Advice to War Presidents

A Remedial Course in Statecraft


By Angelo Codevilla

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“War presidents” are hardly exceptional in modern American history. To a greater or lesser extent, every president since Wilson has been a War President. Each has committed our country to the pursuit of peace, yet involved us in a seemingly endless series of wars — conflicts that the American foreign policy establishment has generally made worse. The chief reason, argues Angelo Codevilla in Advice to War Presidents, is that America’s leaders have habitually imagined the world as they wished it to be rather than as it is: They acted under the assumptions that war is not a normal tool of statecraft but a curable disease, and that all the world’s peoples wish to live as Americans do. As a result, our leaders have committed America to the grandest of ends while constantly subverting their own goals.

Employing many negative examples from the Bush II administration but also ranging widely over the last century, Advice to War Presidents offers a primer on the unchanging principles of foreign policy. Codevilla explains the essentials — focusing on realities such as diplomacy, alliances, war, economic statecraft, intelligence, and prestige, rather than on meaningless phrases like “international community,” “peacekeeping” and “collective security.” Not a realist, neoconservative, or a liberal internationalist, Codevilla follows an older tradition: that of historians like Thucydides, Herodotus, and Winston Churchill — writers who analyzed international affairs without imposing false categories.

Advice to War Presidents is an effort to talk our future presidents down from their rhetorical highs and get them to practice statecraft rather than wishful thinking, lest they give us further violence.


To the memory of Bryan Wells,
whose heart beats within me since May 20, 2004

Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
—JESUS, LUKE 23:24

Can't anybody here play this game?
This book outlines the essentials of international affairs—diplomacy, alliances, war, economic statecraft, intelligence, and prestige (nowadays called "soft power")—by contrasting them with the too convenient constructs current in American discourse. I treat the G. W. Bush Administration's incompetence in foreign policy as resulting from just another mixture of our twentieth-century statesmen's factions and faults.1 Drawing examples from 1914 to today, I show how our statesmen have substituted imagination for the realities of statecraft. What I say may strike many as novel, because common sense about diplomacy, war, and statecraft is uncommon nowadays. When our statesmen call for new ideas, they generally want fresh excuses for conventional wisdom. I offer none here.


The century that began in 1914 and has yet to end has been a time of continuous war, more or less hot. The cooler 1920s and 1990s incubated the more intense disorders that followed. Presidents and their advisers have thrown America's mighty weight around the world's balances. America's armed forces won nearly all their battles, and America's Soviet enemy died of its congenital disorders. But the American people found themselves ever less secure as our statesmen lost peace after peace. Losing the peace your country fought for means you lost the war. Nothing you can say, no status or credentials, can relieve you of that. Losing wars while winning battles is hard and rare. Yet American presidents and their advisers have managed to do just that for nearly a century. This requires explanation. This book is about dissecting ruinous counsel about war and peace. In the course of clearing rubbish, I hope to uncover sound principles and distill them into advice for future war presidents.
Modern American incompetence about war and peace has deep roots. As our century opened, Woodrow Wilson disdained the straightforward task of keeping Germany from dominating our seas as well as Europe's land and instead sacrificed 117,000 Americans to the chimera of ending all wars. In the process, he spawned a language about foreign affairs that has never ceased to confuse. Nor have post-World War I arrangements ceased to kill. Franklin Roosevelt refused to rearm as Nazi Germany and imperial Japan rose. He spoke in soporific generalities until after France had fallen. Then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt out-Wilsoned Wilson by telling Americans that the victory of something called the United Nations (UN) would forever cleanse the world of "ancient evils, ancient ills." He placed America's eggs in Stalin's basket and kept them there after the danger had become the Soviet Union's rise, not its fall. Only in Japan did America gain the peace our arms had won, because Douglas MacArthur—a throwback to the statesmanship of common sense—kept Washington's wise men and the Soviets at bay in Tokyo. But in Korea, rid of MacArthur's simple idea of victory, Washington sent 50,000 Americans to die in a "police action" by which President Truman intended "to avoid a wider war." John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon sacrificed another 50,000 Americans in Vietnam believing, as Lyndon Johnson said, "there is no victory in Vietnam, for anyone." (The North Vietnamese soldier who drove his tank through the US embassy gate in Saigon in 1975 thought differently.) Thus did the "best and brightest" statesmen of the age lose America that war.
Twenty years later, as the Soviet monster was self-destructing, George Bush I did his best to keep it alive. In 1991 Bush I also sent troops to the Persian Gulf. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he did so for the sake of what he imagined was a "New World Order." Yet like Roosevelt he spawned the opposite. Nor was America at peace under Bush and Clinton even where its troops were not fighting, because our government was advising, aiding, or just hectoring inconclusively in all the world's quarrels. Bush II, for his part, met the ensuing terror and disorders by declaring war on nobody in particular, explaining in 2005 that America had to make the entire world "free" as a precondition of preserving its own freedom. Peace suffered as well as freedom. Even Woodrow Wilson would have gasped.
So must common sense. Our century's Americans have had to fight too much and gotten so little peace because presidents and their advisers have run the business of war and peace in disregard of basic skills, and have done so in a language foreign to reality. In international affairs, as in anything else, Vince Lombardi's teaching holds true: The difference between winners and losers lies in basic skills, like blocking and tackling. Theodore Roosevelt stated those fundamentals succinctly: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The following pages show how the illusions that make up today's "mainstream thinking" foul up diplomacy, economics, wars, intelligence, and prestige (or soft power)—the international equivalents of blocking and tackling. They are written as a primer for presidents who may wish to fire failed coaches and get back to basics.


The US foreign policy establishment has remained recognizably itself for most of a century. Its leaders in 2010 trace their intellectual, social, and career lineages to the ideas, men, and foundations of Wilson's time a century ago. It is no exaggeration, for example, to say that Elihu Root (early century) begat Henry Stimson (early to midcentury), who begat McGeorge Bundy (late mid), who begat Anthony Lake (late twentieth to twenty-first). The American people have been unhappy with their work: disillusioned by the Great War's results, angry and suspicious about why World War II ended with most of the world in the hands of enemies, mad as hell about Korea and Vietnam, and puzzled by their nation's impotence in the face of terrorists. But after each debacle, the makers of our foreign policies have closed ranks, and America's universities, foundations, and media have continued to accredit them. This establishment has marginalized discussion of its failures because, despite divisions on details, its main components have cast discussion of international affairs in the language and assumptions of the early twentieth century's Progressive movement. All of this century's presidents have surrounded themselves with various mixtures of what today we call Liberal Internationalists, Realists, and Neoconservatives—"schools" that have far more in common than separates them.
"Liberal Internationalists" such as the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., believing that mankind's problems have technocratic solutions, want to put America's muscle at the service of international institutions. They want to make the world look like the European Union, where experts ensure a modicum of prosperity and a maximum of leisure by making political differences irrelevant and banishing thoughts of God. For them, as for Wilson, America has no interest distinct from that of mankind. They suppose that all peoples want the same things and should get them through liberal recipes, administered by an international community of persons like themselves, and financed by the US treasury. Thus Harvard's Stanley Hoffman proposed a "world steering committee."2 You may imagine that in addition to himself he would have placed on it Anthony Lake, a liberal perennial from the 1960s, National Security Adviser to President Clinton in the 1990s, and to President Barack Obama in 2009, who defined himself as "neo-Wilsonian."3 Placing US troops under UN command was a hallmark of his and Clinton's tenure.
Others, such as Joshua Muravchik, labeled "Neoconservatives," want to shape foreigners according to the US national interest.4 This emphasis on the national interest would seem to set them apart from Liberals and Wilson. But the difference is superficial because for them that interest lies largely in transforming the world's regimes into democracies, which, once accomplished, is supposed to make foreign nations and their interests more and more alike, more and more like us, less and less foreign. They see democracy itself as the spontaneous harbinger of the very peace and progress and obviation of politics that Liberal Internationalists want to engineer. Their vision of modernity is as secular and materialistic as that of other Progressives. As for peace, while Neoconservatives maintain that regimes can be mortal enemies, they agree with Liberal Internationalists that peoples themselves cannot be. Neoconservatives are somewhat more willing to use force than Liberals, but they share a distaste for the traditional distinction between war and peace.
For "Realists" in big business and in the foreign affairs bureaucracies such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, enlightened self-interest rules the world—even when it does not. Whereas Liberals and Neoconservatives believe that administration and democracy, respectively, must lead the world to peace and prosperity—and to nations' behaving as the United States would like—Realists are confident that all this will inevitably happen as governments adjust their interests. For them then, mankind's chief common interest is moderation, because it makes possible all necessary adjustments. As Liberals think that all well administered peoples are alike and Neoconservatives that all democrats are alike, Realists think that all "moderates" are essentially alike. To promote moderation, they are just as eager as Liberals and Neoconservatives to banish considerations of right and wrong, of honor, as well as ancient traditions and passions. Whereas the others disbelieve in war out of their own visions of progress, Realists disbelieve in war because they imagine that all must find it as inconvenient as they do. Hence for them the acme of success is getting along with foreign governments—and the more troublesome, the greater the need to get along. The signature of American Realist foreign policy has been deference to Russia's, China's, and the Arab world's regimes.
Far from being diverse, this establishment is unanimous on the essentials: All its parts want to reform, to teach, to stabilize—somehow to better—the world, to remake it in their image of America: secular, peaceful, orderly, emancipated, and cosmopolitan. Moreover, each imagines that the rest of mankind shares their own twist on those concepts. Each wants America to "lead the world" by identifying its interests and values with those of mankind. Believing that mankind's desire for peaceful pleasant living overrides its divisions into civilizations and nations, each faction of the establishment is confident that the old rules of statecraft are irrelevant to our time. Because these elites are committed to spreading peace and prosperity even as they wield the instruments of coercion, they would not force their visions onto the world. Hence they all combine big words and plentiful carrots with small sticks.
But note: This joint vision of the world is as narrow and peculiar as that of the remotest Tibetan lamasery.


Our statesmen's formulae cannot grasp the world. Imagining that administration can substitute for politics (as if politics could be banished from the distribution of goods) has not prevented the Liberal Internationalists' creatures—the UN, the international lending institutions, the European Union itself—from being covens of corruption. In some cases Liberal projects, far from submerging ancient quarrels, have stoked them instead—as two generations' multibillion-dollar ventures in Palestinian affairs surely did. In Europe, Liberal statecraft has enervated the continent in the face of blackmail from Russia on energy and from the Middle East on immigration, and tries to make America ashamed of being otherwise.
The Neoconservative dream that democracy might make people good was dispelled by the converse reality: Democracy is what any people make it. Various peoples have freely and fairly chosen murderous governments and, indeed, have taken joy in murdering and degrading. Democracy must mirror the demos, and as the Nazi years showed, perverse regimes can lead even previously civilized people to support slaughter.
The Realist bet on "moderation"—the apolitical division of mankind into "moderates" and "extremists"—has obscured substantive questions of what anyone is moderate or extreme about. It has led to moderation in the pursuit of America's interests in the hope of thereby coaxing "extremists" into "moderation," to promoting moderation for its own sake, and to making to terrorists the kinds of concessions the Realists once made to the Soviets. America's enemies have found it just as easy to decipher the logic of "Realism" as to exploit the logic of our establishment's bets on Liberal administration and Neoconservative democracy.
The world transcends these Progressives' imagination. Our establishment offends foreigners by telling them not to care about the things they care about. Typically, a Washington insider described the clashes between Islam's Sunni and Shia as "kindergarten stuff they should get over." But that "stuff" is what they are about. Worse, fascination with others' quarrels diverted attention from America's interests.
The very words in which American Progressives' values are expressed are meaningless to most human beings. No amount of wishing can abstract from fact that we are one variety or another of Sinotic or North African or Negroid or European, break the molds in which our civilizations cast us, cancel the categories that our religions have stamped on our minds, make tasteful things that have revolted us since childhood, lessen our tribal aversions and affections, or reduce the relevance of the regimes in which we live. Our statesmen deny the relevance of differences—of other peoples' loves and hates, calculations and intrigues—treating all as if they were not foreign at all, confusing the human race with homo economicus californianus. But you must keep in mind that foreign relations are about dealing with foreigners—people whose identities and agendas are inalienably their own. Because this has ever been so, the art of international affairs developed as it did over millennia. Problem is, our establishment has largely set aside that art and created another to fit its own image.
When our statesmen have come a cropper operating by the rules and language of their collective imagination, they have not asked whether they should perhaps go back to fundamentals—understanding foreigners as they understand themselves, diplomacy and war as dictionaries define them and as history has embodied them. Rather, following Wilson's example, they have blamed their failures on the American people's narrow-minded reticence to follow their leaders patiently "for the long haul." While admitting imperfection, they have given themselves passing grades. But war gives only two grades: A and F.


Aristotle taught that just as a farmer's actions must be judged by how well he produces grain or fruit, victory is the natural purpose of war, and peace is the fruit of victory. Hence the statesman must ask, Is this the kind of peace we want? Does this action actually produce that? Speeches, "positions" about international affairs, and military expeditions must not be confused with statecraft any more than tractors, work, and wishes are to be confused with farming, or muscles and mouth with football.
The practical art of statesmanship, then, especially in war, consists of measuring the ends sought with the means necessary to achieve them. Twentieth-century American elites, however, have committed our country to the grandest of ends but have not measured them against the means necessary to achieve them—ends hazily imagined, and means they might not have used even if they had them. Instead of scaling up means or scaling down ends, they invented vocabularies to describe a fantasy in which the means with which they felt comfortable would suffice to remake the world. This meant abandoning the wisdom concerning peace, war, diplomacy, intelligence, prestige, and economics accumulated in our civilization over millennia. In the new, unprecedented world they imagined, any given instance of peace was not the product of a particular victory and arrangement of power but rather the absence of conflict. Diplomacy was not a set of tools but a substitute for force. Intelligence was not a matter of a few hidden details but a magic wand to uncover the secret to effortless success. Prestige was a reputation, not for being effective but for being pleasant. Wealth was not one of many elements of power but everyone's overriding purpose.
To be other than sorcerers' apprentices, American statesmen had better deal with reality as described in dictionaries. This book does not impose its own categories. It looks at international affairs as the interaction of individuals and groups who are what they are, want what they want, and do what they do. It is about the consequences of forgetting common-sense definitions: that diplomacy is mere communication, that international intercourse requires a positive imbalance of means over ends, that allies are available in inverse proportion to the need for them, and that war is the avenue to peace via the gateway of the enemy's death or submission.
The book's advice to American presidents in this continuing century of war is, above all, to keep it simple: to come down from rhetorical highs, to use words according to their ordinary meanings, and sharply to distinguish war from peace, lest they give us violence without end.

A Remedial Primer
Fine things are hard.
This book is a primer on the tools of statecraft. For many years I taught a course at Boston University on how states may use prestige, diplomacy, economics, subversion, and force to serve their ends.1 The course meant to introduce students to the tools of statecraft. Knowing what the tools can and cannot do, what handling and mishandling them means, is essential to practicing any art. The course consisted largely of putting students in contact with historic instances in which statesmen had used the tools correctly. But all too often, the thoughts and actions of current and recent American statesmen imposed themselves as negative counterpoints. Reasonably, students would ask: "Why do our leaders mess up so regularly?" This question led naturally to another: "Don't our top people know the basics of their jobs?" And since the question seemed to contain its own answer, it led to a more fruitful one: "What is the very least that anyone—President, legislator, adviser, or publicist—should know who handles or influences the handling of statecraft's deadly tools?"
This book is an answer to that question. It is a primer on wartime statecraft—neither definitive nor exhaustive. Just the basics. It is needed because our statesmen's errors are not ones of detail but rather proceed precisely from misunderstanding the basics. It is meant for people who are already acquainted with international affairs, often very well acquainted with well-accepted definitions of diplomacy and other instruments and with the standard recipes for using them, but who wonder why the recipes so often don't work. So this longtime professor set about explaining where current recipes come from and comparing them with the old standards in the field.
To explain each of statecraft's tools, the book treats them singly. And since statecraft is a practical art, the explanations consist largely of historical examples. But exemplary international events invariably involve many factors. That is why the book deals with exemplary events, e.g., the Peloponnesian war and the Cuban Missile Crisis several times, each time extracting the lessons they contain about a specific tool. So the diplomacy chapter mines the Cuban Missile Crisis' lessons for diplomacy while the intelligence chapter looks at the same incident from the standpoint of intelligence, and so forth. In the same way, the book describes the similarities and differences among the several "schools" of twentieth-century American statesmen as they manifest themselves in diplomacy, war, etc. It treats the same events several times, but from different perspectives.
This book does not recommend policies. Presidents and citizens are awash in White Papers stuffed with recipes for every imaginable problem. Nearly all are written in a language loaded with assumptions that are strange to reality. Rather, the book invites the reader to think of war and peace in terms that carry their ordinary, common-sense meaning. Thus it sheds light on the major intellectual benchmarks by which this century's Presidents and some of our most influential citizens gauge international affairs. It shows that these benchmarks, these axioms, these recipes, are not written in the stars, that it is not absolutely necessary for statesmen to behave as ours have during the last century. Indeed this primer argues that the art of statecraft and its tools set very different intellectual benchmarks.
To grasp anew the perennial instruments of statecraft we begin by examining the language, the words in which our statesmen have done our business since Wilson's time—terms that refer to things that exist only in their vocabulary, such as "collective security." Others, like "diplomacy," carry meanings different from those of standard dictionaries. Then, examining the axioms of their mentality, e.g., that mankind shares "universal human aspirations," we see that these have lethal consequences for whoever might try living by them. Thus having understood the materials out of which twentieth-century statesmen forged their tools, we look at those tools themselves. We grasp how they manage to confuse their own preferences for how nations should behave with the prestige that makes the difference when human passions clash. We see the practical consequences of regarding the medium of communication that is diplomacy as possessing thaumaturgic value apart from the substance of the messages conveyed. The same mentality leads them to regard money as a substitute for force rather than as its product. We note that the different ways in which they use the word "war" similarly ignore the reality that war really involves killing and cowing lots of people lest we lose our peace and our lives. We see in our statesmen's reverence for ever-more "intelligence" eagerness for putting off decisions, avoiding responsibility, and escaping hard choices. Finally, the same distaste for deciding who the enemy is and how to deal with him explains our government's passion for security—meaning for policing the general public as if all were equally likely to be enemies. By contrast, classic texts and America's experience teach that true security comes not from militarized policing but from civil society making sharp choices about friends and enemies.
Twentieth-century statesmen and academics vie to describe the problems of wartime statecraft as bewilderingly complex. But precisely because they are complex, the art of statecraft consists of simplifying them. Only if the statesman's axioms are congruent with reality, only when his objectives are clear and feasible, when he knows what each tool in his kit can and cannot do is he then able to orchestrate them. So, since the statesman's task is to arrange disparate elements and forces to produce his desired result, his maxim should be: "Keep it simple!"

If language is not correct then what is said is not what is meant. If
what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done re-
mains undone. If this remains undone, then morals and acts deteri-
orate. If morals and acts deteriorate, justice will go astray. If
justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confu-
sion. Hence, there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This
matters above everything.
Calling things by their name, using words according to their ordinary meaning, anchors the mind to reality. But when reality is bitter, when the things that are differ from what we wish, we sugarcoat them with euphemisms or put our wishes' names on them. Thus hoping to transform our surroundings, we fool ourselves. Since the turn of the twentieth century, generations of American statesmen have so detested war's bloody realities, mankind's miseries and divisions, have been so confident of their capacity to cure them, that they have described them with words that presume cures. Each abstraction or euphemism distorts an unpleasant fact of life, makes impossible things seem possible, unmanageable ones seem manageable. The sum of them shields our statesmen's axioms against common sense. Language that falsifies international life alienates our statesmen from the arts of statecraft.1
America's Founders wrote of statecraft in a language that was cold, precise, discriminating, and moralizing—a language that reflected basic choices between war and peace, life and death, freedom and slavery, honor and cowardice, fear and interest. In The Federalist #6, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. . . . The causes of hostility between nations are innumerable." He reminded his readers, to whom it was "generally known," that much of Europe's contemporary turmoil was due to common human failings, including "the bigotry of one female, the petulancies of another and the cabals of a third." His point was: "Have we not seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to societies of every shape?" Moreover, America's Founders felt acutely the fragility of America's own moral character. That character was certainly George Washington's paramount concern, as he stressed in his letters to Congress from the fighting fronts, in his first Inaugural Address, and in his Farewell Address. Bluntly, the Founders referred to North African potentates as pirates and pests, and discussed dispassionately the costs and benefits of bribing or annihilating them. Reading our statesmen's words from Washington to William Seward you get used to moral judgments mixed with arguments over ends and means. You see no euphemisms, and get the sense that these statesmen thought about foreign affairs in continuing conversation with the ancients and with the basic texts of the craft.


  • Publishers Weekly
    “Accessible… Codevilla writes intelligently on topics as diverse as the affect of economic sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s and contemporary relations between Russia and Georgia.”

    Library Journal
    “Veteran international relations author Codevilla…questions basic assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson tried to make the world safe for democracy… Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.”

    American Spectator
    “Machiavelli could not have written a better book to give advice to ‘war presidents.'”

    Claremont Review
    “Compelling reading… bracing and intelligent.”
    “[An] expansive and important work…[Advice to War Presidents] should be required reading for Senators and their staff as an essential primer to the arcane world of arms control.”

    First Principals
    “A refreshingly unashamed conservative critique of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy, especially with regard to war and the use of force.”

On Sale
Mar 24, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Angelo Codevilla

About the Author

Angelo M. Codevilla has taught political theory and international relations at Stanford, Princeton, and Georgetown University and is presently a professor of international relations at Boston University. He is the author of nine books, including The Character of Nations, The Arms Control Delusion, and a new translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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