fantasies instead as our more benighted liberal class or those who lack resolve and understanding do.
Tracked: Oct 21, 09:12
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I will reread both more closely. There is much to say for his observations, but I concur there is a weakness. Events take place in a time and a context, not in a vacuum. We can say now - and some said then - that much of our security focus was wasted effort, and a diversion of resources from a more full-throated declaration of American values without demurrer. Well, fine. But the energy of the American people was that someone address their fears. Even were we to travel in time, we could not simply wave a wand and say "We're not going to do much about airline security and certainly not start a whole new Dept of Homeland Security. We know what's going to work in the long run and we're going to do that instead." We would be accused of not caring about the safety of citizens, of not appreciating the danger. We might prevail, but would spend a great deal of our political currency doing so, preventing other changes.
Similarly, we could indeed have overthrown governments and not rebuilt the countries. There were voices that suggested this as well. But this would give evidence to critics who claimed we were seeking only revenge, and cared not for the suffering of others. Again, a politician who insisted on such a strategy and went to the mat for it might prevail, but at the cost of all other actions. We can say Bush should have gone to the mat in support of Sen Sununu's regulation of Fannie and Freddie as well. In retrospect, that would have been at the top of the agenda. But doing so would have thrown everything else off the agenda.
History does not replay by changing one thing and everything else stays the same. No complex system behaves that way.
And to that, we have the palms-raised puzzle of not knowing what would have happened had we acted differently in our invasion, our alegiances, and our timing. We can only guess and estimate. We will not begin to know whether Iraq and Afghanistan were worth it for another 10 years, and we will not have a remotely objective take on it for 30. We may decide that it was a far worse decision than even its worst critics have alleged. We might find it saved the ME and the world. Much more likely, it will be something in between and we will continue to argue about it.
One of the great failures of the age has been entrusting much to 'youth'. They're smart, but greedy. Not so much for money as for things, emotions, experiences.
I'm old and well off. I want nothing but peace and quiet. I hate most of my properties and possessions. It takes some degree of asceticism to think clearly. I'm more stupid than when I was 25 but I do fewer stupid things because I'm wiser.
Nobody should have any serious public authority unless they bare near 60.
One quick observation, if I may: "For overthrow, Codevilla’s hindsight targets Iran, Syria and the PLO." In Angelo's defense, he made precisely that case in the Fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, published less than two months after 9/11, when the Afghanistan campaign was just getting underway. So I do not believe it is fair to call it "hindsight."
Thanks Ben. You are correct. I've always respected Vodevilla's foresight.
The issue, however, isn't so much the matter of hindsight but that we were on this path, detoured by the seemingly more pressing (it was reliably thought by intel agencies around the West) need to deal with Iraq's WMD's, and that liberal opposition to that or to Bush derailed the resolve, focus and support for putting fear if not overthrow to Iran, Syria and the PLO.
One can do much different in hindsight, or even in foresight, but there are intervening events that create detours. And, often, we end up back where we started, or worse.
I think that Codevilla's essay would have been more useful in looking forward from where we are now than in looking back. Maybe his next essay, I hope.
Please do read my essay, "Victory," in the fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review
Angelo, I'm so glad you replied. A mutual friend just expected you to be angry. Your 2001 essay "Victory" is indeed worthy, and looks forward, as are almost everything else you've written. However, this piece by you is lacking in the forward looking views you are best known for, is too dyspeptic, and misses some core retrospective points that I raise.
As I said above, "I think that Codevilla's essay would have been more useful in looking forward from where we are now than in looking back. Maybe his next essay, I hope."
For now, I would welcome a deeper critique from you of my critique. -- I think we owe it to our publics to avoid the sloganeering of the Reagan years and get down to specifics on Quo Vadis.