After American forces prevailed in the first Gulf War in 1991, our Air Force claimed to have located Saddam Hussein. President George H.W. Bush was offered the chance to “take him out,” but refused. As Angelo put it, “He would kill the draftees, not the drafter.”
That line touched the core of what Angelo would teach about foreign policy, the purpose of military power, and the nature of the political order. And it was the sort of thing that I would savor when I could call Angelo and hear him unfold his account of the crisis of the day, and just what the government was doing wrong. To call Angelo was to get some precise, bracing view of the state of things, always deeply informed, always wise. The news of his death was jarring, for I had the sense, as many of us had, that he was torn away from us just when we needed even more his angle on our military adventures abroad. But also his sharpening sense of the nature of our political class, with its inflated sense of itself, and its detachment not only from our institutions but from the mass of ordinary folk who make up the political community.
Angelo and I became fast friends when we met at dinner in 1976 and discovered we were the only ones present who had staked out a strong opposition to abortion. Angelo went on to make the case for the pro-life cause in the speeches he would write as an aide to Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. He never failed to see how this defense of the human person wove in with the premises at work in our foreign policy and in the defense of those human persons making up the American people.
Angelo and I discovered that we had both arrived, from different angles, at the point that would become the central guide of our teaching and writing. For me, it came with my book Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest (1973), a kind of good-bye letter to my professor Hans Morgenthau and his version of realism. Morgenthau famously argued that foreign and military policy must take, as their defining end, the defense of the national interest. And yet, that national interest was not marked mainly by the defense of territory. What needed to be defended was not merely the territory, but the “regime” or way of life of a country, or the terms on which a people deserved to live. Seen through this prism, the allied armies that penetrated Nazi Germany from the West did indeed serve the “national interest,” by delivering the German people from a murderous tyranny. Angelo and I came to this recognition even before we encountered Leo Strauss, I in Chicago and Angelo in Claremont.
Strauss thought that the regime, or the politeia, ran deeper than the Constitution, for it touched the deeper principles on which the lawgivers would draw in forming a constitution. The regime, conceived more broadly, would cover many ordinary parts of life that may not be mentioned in a constitution, as for example, the freedom to make a living at an ordinary calling without needing to purchase that freedom from the government. In his book The Character of Nations, Angelo expounded on this understanding of the regime’s central importance. He would show how the character of the regime would penetrate to the most familiar, personal levels, in shaping how people may marry and beget and make a living.
And so he would point out that when Robert Mugabe became prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, the bureaucracy employed 62,036 people; but by 1990 it employed 181,401; and by 2008 over 250,000. About 81 percent of nonagricultural employment was in the bureaucracy. In other words, it was a government that fed itself even as it blocked many other ways for people to make a living and rise in the world. In dramatic contrast, as Angelo pointed out, the military regime that took hold in Chile, after outing Salvador Allende and his Socialists in 1973, chose to diminish the reach of the government. By 1990 the military regime had cut public employment down to one-quarter of its former size, with 150,872 people working for the central government. And the cost of the government was brought down to 8.1 percent of the GDP. What the military regime brought about was not repression, but the receding of controls and the restoration of freedom across the range of domestic life. With those moves, the military laid the ground for a return to the rule of law and democratic elections.
But, of course, the most serious test of the political regime came as we sought to gauge just which regimes in the world posed the gravest dangers to us, and which ones we ought to be promoting abroad as compatible with our way of life. What has to be explained in our own time is how that understanding of the central importance of the political regime managed to recede from our senior figures, in the military and in politics. At the beginning of the Gulf War, the military’s focus was on the Iraqi army. “First, we’re going to cut it off,” explained General Colin Powell, “then we’re going to kill it.” Angelo found here the state of mind that unloosed a war “without regard to specific postwar conditions.” It was war conducted without any sense of the central purposes to be achieved. “The point is,” Angelo knew,
that Bush and his people should have seen that the problem lay in the very existence of Saddam’s regime. As such, it presented the U.S. with only two real alternatives: either to overthrow and replace that regime with an acceptable one (or at least to overthrow it and retain the capacity to crush any unacceptable successor), or to do whatever necessary to appease it.
But President Bush was willing to leave Saddam and his regime in place; he would simply deprive them of the fruits of their aggression in Kuwait. Angelo found it another telling mark that Bush was taking his soundings from leaders in other countries, including the Arab states. They were content to go no further and to leave Saddam in place. As Angelo remarked, “The great importance that Bush placed on acting in concert with [Mikhail] Gorbachev is one of the principal reasons the U.S. never made changing the Iraqi regime part of its policy.”
The result was that Saddam, in surviving, became celebrated in the Arab world as though he had actually won the war. Arab States continued to make overtures to him, and, as Angelo said, the Bush Administration lost any leverage to coax the Arab States to move away from their war with Israel.
Angelo found here a vice that would become ever more destructive: we had somehow shaped, over the years, a political class that preferred to keep decisions in the hands of people like themselves, here and abroad. They would prefer to gain the approval of elites abroad rather than consulting the opinion of those ordinary folk who form the people of their own country. But a willingness to seek the consent of Congress is a willingness to open oneself to the native sense of Americans in all their varieties. The American people have been quite supportive of presidents taking decisive actions abroad, and yet the need to present a case to Congress and the public induces a salutary discipline of its own. As Angelo said, the task of “declaring commitments forces people to face the implications of what they are doing.” It induces them, in other words, to come to a judgment on the ends for which they are asking people to risk their lives.
Angelo himself was living, as we long knew, on “borrowed time.” We almost lost him 20 years ago. He would have, remarkably, two heart transplants, for which he was deeply grateful. Looking back, I think we have to be grateful that we had Angelo with us as long as we did. Already I miss his voice—and his gift of friendship. But he wasted not a moment of that borrowed time, in writing and husbanding and tutoring us all.
Almost 25 years ago he did his own, rather different, translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I would teach from that book, and there was always one line that stood out to me to describe Angelo himself. It was the line about Hiero II of Syracuse (306-215 B.C.): “quod nihil illi deerat at regnandum praeter regnum.” For Angelo, I’d render it this way: he had every attribute of a king, save that of a kingdom.
Editor’s note: This article appears in a symposium on the life and legacy of Angelo M. Codevilla in the Fall 2021 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.