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Magic & Mayhem
Reviewed by John Coffey

imageDerek Leebaert, Magic and Mayhem:  The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, ISBN-   978-1439125694,  336pp., $26.

The fever of isolationism, a periodic distemper in our continent-sized island, has again broken out.  Across the political spectrum, from left-wing critics of American “imperialism” such as Andrew Bacevich and Richard Immerman to George Will on the right invoking the ghost of Robert Taft,1 the call goes out, “come home, America.”  Professor Derek Leebaert of Georgetown University joins this chorus with a litany of the folly and knavery marking American foreign policy since the Korean War.

Leebaert lays the blame for America’s blundering on our “magical” delusion that we can fashion grand schemes for the world.  Six popular “illusions” breed this national conceit:  a sense of urgency requiring resolute action; our business “can-do” spirit; a cult of celebrity; wishful thinking obscuring complex realities; the misuse of history to justify policy; and a belief we can reshape other peoples in our image.

Much of the problem, according to Leebaert, stems from America’s political appointee system, whereby thousands of White House political appointees occupy the top policy-making echelons of the executive branch.  This system fosters amateurism, loss of institutional memory, and the political zealot’s passion for global social engineering.  The post-World War II growth of a “national security establishment” abets grandiose enthusiasms (“transform the Middle East”), and the Korean legacy of “prevailing” led to Vietnam and Iraq.

Borrowing from John le Carré, Leebaert depicts a public-policy type, “Emergency Men” – “global architects, the world-order men, the political charm-sellers” – who convince everyone the world is better off for their manipulations.  George Kennan and Douglas MacArthur stand as early exemplars.  John F. Kennedy’s “heroic leadership” amidst world crisis is the Emergency Man par excellence, and the Wolfowitz/Perle/Feith axis of delusion, as ignorant of the Middle East as the “best and brightest” were of Asia, demonstrates the Emergency Man’s “valor of ignorance” in a quest to transform the Middle East.

Robert McNamara and his whiz kids brought the American management mystique to ignominy in Vietnam, while Defense Secretary Rumsfeld exhibited managerial naiveté that progress in Iraq could be quantified.  Leebaert highlights the American enthrallment with stars in an acerbic portrait of “The Doctor,” Henry Kissinger, “the emergency man in the mode of audacious New Frontiersman.”  Leebaert makes fine sport of Kissinger’s self-description (later rued) to Oriana Fallaci as “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town.”

For Leebaert “best and brightest” McGeorge Bundy represents the Emergency Man hell-bent on action, brooking no interference with his wishful thinking.  Vice President Cheney’s swallowing of “neocon gibber” about “moving history forward” by transforming the Middle East exemplifies the ransacking of history to find “lessons” rationalizing policy.  The faddish “cult” of counterinsurgency with its “potted history” and of super-star David Petraeus offers the latest historical distortion and celebrity-worship.  R. James Woolsey’s project of “Athenizing” the world from the rubble of Baghdad and Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” typify the national delusion of transforming other peoples we imagine want to be like us.

Leebaert concludes that the American foreign-policy establishment “is not up to the task” of leadership in the world of far-flung political/military commitments it has created.  His solution is, “come home, America” – drastically reducing our overseas military bases and U.S. ground troop presence.  Professor Leebaert indulges the academic luxury of not telling us from where America’s presence should be withdrawn.

From Leebaert’s account the reader would never know that a bumbling America has underwritten the international architecture of security and prosperity for seven decades.  In his insightful book, The Frugal Superpower, Michael Mandelbaum writes that since World War II, “the United States play(ed) a major, constructive, and historically unprecedented role in the world,” bringing peace and prosperity to much of the globe.2 Mandelbaum explains how the coming age of austerity will curtail America’s activist foreign policy and predicts dim prospects for a world with a cash-strapped Uncle Sam.  The world will suffer the baleful results of a U.S. with too little power:  “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.”3

Leebaert prefers the European model of an elite career civil service to our disorderly democratic regime.  His prescribed cure for our self-deception is to eliminate the Emergency Men by reducing the number of political appointees and entrusting national security to the hands of a strengthened Foreign and Civil Service B la France and Britain.  This solution poses several problems, however.

First, Leebaert misstates the point of Peter Rodman’s fine book, Presidential Command, as endorsing what Leebaert understands to be presidential control of policy down to the level of daily execution.  Rodman does not say this.  Rather, he analyzes the effectiveness of foreign policy-making in seven administrations to demonstrate the need for steady, personal presidential engagement at the top of the policy process.  Rodman recommends a system with a strong, loyal Secretary of State to direct the Department, and a security adviser on the Scowcroft model of fairness and trust as the President’s right arm.  The paramount factor in government, Rodman argues, is the character of people, above all that of the Commander-in-Chief.4

With regard to the character of people, Leebaert paints political appointees as zealous boobs, a caricature utterly divorced from reality.  My own experience in government confirms what common sense about human nature would suggest, namely, that career and political officials alike run the gamut from execrable to superb, with appointees, having experience in the world beyond government, generally being more adept at human relations.  The best and worst Ambassadors under whom I served were both political appointees.  The finest leader of people was a Civil Servant, but then he was originally a police officer.

Furthermore, the appointee system injects an element of democratic accountability into the policy process absent from the French elitist model.  If Americans view their present bureaucracy as too elite and detached, it is unlikely they would welcome the ministrations of mandarins from the Ecole Normale Superieure.  In any case, the record of European foreign policy in the twentieth century does not inspire confidence in elite rule.  America had to save Europeans from themselves twice, after all.

Finally, Leebaert’s remedy obscures the distinction between the executive function of foreign policy formulation and the diplomatic execution of that policy.  As Harold Nicolson once explained, making “foreign policy” in a democracy belongs to the Cabinet with the approval of representatives elected by the people.  The implementation of that policy, “diplomacy” or “negotiation,” should rest with professionals of experience and discretion.  Diplomats practice “the art of negotiating agreements in precise and ratifiable form.”5

1.  See Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism (New York:  Metropolitan Books, 2008); and Washington Rules:  America’s Path to Permanent War (New York:  Metropolitan Books, 2010); Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty:  A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2010); George F. Will, “Congress Can Keep Obama in Check,” Washington Post, 11/07/10.

2.  Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower:  America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York:  Public Affairs, 2010), p. 53.  Josef Joffe astutely appraises the accomplishments of America’s enlightened self-interest in “The Default Power:  The False Prophecy of America’s Decline,” Foreign Affairs (Sept./Oct., 2009), pp. 21-35.  Joffe asks, “Who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which for all its enormous appeal cannot take care of its own backyard?”

3.  Mandelbaum, p. 194.

4.  Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command:  Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).  In his superb Supreme Command:  Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime  (New York:  Anchor Books, 2002), Eliot Cohen makes a similar point regarding executive leadership in war.

5.  Harold Nicolson, Diplomacy, 2nd ed. (London:  Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 12, 101.

imageJohn W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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