Magic and Mayhem

by Derek Leebaert


I’m sorry for taking so long to finish this book. I want to say that I was busy working (20% true), or that I was out of town (also about 20% true), or that I’m Batman (100% true), but the real truth is that I had plenty of time to finish this book, and it just wasn’t on my priority list.

To be completely honest, this isn’t my first crack at Magic and Mayhem, which I received as a gift over a year ago. I got about halfway through it last summer and then left it in my friend’s car in another city, and by the time it was returned I had lost interest. As someone who is very interested in foreign policy, I was shocked, dear readers, to find that this just wasn’t my cup of tea; let me attempt to explain why.

Leebaert is a professor at Georgetown University, which is about as well-known in the foreign affairs and national security fields as any school in the world. He is very clear, however, that he does not consider himself a part of that world, so to speak, and instead uses Magic and Mayhem to indict the entire foreign policy establishment, including universities such as his own. His book addresses six ‘myths,’ essentially misunderstandings of American policy, and primarily uses as his examples the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars.

It may sound like a good structure for a foreign policy academic, but in practice the book becomes a pretty confusing tirade against anything and everything that Leebaert dislikes about the last 60 years of American policy overseas. His chapters often digress into unexplained anecdotes about God knows what, making certain passages completely and utterly unreadable. Granted, a lot of academic scholarship is difficult to read, but it is usually because a certain level of knowledge is assumed of the reader. Magic and Mayhem, by contrast, seems difficult to read because, well, just because.

In that sense it reminds me of some of the stuff I wrote in college, when I would realize that I had a research paper due in a couple days, and I needed a thesis and eight pages. I would just start writing, and keep writing, until I had a mildly coherent product; when I would read it the next day, it kind of made sense, and the conclusion kind of flowed from the evidence, but it was not a great piece of scholarship. Magic and Mayhem likewise gives the impression that the author knew what he was trying to say, that he had a good idea in his head, and that he just stayed up one night, did a quick outline, and wrote his book.

I do agree with many of his points. One of his myths concerns the mystique of American management, which he backs up with the examples of McNamara and Rumsfeld. These people are brought in from the business world in the hopes that they will shake up the bureaucracy and will effectively manage America’s foreign crises; this is essentially the case that is made by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. And Leebaert also effectively makes the point that the American impulse is often to do too much when confronted with ‘emergencies’ that have questionable impact on American security.

What I didn’t really like was that Leebaert has no prescription for what policymakers should actually do. Only in the conclusion does he even approach an answer, but it turns out to be something along these lines: “In most cases do nothing. Unless, of course, something needs to be done.” It reminds me of that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Paul Rudd is teaching Jason Segel how to stand up on the surfboard: “Don’t do anything. Nope, too much, try again. Still too much, try again. Do nothing.” When Segel interprets this literally and just lies down unmoving, Rudd responds, “Well, you need to do more than that, you’re just lying there.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get my point.

Leebaert similarly complains from both sides of almost any policy issue from the post-war era. Generally he criticizes American overreaction, such as escalation in Vietnam, or mission creep in Korea; he believes the wars got out of control when the United States thought that it could do more than Leebaert considers wise. On the other hand, while he generally applauds the handling of the Gulf War, he notes that we encouraged Iraqis to stand up to Saddam Hussein but failed to support them militarily when they did so, kind of contradicting his general advice that less is more.

Long story short, here are the problems I had with Magic and Mayhem. One, the convoluted and confusing structure. Two, the lack of any real policy principles besides “Don’t do what _____ did in _____.” Three, his failure to follow his own advice about magic, myths, and generalizations. He uses anecdote as scientific evidence. He bemoans the inadequacy of our top brass, but then complains about political appointees being able to overrule more experienced generals. And he adopts his own form of magical thinking when imagining that most situations will resolve themselves in favor of long-term stability, without U.S. involvement. There is no question that Leebaert is smart, and right about a great many things, but the book doesn’t serve his arguments well.

Magic and Mayhem might serve as a good guide for those wishing to get into foreign policy literature, but it does not contain anything close to a coherent philosophy or a legitimate case study.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Drift | Bored and Literate

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