Our Indispensable Man

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” goes the old saying, and who could argue? The sun rose this morning as it did yesterday and will again tomorrow. Life goes on, as always, for better and often for worse. But now it is a life bereft of the remarkable intellect and insight of Angelo Codevilla, a patriot who despised what he saw his country becoming and who sought to rouse and educate his fellow Americans to resist. 

Truly, he was our indispensable man. 

He was remarkable, too, for his energy. It isn’t quite correct to say he was indefatigable. At 78, he couldn’t help but slow down a bit. But this was a man who survived two heart transplants and a number of recent health challenges. Even when he was sick, he kept writing and working. 

Codevilla was a great teacher of international relations to many—including many of us who never sat in his Boston University classroom. He was also an underappreciated aphorist who could pack centuries of wisdom into a few words. “Competence and incompetence are nonpartisan.” “Impotence worsens contempt.” One of my favorites, which I used in several newspaper columns over the years, was “sanctions can be deadlier than atom bombs.”

He wrote or co-wrote 17 books, including one scheduled to be published next year by Encounter. But his most famous book is also his shortest. In 2010, Codevilla wrote an essay for the American Spectator titled “America’s Ruling Class,” with the subhead, “And the perils of revolution.” Its central thesis, which he continued to develop until the day he died, is that the United States now consists of two classes: the country class and the ruling class. The ruling class is the smaller class, but it holds outsized power and influence in government, and thus over us. The country class is, well, the country

His novel diagnosis in 2010 has become conventional wisdom on the Right today. The divide between the ruling class and the country class is at the heart of every political conflict of the past 25 years. It is the reason Republican and Democratic elected officials say one thing to their constituents and do another when it comes time to vote. It is the reason for the rise of both the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street. It is the reason for the unlikely electoral success of Donald Trump (of whom Codevilla could be quite critical when he needed to be).

The piece caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who still commanded a radio audience approaching 20 million nationwide. Limbaugh not only read the entire contents of “America’s Ruling Class” on the air over the course of his three-hour program, he spent the next four days discussing its implications. Codevilla expanded the essay into a book, to which Limbaugh contributed an introduction.

Codevilla came to believe that the ruling class had morphed into an out-and-out oligarchy—a transformation that accelerated during Trump’s time in office. 

What’s striking, however, is that as glum as Codevilla’s analysis could be—and it often was—he never lost faith in America and Americans. More than anything, the immigrant-turned-patriot wanted his countrymen to recognize that they had the power to reject the oligarchy and its demands of obedience. As he often liked to say, “Who the hell do they think they are?”

“Stop pretending,” he wrote earlier this year. “Realize that you enjoy the rights God gave you only to the extent that your fellow ex-citizens recognize them, and that your only hope of continuing enjoyment lies in leaguing with them, on turning your back on the oligarchy and on effectively living republican lives with similarly minded people.”

No Victory, No Peace

Contributing to the conventional wisdom, however, was not really Codevilla’s thing. He was among the few on the American Right who openly criticized George W. Bush’s conduct of the “Global War on Terror.” He was arguably the first to articulate why the United States had botched the war from the outset. In the first of a series of trenchant and prescient essays for the Claremont Review of Books, published just two months after the 9/11 attacks, Codevilla explained what victory in the war would look like, what exactly it would take to win—and why we were already losing.

As Codevilla wrote in the preface of the book that collected the first three years of those essays, he set out to write because it had occurred to him “the George W. Bush team’s failure to formulate a plan for victory was contrary to the principles of warfare. Its collective mind was muddled.” And what were those principles? Stated succinctly, the sole purpose of war is to produce and secure peace. Everything else flows from that.

“Common sense does not mistake the difference between victory and defeat: the losers weep and cower, while the winners strut and rejoice,” he wrote in his inaugural essay on the War on Terror. “The losers have to change their ways, the winners feel more secure than ever in theirs.” He continued:   

On September 12, retiring Texas Senator Phil Gramm encapsulated this common sense: ‘I don’t want to change the way I live. I want to change the way they live.’ Common sense says that victory means living without worry that some foreigners might kill us on behalf of their causes, but also without having to bow to domestic bureaucrats and cops, especially useless ones. It means not changing the tradition by which the government of the United States treats citizens as its masters rather than as potential enemies. Victory requires killing our enemies, or making them live in debilitating fear.

We did none of that—certainly the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their enablers in U.S. client states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, do not live in “debilitating fear.” And certainly, we’ve all seen who is weeping and who is strutting

Instead, as Codevilla pointed out 20 years ago, the United States adopted a three-pronged approach to a war that could never end, let alone end in victory. It hinged on better “homeland security,” greater intelligence capabilities, and the destruction of al-Qaeda.

“The first is impotent, counterproductive, and silly. The second is impossible. The third is misconceived and is a diversion from reality.” 

“Homeland security” assumed we were unable to tell the difference between friend and foe—and that the “enemy will never be defeated.” The result? “Unable to stop terrorists, Homeland Security will spend its time cracking down on those who run afoul of its regulations . . . By governing from behind security screens, America’s leaders today make our land less free and prove themselves less than brave.”  

Again, this was two decades before Congress erected an enormous fence around the Capitol for fear of an “insurrection” that wasn’t.

A keen student and interpreter of Machiavelli, Codevilla observed that U.S. policies invited not merely the hatred of our enemies but also their contempt, which is worse. A seemingly impotent superpower will eventually attract aggressors.

“In The Prince, Machiavelli points out that no defense is possible against someone who is willing to give up his life to kill another,” he wrote—an observation borne out by the real-world record of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. “In short, the cleverest, most oppressive defensive measures buy very little safety.”

Mostly, though, Codevilla thought the post-9/11 security measures were stupid. He had the gall to point out that September 11 had “ended forever the era of hijacking, and not because of the ensuing security. In fact, hijacking had become possible only because of U.S. policy.” How so? Well, thanks to pressure from the Left in the 1960s and exasperation from a rash of hijackings, the U.S. government redefined security as “disarming passengers.”  

“This succeeded,” he observed acidly, “in disarming everyone but hijackers.” 

In reality, Codevilla contended: 

[T]he first plane that hit the World Trade Center forever ended the free ride for hijackers by showing that the federal regulations exposed passengers to death. The passengers on United Airlines flight 93 violated the regulations (for which they technically could have been prosecuted—Remember: “you must comply with all federal regulations, posted signs and placards, and crew member instructions”) and attacked the hijackers, who unfortunately were already at the controls of the plane. Had they disobeyed minutes before, they would have saved themselves. Since then, a few incidents aboard aircraft have shown that the only function that henceforth a sky marshal might be able to perform would be to save a would-be hijacker from being torn apart by the passengers.

Don’t Mistake “Intelligence” for Intelligence

He was even more scathing in his assessment of the U.S. “intelligence community,” about which he knew plenty. As a former naval intelligence officer, senate intelligence committee staffer, and academic, he understood better than almost anyone the purpose of intelligence gathering and why the United States is often so very bad at it

Long before the Global War on Terror, Codevilla had been a sharp critic of our intelligence agencies in general and the CIA in particular. He believed they were beholden to pernicious, progressive ideologies that corrupted their judgment and led them to see what they wanted to see, rather than what is. Besides, the CIA had a special problem: the occasional coup notwithstanding (usually in the wrong place and for the wrong reasons), they were more effective at playing diplomats than at actual spycraft.

“Human intelligence means human contact,” he wrote in 2001. “To make contact with terrorists, the CIA would have to operate the way the Drug Enforcement Agency does—becoming part of the drug business. But nobody at CIA knows how to do that, is capable of doing that, or wants to learn.” The FBI wasn’t much better, in Codevilla’s view: “[T]hey are cops who get pay raises not so much for accurate intelligence as for the number of people they put behind bars.”

What, then, is intelligence for?

“You should think of intelligence as [you would] of any other tool of statecraft, from infantry companies to diplomatic demarches,” he wrote in Advice to War Presidents in 2009. “How does this help me to focus America’s power on someone or something that, if overcome, will give us what we need? Above all, no lack of intelligence absolves you from the duty to act on whatever information you may have.”

When it came to counterterrorism, Codevilla argued “intelligence is useful only in the service of intelligent policy, that is, policy that aims at eliminating the people whose elimination would turn off the hose. But . . . the identity of such people is discoverable not by espionage but by intelligence in the ordinary meaning of the word.” 

But that was a little too unsophisticated for our intelligence mavens. Instead, as Codevilla noted after 9/11, the CIA “for want of sources of its own . . . has been accepting information on terrorism from the intelligence services of Syria and of Yasser Arafat’s PLO—outfits whose agendas could not be more opposed to America’s.”

Our Elusive Peace, Our Lost Victory

So the diagnosis: ill-conceived policies, directed at the wrong enemies, in the wrong places, lead naturally to bad results. What about the prescription? 

Our peace, our victory, requires bloody vengeance for the murder of some [3,000] innocent family members and friends—we seek at least as many deaths, at least as gory, not to appease our Furies, nor even because justice requires it. Vengeance is necessary to eliminate actual enemies, and to leave no hope for any person or cause inimical to America. Killing those people, those hopes, and those causes is the sine qua non of our peace—and very much within our power. 

“Our peace, our victory” did not require transforming Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other nation into Jeffersonian democracies. “Our peace, our victory” did not require resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Our peace, our victory” did not require promoting a “moderate” form of Islam, or making friends out of implacable enemies. Nor did “our peace, our victory” require us to establish some sort of preposterous New World Order. We have neither the power nor the right, he argued, to tell other peoples how they must live or what they must believe. 

“We can and must live permanently in a world of alien regimes and religions,” Codevilla wrote. “The mere difference in religion or mode of government does not mean that others will trouble our peace.” 

Of course, he added, “whether or not any foreign rulers make or allow war on America is a matter of their choice alone. We can talk, negotiate, and exercise economic pressure on rulers who trouble our peace. But if they make war on us we have no choice but to make war on them and kill them. Though we cannot determine who will rule, we surely can determine who will neither rule nor live.” (Emphasis added.) 

For Codevilla, victory in this particular war boiled down to the dictum, “It’s the regime, stupid.” 

He described al-Qaeda as “a sideshow” and said the Taliban of 2001 was “mostly irrelevant to America.” He focused instead on the regimes that made al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups possible. In particular: “Palestine’s Yasser Arafat, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Syria’s Assad family.” 

“Killing these regimes would be relatively easy, would be a favor to the peoples living under them, and is the only way to stop terrorism among us,” he wrote.

Killing a regime, Codevilla explained, didn’t mean bombing a country “back to the stone age.” Rather, it meant “killing their members in ways that discredit the kinds of persons they were, the ways they lived, the things and ideas to which they gave prominence, the causes they espoused, and the results of their rule . . . Clearly, it is impossible to kill any regime by killing its people indiscriminately . . . Killing must be tailored to political effect.”

But didn’t we kill at least one of those regimes? Yes, sort of—only to make a terrible mess of the aftermath. Of Iraq, Codevilla wrote over a year before the 2003 invasion, “After settling America’s quarrel, America should leave Iraq to the peoples who live there . . . How they may govern themselves, deal with one another and with their neighbors, is no business of ours.” That is, as long as the new Iraqi regime understood that “we would be ready to defend whatever interest of ours they might threaten.”

Instead, we adopted Colin Powell’s silly “Pottery Barn rule”: “You break it, you own it.” Powell, who was George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, told the president that if he invaded Iraq, “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”

Nonsense. Deadly, expensive nonsense

“Building viable new governments in foreign lands is extraordinarily difficult, and building wholly new regimes is nearly impossible,” Codevilla wrote in No Victory, No Peace. “Native regimes may change cultures over generations, but the notion that foreigners who cannot even speak the language can do it in a few years is a pipe dream.”

For such unflinching analysis, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz dubbed Codevilla (along with novelist Mark Helprin and my former editor at the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler) a “superhawk.” But unlike Podhoretz, who argued the United States should establish in Iraq (and, as Codevilla observed, “logically, elsewhere as well”) “temporary imperial control that would clear enough political space for sprouting of indigenous alternatives” to authoritarian rule, Codevilla had no time for nation-building. 

“Imperialism is a difficult, un-American art,” he wrote in 2002. “Neither Podhoretz nor I know of any Americans fit for or inclined to imperial service. We are also without any compelling set of teachings to impart that would cancel out the massive damage to local cultures that the ‘best and the brightest’ from our universities wrought when they sold [postwar Germany and Japan] secular socialism . . . Today, the fact that Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai lives surrounded by a praetorian guard of American troops augurs badly for ‘nation-building’ there.” 

Who could blame him for saying, in effect, see, I told you so?  

He Still Has Much to Teach Us 

Our indispensable man is gone. The crater his death leaves is massive, almost incomprehensible. I have barely begun to process it, and I was only his editor. I can only imagine how his family and closest friends must feel. 

If there is any consolation, however, it is that Codevilla left behind an immense body of work—work that in some cases has been unjustly neglected. Buy and read all of his books—especially The Character of Nations, which deserves greater acclaim than it has received. Read his essays, not just here but also in the Claremont Review of Books, the American Spectator, and at the American Mind.

The shopworn cliché of any remembrance is that we will never see his like again—that the man was one of a kind. Of course, all of us are “one of a kind.” But Angelo Codevilla was surely unique as a teacher. He left us a great many lessons. We are blessed to be able to return to those lessons, learn and re-learn from them, and carry on—even build upon—the work he did not live to finish. 

The man is gone, but after we grieve our loss, we can see to it that the teaching endures.


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About Ben Boychuk

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. He is a former weekly syndicated columnist with Tribune Media, and a veteran of several publications, including City Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and the Claremont Review of Books. He lives in California. Subscribe to his Substack newsletter, “Nice Things and Why You Can’t Have Them.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore