Commentary Magazine


Informing Statecraft, by Angelo Codevilla

After the Cold War

Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century.
by Angelo Codevilla.
Free Press. 350 pp. $24.95.

Production of grand world views and new foreign-policy schemes has become something of a cottage industry among scholars and policy analysts since the end of the cold war—although, despite the outpouring of new visions, we are still a long way either from setting basic strategy or from shaping the institutions necessary to achieve our aims. Angelo Code-villa’s Informing Statecraft is a useful contribution to this growing body of literature, an ambitious effort to digest the lessons of the past and point the way to the future in the vital area of national intelligence.

Obviously the post-cold-war world includes elements of both the old and the new. Codevilla is strongest on the former. With impressive erudition—drawing on a range of examples from Thucydides, the Bible, and modern experience—he attempts to codify the timeless essentials of intelligence practice. These, in a conscious imitation of Aristotelian taxonomy, he divides into four branches: collection, counterintelligence, covert action, and analysis. To each area he rigorously applies Aristotle’s question, “What is the purpose of this activity?” Again and again he demonstrates convincingly that failure often comes from the simple inability of intelligence officers and bureaucracies to keep larger strategic objectives explicit and in view.

What is best about this book is its uncompromising critique of the American intelligence services, especially the CIA. The problems Codevilla exposes are well-known among those of a strategic cast of mind who have served in the foreign-policy apparatus of the U.S. government. They boil down to the absence of what might be called a “strategic culture” (Codevilla does not use the phrase) among most of our intelligence bureaucrats (as well as our foreign-service officers, whose outlook and backgrounds are similar). Far from being the sinister mirror image of the KGB, as popular mythology would have it, the CIA is a perfect reflection of upper-middle-class, university-educated American culture: unstrategic, ethnocentric, and, of course, liberal. “The typical [CIA case] officer,” writes Codevilla,

was brought up in a nice American suburb during the 1960′s and graduated in the top half of his class from a typical American college in the 1970′s and 1980′s. He has never done manual labor, and has never been personally close to anyone who has lived by it. He has never had to struggle for his next meal, and has never known anyone who has. He has no idea of life under arbitrary power.

The value of Codevilla’s account is to connect the CIA’s chronic failures, in both operations and analysis, with its corporate or bureaucratic culture, which as an outsider with “inside” knowledge—a former professional staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee—he has been in a unique position to observe. As he demonstrates, the CIA has suffered habitually from cultural and organizational bias, not least in its adherence to the analyst Sherman Kent’s 1949 mandate to keep clear of policy judgments. In the effort to remain aloof from the policy battle, the CIA has often produced intelligence divorced from strategic aims, even as it has subtly encouraged a certain (usually, predictably liberal) policy line.

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The most compelling chapters of Informing Statecraft are the middle ones, in which Codevilla narrates and explains the long list of American intelligence errors—failure to gauge the extent of the Soviet missile build-up, the size of Soviet military spending, the future of Soviet oil reserves, the probable political consequences of overthrowing Vietnam’s President Diem, the nature of the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement, the overall strength or weakness of the Soviet economy and political structure, and so forth. These chapters are engrossing and argued with the polemical force and cogent mastery of detail familiar to readers of Codevilla’s many COMMENTARY articles. They provide ample corroboration of Senator Daniel P. Moynihan’s pronouncement: “For a quarter-century the CIA has been repeatedly wrong about the major political and economic questions entrusted to its analysts.”

To compound the problem, as Codevilla writes, intelligence failure has gone hand in hand with intellectual arrogance and the bureaucracy’s chronic incapacity to learn from its mistakes. “We may not always be right,” an old agency saying goes, “but we’re never wrong.” Still, the CIA has not always been wrong, either: recently, for example, it has been far more prescient than the State Department or the White House on developments in the former Yugoslavia. Codevilla’s account would have benefited from an effort to balance the CIA’s many blunders with illustrations of success (though, to judge from his portrait, they are few and far between). But in general, his historical indictment is as persuasive as it is searing.

Where the book is weaker is in regard to its major ambitions—comprehensiveness, and applicability to the future. Codevilla’s Aristotelian method, while laudably thorough, can also be tiresome. The first and last thirds of the book consist essentially of dozens of precepts. To each of these, Codevilla invariably attaches an illustrative example; some of these are telling, others rather flat. As for the precepts, they are too numerous to be remembered, and often too obvious to be memorable. One could probably glean the essence of what Codevilla is attempting to convey from a careful reading of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Codevilla’s larger point—that CIA officers are for the most part lamentably ignorant both of history and the Western political tradition—is no doubt justified. But whether such knowledge can be transplanted piecemeal into a single volume is to be doubted.

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The other drawback of the book is perhaps more serious—its backward-looking character. Take the area of weapons proliferation. Of all the challenges facing U.S. intelligence in the coming decade, none is more fundamental to our security than tracking, and where possible stemming, the flow of missiles and mass-destruction weapons and technologies to the third world. It will not be an easy job. Codevilla is aware of the problem and treats it often along the way, but nowhere is there an effort to synthesize or to prescribe new approaches to this threat, which should include, among other things, the reorganization of a foreign-policy and defense bureaucracy originally shaped to cope with the very different danger of a hegemonic Soviet Union.

When Codevilla does touch on proliferation, his viewpoint is as often as not retrospective. For example, concerning the massive intelligence failure involved in our underestimating Iraq’s nascent nuclear capability, he writes:

Given that after the [Gulf] war the U.S. had judged that it had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reagents only to be told by a defector that significant quantities had been hidden successfully, it is a safe bet that the U.S. technical collection system stood even less chance of getting substantial information on secret Soviet weapons and stockpiles. . . .

Certainly, during the cold war, we knew less than we should about Soviet military activities, but that is old news. Though claiming to prescribe “Intelligence for a New Century,” Codevilla’s book too often reflects a cold-war mind-set. He still ranks as his highest priority the threat from Soviet military power.

While that threat should not by any means be discounted—especially as Russia drifts toward a new authoritarianism—it seems less pressing at the moment than the danger from what Russell Seitz has called the “yard sale” of Soviet military equipment and high technology. (There is a parallel counterintelligence threat, if Russians provide to others, as they did to Iraq, the know-how to “spoof”—i.e., deceive—American satellites.) Code-villa’s passion for yesterday’s battles—especially the long internecine domestic controversy over arms control, verification, Soviet cheating, etc.—seems to get in the way of a more open-minded, imaginative attempt to identify the specific new challenges that U.S. intelligence is likely to face.

His political tour d’horizon is similarly disappointing. Though the past few years have not always been kind to prognosticators—including the present writer—Codevilla is still worrying about problems that have clearly gone away: for example, the issue of whether Germany will tilt West or East in the post-cold-war world. This goes hand in hand with his overestimate of Soviet, or Russian, power. Moscow holds no magnetic pull on Bonn or Berlin today. What Germans fear instead is being overrun, not by East-bloc armies but by hordes of East-bloc immigrants fleeing the economic and political trainwreck of Communism—and the loss of their living standard that such an influx implies. That is the key force driving German domestic politics.

On one central issue—covert action—Codevilla’s historical perspective yields conclusions both sensible and forward-looking. Thus, he argues persuasively that the main motive for covertness has as often as not been political indecision—the unwillingness of political leaders to face up to and explain to the American people their real objective. From the Bay of Pigs to the contras, covert action has usually been a half-measure, designed to conceal U.S. activities less from the enemy than from the American populace. When it has worked, as Codevilla shows, success has come not so much from the effectiveness of the activities themselves as from a perception, in the target country, that the United States has thrown its weight behind a certain side. While the need for covert action has not disappeared, one important lesson of the cold war, well digested by Codevilla, is that the United States tends to be strongest when it acts openly, on the basis of stated principles.

Flaws notwithstanding, this is a valuable book. Its major lessons—the need for a more strategic and historically informed view of world events, for more understanding of non-Anglo-Saxon cultures, for more language training, and for more flexibility and accountability in intelligence bureaucracies—need to be taken into account by those in Congress and elsewhere working to reshape our intelligence services for post-cold-war duty. Whether Codevilla’s many admonitions can begin to overcome the culturally rooted blind spots that have hindered our intelligence performance in the past—or the basic fallibility that afflicts all human beings when they attempt to peer into the future—remains to be seen.

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