Angelo Codevilla is not a household name, unless you’re a student of international affairs and military history. In that world, he's a certified rock star. Born in Italy in 1943, he immigrated to the United States as a child. He became a U.S. citizen and eventually earned a Ph.D. and began an academic career. In 1977, he joined the U.S. foreign service and quickly moved to Capitol Hill, where he served on the staff of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.
He was instrumental in the development of President Ronald Reagan’s signature program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was derided by its detractors as a fantasy, but many historians believe it helped to bring an end to the nuclear arms race the United States had been waging with the Soviet Union for more than 40 years.
Codevilla has written more than a dozen books on national defense and statesmanship, some of which are considered classics in their field. I talked with Codevilla about his latest book, To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations.
Can you explain your assertion early in your new book: that “to make and keep peace” is the chief end of statesmanship?
It is the end of statesmanship, just as the end of plowing a field is not the plowing itself, but rather the crops that you get out of the field. You don’t deal with other nations in order just to do the dealing. You deal with them in order to keep yourself out of trouble with them, to have as little trouble with them as possible, and to be able to pursue your life at home as best you can. You don’t want to do things to them or with them, except insofar as is necessary for you to live your life as you want at home. …
History shows that one of the worst things you can do for your own domestic peace is to have long-term wars that don’t end very quickly. Such wars tend to foster strife at home. War abroad is not only deadly in its own sense, but it’s also hard on your domestic strife.
What’s the genesis of full title of To Keep and Make Peace Among Ourselves and All Nations? Those are the words that are the end of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, the words that are carved in his memorial. Lincoln spoke those words precisely because war at home was just coming to an end, and it had been a terrible thing, and he wanted to reaffirm that the purpose of statesmanship is precisely to have peace above all at home.
In your book, you often qualify the use of the word “peace.” You say “peace that is consistent with the American character,” or sometimes “peace that is according to our definition of peace, and not someone else's definition of peace imposed upon us.” That, of course, is what wars are all about: between contrasting visions of peace. [It’s] a given of human life that there will be conflicting interests, conflicting desires. Sometimes those desires can only be resolved by violence, and the end of that violence is according to someone’s will and against that of the others. It is a question of whose peace will prevail. … Now, as regards peace and the American character, we want not just to have a country, but a country of a certain kind. We always have to keep in mind what kind of peace we want, what kind of people we want to be, and what are we willing to fight for.
What would be your solution to the current wars that we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan? We have begun to fight these wars without first figuring out who it is that is the problem, whose elimination would give us the peace we want. Right after 9/11, the CIA and the Bush administration following it decided that somehow this thing called al-Qaeda, a bunch of Arabs in Afghanistan, were the problem. So we set out to attack them and people like them.We have basically … either killed or imprisoned all of them, including Osama bin Laden, and it has made no difference. It has not improved our situation, simply because these people were not the problem. The problem was that the powers in places like the Palestinian authority, Iraq, and above all, Saudi Arabia and the [Persian] Gulf, these people were fermenting and are fermenting anti-Americanism. They are mobilizing the entire Muslim world against us. If we wanted to stop this, we would face the rulers of these places with their responsibility, and simply make clear to them that if they did not police their counties, we would go after them. We would not simply put drones on a whole bunch of terrorist foot soldiers. We would go after the leaders of the countries because we cannot police those countries. They are the only ones who can police those countries.
Given that, what would your solution be for Afghanistan? Afghanistan was even less consequential for terrorism in general than the Arab world. Afghanistan, of course, is not part of the Arab world. It’s part of the Muslim world. I actually had some experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s. I can tell you, like anybody else who has ever been there, that this is a place, and certainly was such a place before we got there, that was as isolated from the rest of the world as any other part of the world could possibly be. It is cut up into countless little valleys, all of them inhabited by people whose concerns don’t go outside of the valleys. The Afghan people themselves were not at all responsible for any kind of terrorism against the United States. They had hosted some folks from the Arab world who were involved with terrorism, but that's all.
The mistake that we made in Afghanistan, to try to make that into a nation, was an even bigger mistake that we made with regard to Iraq. Because Afghanistan, of course, is not a nation, never was a nation, and really cannot be one. Not only does it have about five major ethnic groups, each of which speaks its own language, but each of those ethnic groups is divided into countless little sub-tribes, which have very little to do with each other.
For us to try to meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanistan was quite foolish. It made some sense to go and kill the Arabs who from Afghanistan had waged terrorism abroad. That made sense, and we did it the right way in 2001. We helped two tribes, the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, defeat the Pashtun who had been ... some of whom had been harboring the Arabs. But then to stay there and try to reform that country … was a fool’s errand.
What would be your solution to the war on terror? Where do we go from here? What I would say is that American troops will go to any country only for the purpose of killing the leaders of that country who have transgressed against the United States of America, and for no other purpose. I would serve notice upon the leaders of the Muslim world that any act that we consider dangerous to us will be followed by a swift and deadly move against them. Not by any occupation, not by putting any Americans in the position to get their legs blown off on roads as they go up and down, but rather by classical military operations, swiftly aimed at foreign leaderships.
If we did what you propose, what do you think would happen? Would the mere threat of destruction be enough, or would we have to go in there and accomplish that? We have, over the past generation, made an awful lot of threats that we have not carried out, and that means that sooner or later we're going to have to carry one out in order for us to be believed. That is tragic, but we have earned a bad reputation for fecklessness, and such a reputation is not shed easily. … The very worst thing that has happened among us is the establishment of this huge Homeland Security apparatus, which is made to order for use by people in power against the people they like least. We have posed temptations to people in power, which those people will surely take. Human beings cannot be so tempted and be expected not to succumb to the temptation. There’s a reason why we pray lead us not into temptation, because we are weak human beings, and we succumb to temptations.
Are you hopeful that America will once again find its will, or will we continue in this fecklessness? I have very little hope that our statesmen will learn these lessons. They are full of themselves, and they have only contempt for the common sense of the American people. I am very hopeful that the American people will understand. ... As a matter of fact, as far as I know, the American people do understand the simple logic of peace and war that says that you earn the peace that you have.
Hear the remainder of Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Angelo Codevilla, including Codevilla’s recommendations for Syria and Ukraine, on Listening In: