The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 12, 2017

War, Ideas, and the New Conservative Dilemma
Robert D. Stacey - 08/19/09
Codevilla Jacket

A review of Angelo Codevilla’s Advice to War Presidents (New York: Basic Books, 2009)

Students of Richard Weaver know that ideas have consequences. A natural corollary to Weaver's elemental law might be: Bad ideas have bad consequences. Angelo Codevilla's new book, Advice to War Presidents, purports to be a primer on statecraft for statesmen in need of remedial work on the subject. True to his word, Codevilla delivers on that promise, but in truth, the book is much more than just a primer. While Advice to War Presidents certainly reminds us of the often overlooked historic principles that underlie international relations, it also illustrates the cumulative effects of nearly a century's worth of bad ideas in politics and culture.

Codevilla seems at once to offer us a devastating rebuke of Progressive approaches to foreign affairs and a dark, troubling view of contemporary American culture. The combined effect is one of unresolved tension, leaving the reader both thoroughly satisfied and terribly uneasy.

Let's have the good news first. One of the best attributes of Codevilla's book is its therapeutic effect. For readers in need of a rousing dose of profound, genuine conservative insight, it is exactly what the doctor—or the professor—ordered. Given the historic left-wing triumph in the last election cycle, the recent scandals among right-wing political figures, and the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Progressive agenda in Congress, conservatives have been hard-pressed of late. Codevilla reminds those whose conservative faith might be wavering why they embraced conservatism in the first place. The book is a refreshingly unashamed conservative critique of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy, especially with regard to war and the use of force.

Make no mistake: Codevilla's conservatism is the old-fashioned sort. Neoconservatives and Republican accommodationists will find him offensive at best, but that may just be what today's hard-pressed conservative needs. In fact, Codevilla identifies three specific schools of thought which he maintains have misled American foreign policy since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. In their various turns at the helm, "our statesmen"—consumed by Liberal Internationalism, Neoconservatism, and Realism—have steered the American ship of state away from its traditional, commonsensical course.

Readers with a passion for tradition and history will appreciate the frequent invocation of significant historical figures, from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Churchill. Codevilla's work is thus emphatically conservative in the sense that he applies lessons derived from centuries of human experience to contemporary problems. The abiding character of human nature is a fundamental premise of the book. In good Socratic fashion, he dissects the faulty and unexamined assumptions of Progressive elites for the edification (and delight) of his readers.

The book is organized around nine aphorisms or axioms—somewhat ironic, since one of those axioms is "Watch Your Axioms." Again, on the surface each axiom seems like a principle snatched from the domain of common sense. But Codevilla convincingly and repeatedly exposes the gap between common sense and public policy. For example, in the chapter "Diplomacy: Medium, Not Message," he argues that contemporary statesmen have come to see both diplomacy and war as ends in themselves, with diplomacy being a "good" outcome and war being a "bad" one. Furthermore, U.S. diplomacy has become ideological rather than realistic, seeing the world through eyes blind to the vital distinctions among various cultures and interests. Our diplomats and statesmen seem to think that everybody ultimately shares the same interests and that the United States is specially positioned to secure those universal interests. On the contrary, writes Codevilla, "Confusing your country's interests with anybody else's, imagining you can bear their burdens, well nigh guarantees you will end up harming all you touch."

Codevilla challenges another treasured assumption in "Power Makes Money." Contemporary political thinking holds that national wealth yields power over less wealthy nations, but Codevilla observes that success in foreign affairs derives from other sources. "Money can't buy the things most crucial to success in war and peace: understanding the peace you need, the enemy that stands in its way, reasonable plans for undoing him, and the moral wherewithal for doing so." Or put more simply, "No one has ever been struck down by an amorphous chunk of GDP." Defenders of Progressive foreign policy may point to America's wealth and its considerable influence over global affairs, but to do so confuses correlation with causation.

In the heady days of the old Empire, the British used to say, "Trade follows the flag," meaning that expansion of the Empire opened up new commercial opportunities. Statesmen of that age understood wealth followed power. The reverse does not always hold up. "Confusing wealth with power (or happiness)," says Codevilla, "mistaking means for ends, ranks with the oldest of errors. Pointing this out is a staple of classic literature." The considerable wealth of the Persians, for example, could not purchase a victory over the Greeks at Marathon. More recently, wealth did not enable the United States to prevail in Vietnam, nor did it permit the Soviets to pacify Afghanistan. And in the end, wealth could not preserve the British Empire.

And now for the bad news. Codevilla effectively renders the Progessive elites of the American foreign policy shamefully exposed and discredited, much as Edmund Burke did for the instigators of the French Revolution. But what of the American people themselves? A staple of conservative thought over the years has been a basic trust in the ability of individual citizens to manage their own affairs. Christopher Lasch called it "universal competence" and considered it a prerequisite for successful democracy.

On one level Codevilla seems to judge the American people competent to manage their own affairs. For him it is a high compliment indeed when he writes, "The American people embody common sense." Time and again he stresses the worldview differences between our foreign policy elites and ordinary Americans. In other passages, however, he appears concerned about a decline of American culture in general, an erosion of that necessary universal competence, perhaps.

For example, Codevilla urges the clear and precise use of language in foreign affairs. He is rightly critical of terms such as United Nations and international community because the world's nations are emphatically not united and certainly do not form a community in any usual sense of the word. Furthermore, he writes, "Though war and politics are two aspects of the same reality, our statesmen's language has treated them as if they were opposites." The difficulty is, despite Codevilla's defense of the common man, these fictions are no longer relegated to the vocabularies of political elites. Many Americans, it would seem, do indeed see war as the failure of politics. Likewise, both candidates in the last presidential contest asserted that America needed to regain the favor of the international community, and voters—that is, ordinary Americans—were evidently persuaded by the argument.

Americans' susceptibility to linguistic fictions is only a small part of the cultural problem Codevilla illustrates. America is in a cultural decline, and not just among its elites. "In World War II," he observes, "the United States turned out more military equipment than the rest of the world combined in no small part because it had a population that knew how to make those things, or was willing to learn, and had habits conducive to assiduous work." Is that same self-sacrificial work ethic still predominant in America today? Codevilla understandably has his doubts. "Americans, and not just war Presidents, . . . must ask how many among us today have it in them to turn out war goods—and use them." He terms this a loss of "human capital," adding that "the shopping malls and college campuses that characterize modern American ‘consumer society'" are no more apt to produce large numbers of effective soldiers than they are large numbers of effective workers. In this regard, it is not simply the elite who have become corrupted.

Even more significantly, in a sobering passage on the nature of civilization and barbarism, Codevilla agrees with Machiavelli that barbarians in any age may be defined as those who "lack powerful ideas, or who have abandoned them," people who "succumb to the ‘soft power' of those who have [powerful ideas]." Applying that view to contemporary international affairs, he pointedly asks,

who, in the confrontation between Islamism and contemporary Western civilization, is the most bereft of ideas? Willingness to kill and die signifies seriousness. Which side proves it represents something worth killing or dying for? That side will attract others. . . . Which side today represents nothing but the lives and comforts it fears losing? Which side has the most potent combination of ideas and swords? A hint of who today's Barbarians may be comes from the fact that while few Muslims convert to Christianity, Western governments, celebrities, and trendy folk have converted to Islam, professed affection for it, or censored criticism of it.

Where does this leave contemporary Americans, elites and masses alike? One might expect the elites to crave soft, luxurious lives, but if most of us can be characterized simply as comfort-seekers incapable of sacrifice for the sake of noble and attractive ideas, how long can we expect the republic to persist? The author himself draws the obvious parallel to third- and fourth-century Romans "rejoicing in their civilization's attractiveness to the Barbarians." "But," he hastens to add, "while the Barbarians admired the Romans' technology, they had long since lost any awe of the Romans."

Codevilla's tension is a microcosm of the contemporary conservative dilemma. Conservative thought from Burke and Tocqueville to Kirk and Reagan has maintained, among other principles, 1) that limited government is a necessary condition of liberty, and 2) that ordinary men and women left to themselves will lead better, more virtuous lives than bureaucrats or central planners or self-appointed elites can set out for them. Advice to War Presidents, however, raises questions—perhaps inadvertently—about the fitness of contemporary Americans to lead virtuous lives. Do we still have the capacity to sacrifice for a noble cause, to work our way out of economic hardship, to care for the needy in the absence of government programs? Has conservatism not by and large assumed the answers would remain affirmative?

For his own part, Codevilla's prescription is modest, even understated. Let us get back to common sense and prudence in foreign policy, he says in essence. Codevilla does not seek to redeem the time, just to improve foreign affairs. But is America any longer capable of heeding such a call, either with regard to foreign policy in particular or to culture broadly conceived? St. Augustine in the fifth century attempted to coax his culture back from a decline that was centuries in the making, albeit to no avail. In America's case, can we yet hope to avoid the Weaverian consequences of a century's worth of bad ideas?

Robert D. Stacey is Honors College Dean at Houston Baptist University.

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