Book review: 'Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan' by Derek Leebaert

By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, October 10, 2010


The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan

By Derek Leebaert

Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $26

How refreshing to read a smart, polemical book that is deliciously rude to many grand poohbahs of our time while making good sense about the mess the United States now finds itself in across the globe. On these grounds alone Derek Leebaert deserves our gratitude. But with "Magic and Mayhem," he performs a greater service by ringing a persuasive alarm bell about the dangers inherent in our repeated attempts to put things right in countries we don't really understand and cannot control, from Korea six decades ago to Afghanistan right now. And he does it without any of the ideological tendentiousness so typical of our public debate these days.

The magical thinking of Leebaert's title is the recurring American self-deception that we have what it takes to persuade the peoples of foreign lands whose histories, cultures and traditions have little in common with ours to see and do things our way. So Dick Cheney, one of the poohbahs whom Leebaert gleefully eviscerates, promised us that "the [Iraqi] people will be so happy with their freedoms [after a U.S. invasion] that we'll probably back ourselves out of there within a month or two." Magical thinking.

The mayhem of Leebaert's title is what happens, like proverbial clockwork, when we allow magical thinking to take us into another far-flung adventure that doesn't pan out. So the lessons of Vietnam do not help us avoid the fiasco of Iraq, and the failures in Iraq somehow convince us to double down in Afghanistan. Leebaert doesn't dwell on the point, but these three unsuccessful American enterprises share one attribute: "Success" for the United States in all of them would require leadership from local politicians in the country we are "helping," who will conduct themselves intelligently, honorably, effectively and in ways that fulfill American aspirations. Good luck with that.

Leebaert builds on the category described by David Halberstam more than four decades ago, the best and the brightest. They were the wizards of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who took us into Vietnam and whom Halberstam skewered in his book of that name. Leebaert sees that Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor and the rest were early examples of what has become a permanent feature of our national security elite: "emergency men," eager to show their strength and resolve by launching new foreign adventures. Typically, he writes, they succumb to "the illusion that America as Lone Ranger can set the world right." He adds: "Emergency men regard themselves as personally wearing the badge." So Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney and the hapless Jerry Bremmer, who presided with dizzying incompetence over the initial American occupation of Iraq, are members of a long chain of similar figures, our masters of mayhem. Leebaert worries that Gen. David Petraeus, now our commander in Afghanistan, will fall into this category as well.

"We can safely conclude," Leebaert writes, after making the case convincingly, "that the American foreign policy establishment is not up to the task of world leadership as posed by the country's far-flung political and military involvements." Who could refute this judgment? What evidence do we have to the contrary? Leebaert's idea of a better approach would combine fewer global commitments and a larger, smarter professional foreign service and civil service, with fewer political appointees to pursue new global enthusiasms every four or eight years. No architect of the Iraq war spoke Arabic or had experienced life in the Middle East, he notes -- a pattern evident in our earlier disasters. Neither McNamara nor Bundy knew anything about Asia, let alone Vietnam. Instead of pretending we know it all, Leebaert argues, why not develop a cadre of real specialists who will know enough to keep us out of trouble?

This book is lively and engaging, in no way a policy wonk's tome. Some readers will be annoyed by the author's presumption to know it all. This can be simultaneously very entertaining, as when he slices Henry Kissinger into ribbons, but frustrating when he passes a definitive judgment that seems dead wrong. This reader was exasperated by repeated references to the Soviet Union that seemed far wide of the mark. For example, Leebaert calls the U.S.S.R. of the 1980s "the same rigid monolith as in the 1930s," though the U.S.S.R. of the '80s, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, was the very antithesis of a "rigid monolith" and ended with the Soviet Union falling apart.

So you won't agree with Leebaert about everything -- no matter. If you can't disprove his large thesis, then you confront this painful conclusion: We have squandered tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars on foolish attempts to remake a world we simply cannot guide. And we're still doing it.

Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, covered the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union for this newspaper.

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