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The mule and the lamb

Next decade challenge | George Friedman offers a compelling analysis of the next decade internationally, but he doesn't take into account the most powerful force of all

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

George Friedman-CEO of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), sometimes called "the Shadow CIA"-may be the most brilliant writer on foreign policy since Niccolo Machiavelli. His new book, The Next Decade, which Doubleday plans to publish on Jan. 25, lucidly lays out the international challenges that U.S. presidents face. I've read Friedman books and Stratfor reports, dined with him half a dozen times, and see him as a genius "under the sun," as Ecclesiastes would put it-but he doesn't account for the Son.

Let's begin comparing a Christian view of the world to Friedman's by starting where Friedman starts: theater. He lifts the curtain on The Next Decade with a quotation from Ronald Reagan: "We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent." He notes that the 40th president was decisively shrewd in his battle with the Soviet empire but content to let his liberal opponents characterize him as an amiable dunce: Reagan's best acting role came in the White House, and Friedman contends that every president needs to be a thespian.

Friedman argues that current American debate about "whether the United States should be an empire is meaningless. It is an empire"-and on that he's right. Friedman's understanding of the previous world empire, the British one, is also acute: "Old-school imperialists didn't rule by main force. Instead, they maintained their dominance by setting regional players against each other. . . . The lesson we should have learned from the British is that there are far more effective, if cynical, ways to manage wars in Asia and Europe. One is by diverting the resources of potential enemies away from the United States and toward a neighbor."

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Let me state that proposition more nastily than any support-seeking president or author ever would, publicly: The goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to have ambitious leaders, and their human puppets, kill each other so they don't kill Americans. For that purpose a president should work to "create alliances in which the United States maneuvers other countries into bearing the major burden of confrontation or conflict."

Friedman says the "Machiavellian president" we need should be "a master at managing illusions," able to "conduct a ruthless, unsentimental foreign policy" by playing "to the public's sentimentality while moving policy beyond it." Friedman criticizes both Presidents Bush and Obama not for speaking in high-minded ways-that's part of their job description-but for engaging in "ad hoc adventures . . . as if they believed their own rhetoric."

An effective president, Friedman argues, maintains "a ruthless sense of proportion while keeping the coldness of his calculations to himself." Is he immoral? No, Friedman says: "The realities of geopolitics do not give presidents the luxury of exercising virtue in the way we think of it when applied to ordinary citizens."

Friedman proposes "a definition of virtue that violates our common notions of what virtue is." Truth-telling? The virtuous president will lie. Loyalty to those who have trusted us? "The United States made promises to Georgia [the ex-Soviet republic in the Caucasus] that it now isn't going to keep. But when we look at the broader picture, this betrayal increases America's ability to keep other commitments." Compassion toward the suffering in places such as Africa? Fine for some to be charitable if they give intelligently, but Friedman's chapter heading is "AFRICA: A PLACE TO LEAVE ALONE. . . . Ultimately, the United States has no overwhelming interest in Africa."

Friedman's ideal president seems a little like the Empress Jadis and Uncle Andrew (in C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew) justifying their selfishness by saying, "Ours is a high and lonely destiny"-except that a U.S. president really is high and lonely. Friedman is not lustily advocating immorality: He writes, "The moral compass must be there, but it points in many directions." He's advocating the morality of a general who sacrifices some soldiers so that others may live. He's advocating the morality of Abraham Lincoln who spoke of binding up the nation's wounds but in 1864 was "doing the arithmetic" of wounding and killing: If thousands of Union soldiers (who could be replaced) die and take into their graves thousands of Confederates (who could not be), the North wins.

Friedman loves America, the country that gave him shelter at age 3 after his parents, Holocaust survivors, escaped from Hungary in 1949 (see "Shadow wonk," WORLD, Jan. 31, 2009). Like Lincoln, he wants the United States to act forcefully to survive: "During war, understanding power means that crushing the enemy quickly and thoroughly is kinder than either extending the war through scruples or losing the war through sentimentality." The United States must unblinkingly do what it should do to survive and thrive: "The unsentimental approach means breaking free of the entire Cold War system of alliances and institutions, including NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations."

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