The political philosopher Angelo Codevilla was taken from us on September 21, at a time when America has particular need of him. No one I have known combined such ferocious contempt for hypocrisy and incompetence with such generosity of spirit. He was, as the Bible qualified the patriarch Jacob, tam: open and unpretentious, naïve in his devotion to principle and his openness to political friendship, an unflinching ally in the political equivalent of a bar fight, a mentor of unfailing generosity to young scholars and activists. A distinguished translator of Machiavelli, Codevilla was the least Machiavellian person I ever encountered at a high level of policy.
Born in Italy and brought to America in adolescence, Codevilla combined a profoundly European sensibility with deep love for his adopted home. This love did not inhibit his ability to see America's flaws. This country's reigning ideology was the Progressivism of the turn of the 19th century, Codevilla argued in his 2014 book To Make and Keep Peace, and this ideology infused the main schools of foreign policy: “liberal progressive,” “realist,” and “neoconservative.”
As Codevilla wrote:
All regard foreigners as yearning for American leadership. Their proponents regard foreigners as mirror images of themselves, at least potentially. Liberal internationalists see yearners for secular, technocratic development. Neoconservatives see budding democrats, while realists imagine peoples inclined to moderation….Different emphases notwithstanding, there is solid consensus among our ruling-class factions that America’s great power requires exercising responsibility for acting as the globe’s “policeman,” “sheriff,” “umpire,” “guardian of international standards,” “stabilizer,” or “leader”—whatever one may call it.
His ideal foreign policy president was John Quincy Adams, who famously declared that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to slay.
American narcissism cut across ideologies and united ostensible political opponents in support for policies with baleful consequences: for example, the nearly unanimous support for the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the abortive “Arab Spring” in 2011. Never were the seemingly divergent schools of American policy so united as when they were most egregiously in error. Codevilla saw through the patina of ideology to the narcissism underneath it. He was far too informed a Thomist to give credence to the jejune appeals of American conservatives to “natural law” or “natural rights” in support of Progressive foreign policy.
Codevilla spent years in the political wilderness, one of a minority of dissenters from the George W. Bush Administration’s determination to make the world safe for democracy. The political revolt inside the Republican party found in Codevilla a fearless and fiery tribune, and his writing reached a broad audience during the past decade through the Claremont Institute, where he was a senior fellow. A celebrated 2010 essay denouncing what he called America’s ruling class launched him into the public spotlight (at the time, I noted the essay in this publication).
Codevilla believed in avoiding wars if possible and winning them if they could not be avoided. He disdained the postwar twilight of “No-win war, no peace.” He had a special disdain for the conceit that war could be reduced to a science via game theory. In this reading, Codevilla wrote in 2014, “international affairs are contests between interchangeable units,” each seeking to maximize gains and minimize losses “within an inescapable matrix of choices.” The point of the ensuing “game theory” was to show the irrationality of the United States pursuing other than an accommodation with the Soviet Union.
If Codevilla had done no more than play the part of Jeremiah, we would remember him with gratitude. But he was much more than a scholar or pundit; he also was one of the canniest and most effective intelligence officials that the United States produced in the postwar period, most prominently as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee during 1979-1985. He was offered senior positions at the Central Intelligence Agency more than once, but preferred the role of an outside monitor of U.S. intelligence to the constraints of the intelligence community.
Secrecy, he argued, is the most-abused privilege in government, because it allows intelligence agencies to cover up their errors. Codevilla knew where most of the bodies were buried, and showed no fear or favor as a critic of the intelligence establishment. His last published article (to my knowledge) appeared at American Mind:
What did the US government actually do in Afghanistan and Iraq? Only the things it really cares to or knows how to do—namely, richly to hire its favorite people to try reshaping mankind in their own image.
Since WWII, whether in the name of anti-communism, anti-terrorism, democracy, or humanitarianism, it’s always the same: dismiss the substance of local quarrels; recast the local scene in terms of American elites’ concerns; find locals who agree, and form “coalition governments” that, supposedly, represent the people’s aspirations, regardless of what these might be; send in the American experts on everything from education to women’s rights, with their recipes and their billions of dollars; and treat as terrorists any locals who disagree strongly.
To the end he displayed a fresh perspective and an eagerness to examine problems from a new vantage point. We will miss his sage counsel, his moral outrage, and his profound love of the West and of his adopted country.
David P. Goldman is a columnist at Asia Times.
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Photo taken from a video lecture at the Hoover Institution.