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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.
Writing explicitly for an audience that is already familiar with international affairs, Codevilla (The Character of Nations) draws on examples from ancient Greece through the Iraq War to provide a road map for future foreign policy in this accessible but didactic book. In a series of chapters arranged thematically around concepts that include the language of politics and the effectiveness of diplomacy, the author takes issue with the realist, liberal nationalist and neoconservative schools of thought and their "ruinous counsel" that dominates contemporary international politics, instead advocating a commonsense approach that emphasizes mastering the basic skills of diplomacy and statecraft. Codevilla appeals to the Monroe Doctrine and 19th-century American approaches to foreign affairs while condemning contemporary policy that he believes has failed to secure a lasting peace. 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, but his highly critical style can sometimes be abrasive.