Book Review: Magic and Mayhem by Derek Leebaert

The era following the Second World War won’t be remembered as the “golden age of American diplomacy”; Georgetown University professor Derek Leebaert certainly doesn’t view it that way. He made that clear in Magic and Mayhem’s sub-title: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan.

The author presented the book as an analysis of diplomatic foibles rather than as a straight historical narrative. In essence Mr. Leebaert blamed America’s postwar foreign policy failures on what he termed “magical thinking”. The book elucidated the six elements that comprise this phenomenon.

  • A sensation of urgency and of “crisis” that accompanies the belief that most any resolute action is superior to restraint; it’s a demeanor that’s joined by the emergency man’s eagerness to be his country’s revealer of dangers, real and imaginary.
  • The faith that American style business management—as practiced in Silicon Valley startups soon to join NASDAQ or, not long ago, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn or at steel mills along the Monongahela—can fix any global problem given enough time, resources and appropriately “can-do”, businesslike zeal.
  • A distinctively American desire to fall in behind celebrities, stars, and peddlers of some newly distilled experience who, in foreign affairs especially, seem to glow with wizardry—and whom we turn to for guidance while believing, for a fatefully long moment, that they only have to wave their wands for success to fall from the sky.
  • An expectation of wondrous returns on investment, even when this is based on intellectual shortcuts—in fact on lack of seriousness and mental flexibility, as described, for instance, in trenchant analyses of the Iraq War—though the same shortcuts were apparent in Vietnam and North Korea, as well as in many politico-military efforts in between.
  • Conjuring powerful, but simplified, images from the depths of “history” to rationalize huge and amorphously expanding objectives, a technique of foreign policy artistry resorted to by high officials, professors, and field commanders alike.
  • The repeated belief that that America can shape the destiny of other countries overnight and that the hearts and minds of distant people are throbbing to be transformed into something akin to the way we see ourselves. (Pages 7 – 8)

The author utilized examples from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to illustrate his points. He also included anecdotes about various political and military personalities in these exploits to expand on his overall concepts.

I personally enjoyed his take on General Maxwell Taylor. Among his accomplishments, General Taylor led the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day, he commanded the U. S. Eighth Army in Korea, and served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Kennedy named him U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. The author knew General Taylor personally. While he commended the man’s intellect he criticized his analysis of South Vietnam. (It could never turn into a situation as terrible as Korea, he opined. Page 149) I thought that showed respectable balance on the author’s part.

Leebaert understood the provocative nature of his thesis. The obvious question he raised was, “What constitutes a successful military endeavor?” The author wrote,

Americans know what military success looks like: engagements that, for one, don’t end up unrecognizably, disastrously far from the mission declared at the start. (Page 33)

Even General Brent Scowcroft said, “Don’t change your objective because you are doing well.” (Page 194) Unfortunately, Leebaert managed to provide copious examples since 1950 where that wasn’t the case.

While the author researched the subject well, I did locate a mistake in the text. He indicated that the Oklahoma City bombing occurred on April 19, 1996. It actually happened in 1995. (Page 231) Since Leebaert harshly criticized numerous others for mistakes they made, I thought he should have proofread the manuscript better.

While taking American History classes in college and graduate school, I thought the writing “too liberal” or “anti-anything the United States ever did”. As I mature I find more complexity in America’s approach to international relations. Books like Magic and Mayhem are among the reasons why.

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