As I mentioned previously, I enjoyed Derek Leebaert’s earlier Cold War history, The Fifty Year Wound, so I was pleased to be sent a courtesy review copy of his latest work, Magic and Mayhem:The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan. Leebaert, a professor of government who teaches foreign policy at Georgetown university, does not disapoint; Magic and Mayhem is a lively and highly provocative excoriation of of the dysfunctional political culture of making foreign and national security policy in America. While I found many fine points of disagreement with Leebaert in Magic and Mayhem, his broad themes constitute a healthy challenge to a dolorous status quo in Washington.
In Leebaert’s view, American foreign policy suffers from being crafted under two related evils: a culture of “magical thinking” and a cadre of professional alarmists, the “Emergency Men” who constitute a kind of self-appointed, adrenalin-addicted, national security ecclesia who exploit the magical thinking of the public and labor under its delusions themselves. It is this dual embrace of ends without a priori examination of means or ways and a lust for action that leads our foreign policy elite to embrace all manner of costumed charlatans with polished English language skills who are allegedly willing and able to be America’s “partner” in dangerous neignorhoods. From South Korean autocrats to African kleptocrats to figures of a more recent vintage. Leebaert writes:
Afghan president Hamid Karzai, with his Western-style technocrats and talk of democracy, was immensely appealing to Washington after the Taliban was ousted. For more than seven years, reports the Times Dexter Filkins, Karzai was a “White House favorite – a celebrity in a flowing cape and dark grey fez” a dramatic outfit that he had designed himself but that had no origin in Afghani dress…..
….”We thought we had found a miracle man” moaned one diplomat. On closer inspection, the sorcerer proved unconvincing as the opium trade and corruption flourished.
I have always wondered where the hell that cape came from.
Leebaert takes aim at a wide variety of targets. I definitely do not agree with his assessments of everything and everyone who has caught his ire, but it is a list that is breathtaking in expanse; a parade of names and terms that includes, but is not limited to:
John F. Kennedy
George W. Bush
Revolution in military affairs
Thomas P.M. Barnett
US Public Diplomacy
That, by the way, was not comprehensive.
It would be a much shorter list to cite those statesmen of whom Leebaert approved – men like Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Matthew Ridgway, Omar Bradley, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Schultz and Ronald Reagan. The book is not flawless. There are minor factual errors. Not every person or doctrine in Magic and Mayhem is considered in depth. At times, Leebaert comes across as glib or superficial in his criticism, but predominantly, as with the cases of Kissinger or Rumsfeld, his bitter jeremiads are skewering their targets.
Leebaert argues for a considered retreat from policy alarmism and the cult of emergency, and for a reduction of ambitious American policy grandiosity that would flow from recognizing and respecting the agency of other nation’s leaders and peoples. Implicitly, a call not so much for isolationism, as for restraint and a sense of proportion, coupled with a dimunition of status and power for national security “celebrities” and the cottage industry of think tank consultancy for which they stand.
Magic and Mayhem is a book that was written to demystify shibboleths and smash idols.