Robert W. Merry, editor: I’ve just read The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama (2009) by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman. I had not been familiar with Shachtman, but I had known Colodny as the coauthor of a fascinating book on Watergate, Silent Coup: The Removal of a President (with Robert Gettlin).
The Forty Years War traces the neoconservative movement to “a little-known, now-deceased civilian intellectual at the Pentagon, Dr. Fritz G. A. Kraemer.” This was the man who coined the phrase “provocative weakness,” the idea that U.S. bellicosity was a necessary foreign policy stance, irrespective of any immediate threats, because otherwise other nations would respond to a perception of U.S. weakness with provocative boldness. He also subordinated any kind of diplomacy to a policy of America throwing its weight around. And he heralded morality as a suitable underpinning of policy.
Kraemer was a mentor to both Henry Kissinger and Al Haig, as well as many other prominent giants of American foreign policy in the years from Nixon to George W. Bush. And his influence on policy discussions during that time was immense, but never more so than during the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks on America. In fact, write the authors, Kraemer was “the unacknowledged godfather of the George W. Bush administration’s ways of relating the United States to the rest of the world.”
This is a well-told tale and good history. The authors unwittingly pose a question that is unheralded but powerful as we look back over the past half century of American diplomacy. Who are the realists of the Cold War, and are they the same people who are realists in the post-Cold War era? The realists of today—Mearsheimer, Walt, Bacevich, this web site—decry the hardline foreign policy belligerence of the neocons—people such as Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, John Bolton. That’s because today’s realists see the neocons as wreaking havoc around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Exhibit A is Bush’s Iraq invasion.
But the greatest hardliners of the Cold War period were Ronald Reagan and the conservative commentator that he constantly read, James Burnham. And Reagan’s policies, advocated for years by Burnham, ultimately led to the West’s Cold War triumph. Colodny and Shachtman go to great lengths to deny Reagan any credit for the Soviet collapse. Unfortunately for them, they appear slightly ridiculous in the effort.
Reagan’s approach worked, and it was a realistic approach for the time. Now, however, we live in a different time, and realism has taken on a different guise in an era of cultural and civilizational clash. Fritz Kraemer’s philosophy had some value in Reagan’s era, but since the Cold War it’s proven dangerous.
Rod Dreher, senior editor: I just returned from the Czech Republic, my first visit ever to that country. On the flight over, I began Michael Zantovsky’s Havel: A Life, the only English-language biography of the late Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned president of a free Czechoslovakia and of its successor state the Czech Republic. Zantovsky was Havel’s press secretary and personal friend. The book, which I finished while on the trip, was a bit of a disappointment, in that it offered a wealth of facts without a lot of interpretation. As someone unfamiliar with Czech politics and society, I learned what Havel said and did, but was left wanting to know more about what it meant.
Still, Havel’s story—and the story of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended 40 years of communism—is remarkable. Born into upper-middle-class privilege in pre-World War II Prague, Havel endured privation under communism, emerging as a playwright on the country’s theatrical scene in the 1960s. I knew vaguely of Havel’s association with the avant-garde rock star Lou Reed, and assumed that he was in some real sense part of the counterculture as we understand it in the West. Zantovsky explains that that is not true. Young Havel was certainly part of the Czech counterculture, but he was in no sense a revolutionary, cultural or otherwise. He was a conventional liberal—which still made him a threat to the communist regime. “Politically and philosophically, Havel was made in the sixties more than by the sixties,” Zantovsky writes. “His principal themes of identity, truth and responsibility had already been formed.”
Havel was a brave man, as the book testifies in its passages about the playwright’s stints as a political prisoner. But the whole world knows that. Interestingly, in a personal conversation I had in Prague with Daniel Kaiser, a Czech journalist who wrote a more critical biography—as yet untranslated into English—of Havel, I learned that in one of his prison terms, Havel agreed to collaborate with the secret police. Kaiser revealed this in his own work, though as I recall our conversation (I was not taking notes), Kaiser said that Havel was later filled with ambivalence and remorse over his weakness.
What I didn’t know about Havel until reading this book was that he was a compulsive womanizer who was chronically unfaithful to his long-suffering wife Olga (who also at times took lovers of her own). Havel was indiscreet to the point of cruelty to Olga, or so it seems to me. Indeed, most of the artists and writers in Havel’s circle of dissidents had complicated, even dissolute, sex lives. While in Prague, I asked one dissident, Kamila Bendova—who, with her late husband Vaclav Benda, was one of the few Catholics among the dissident leadership—how she regarded the morally lax personal behavior of her friends in the movement. Bendova said that the times were so hard that people were desperate for human contact any way they could get it. There’s wisdom and mercy in that answer.
The world admires, and I admire, Havel for being a voice of morality and humanism both under communism and in the years that followed. Havel: A Life, though unquestionably sympathetic to its subject, reveals that the great man was more fuzzy-headed in his idealism than I had imagined. This is no crime, of course. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity and eventually the president of free Poland, was an uneducated electrician, but he still led a movement that brought down communism in his country. (Interestingly, Walesa, too, collaborated with the secret police, from 1970 till 1976.) Still, reading Zantovsky’s book, it became clear that the qualities that made Havel a superb moral leader before and during the transition out of communism handicapped him as a political leader. He was a man born to think and write, not to govern.
When I first arrived in the Czech Republic, I was startled by the lack of affection for Havel when I mentioned his name to the Czechs. Halfway through my journey there, I finished Zantovsky’s book and better understood this reaction. To many Czechs, Havel is something of a Gorbachev figure: a man more beloved in the West for what he symbolizes than in his own country, though nobody in the Czech Republic seems to hate Havel in the same way that many Russians revile Gorbachev (ungratefully) for losing the USSR. It’s only that they aren’t sentimental about his limitations as president. As Havel: A Life makes clear, the playwright—who often lacerated himself for his failures, moral and otherwise—probably would agree with them.
In fairness, for all of Havel’s shortcomings, the miracle of the Czech Republic’s exit from dictatorship without violence or recriminations was in large part due to him. Addressing the masses thronging Prague’s Wenceslas Square in those revolutionary days, Havel said, “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them.” But for Havel and his moral leadership in that terrifying crucible, things might have gone much worse for the Czech people. That will never be forgotten.
When I returned home, I dug up some novels by Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist who went into self-exile in 1975. I had adored them in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their sexiness and philosophical cachet. I revisited The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera’s 1979 novel, which precedes his best known work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). I found that I couldn’t stand the thing, and gave up about halfway through. It was nothing but a disjointed and bloodless postmodern pastiche of watery philosophical musing and boring sexual hijinks. How strange it was to re-read a novel I had admired more than half my lifetime ago, and now find it to be so shallow, so shabby. “You make love like an intellectual,” one of Kundera’s characters tells her lover. It is not a compliment. Kundera writes books, and about sex in those books, like an intellectual. It is not a compliment.