Grand Strategic Failure
Why Charles Hill's new book is as morally suspect as his entire career.
"When I asked [Charles Hill] why he had never written his own big book he only smiled," notes his former student Molly Worthen in her 2007 book about him, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost. "There was no better way to get people to pay attention to … your take on history, he explained, than to write … beneath the byline of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. After all, who had ever heard of Charlie Hill?" But Hill, a former diplomat and senior advisor to a string of powerful men, wasn’t being quite truthful with Worthen, and not only because he would soon publish an ambitious take on history under his own name.
Worthen’s title quotes Homer’s characterization of the wily Odysseus, whom Hill now presents as a master of the "creative dissembling" that he believes diplomats must undertake beneath the protocols of their profession, sometimes violating the truth and their superiors’ trust. Hill’s stated aim in Grand Strategies is "the restoration of literature as a tutor for statecraft," and he ranges from Homer through Salman Rushdie to argue for literature as a "supreme way of knowing" the world of diplomacy. He alsocalls the book "a primer" for Yale’s richly funded, foreign-policy-oriented "Studies in Grand Strategy" program, which counts him as a "distinguished fellow" and "diplomat in residence."
But these literary and pedagogical claims shade over some highly personal motivations. Reading his own experiences back into a tapestry he weaves from a selection of great books, Hill interprets great literature and historical episodes to show that statesmen such as Albrecht von Wallenstein, Cardinal Richelieu, Charles Talleyrand, Oliver Cromwell — and their confidential note-takers and informal envoys, Hill’s own predecessors, such as Richelieu’s Père Joseph and Cromwell’s John Milton — "possess a certain mad, enigmatic quality" and are amoral by conventional standards because they think that they can keep order only by shuttling back and forth across bounds of convention. Hill’s own history as one of the Reagan officials whose silence compromised the federal investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal makes his attempt at self-justification clear.
Very occasionally, Hill comes close to tipping his hand. Although he never mentions that he worked for Kissinger, the former secretary of state shows up, bizarrely, in Hill’s discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a contemporary exemplar of the fallen angel Mammon, who exhorted Satan’s hosts to, as Hill puts it, "adapt to the conditions of Hell" and "seek to prosper." And Shultz shows up in the book (as he actually did in real life) lecturing a hostile audience of writers at the New York Public Library in 1986 by invoking the literary critic George Steiner — in words almost surely written by Hill, who was crafting Shultz’s public utterances at the time.
Beyond these more obvious connections, the book’s long skein of plot summaries and potted histories of more than 20 great novels and plays depict diplomats devising duplicitous and desperate strategies behind thin veils of diplomatic protocol and immunity to restrain the blood-dimmed tide in a Hobbesian world. Inevitably, he writes, the veil-shifters’ motives are "mixed, their characters ambiguous, and their drives possibly abnormal. In the end, their achievements may be inexplicable."
Thus Odysseus, sent to persuade Achilles to re-join the fight against Troy, violates "two fundamental rules of diplomacy" by softening Agamemnon’s message to Achilles and by not fully reporting back Achilles’s response. The reason, Hill explains, is that an emissary, encountering his hosts’ circumstances and reactions in ways his superior cannot, must adjust his message, his reports back to headquarters, and perhaps even his own side’s strategies and goals in ways his superiors might not fully understand or approve.
Centuries later, the great Hapsburg general Wallenstein’s "grand project" of the 1630s — Hill calls it "a Europe … unified under the concept of religious tolerance" — produces his own murder but also the Treaty of Westphalia, Hill’s Rock of Gibraltar for world order. Hill finds Wallenstein’s greatness in the fact that when "he cannot lead his own side to accept this cause, he secretly conspires with the enemy to do so." His counterpart Richelieu, Louis XIII’s "grand strategist," also pursues a course so circuitous that, "once freed from religious and ideological concerns … [it] prolonged the [bloody Catholic/Protestant Thirty Years’ War], ruined the Holy Roman Empire, and enabled France’s rise to paramount power." Again, Hill approves, because only the Westphalian state system, however fraudulent, prevents endless carnage.
The book indulges a peculiar attraction to that carnage in what Hill acknowledges is his dark vision of human nature. As a Brown University student in the 1950s, he was mesmerized by Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen’s 1668 picaresque fantasy novel, Adventures of Simplicissimus. It was "like finding oneself within the deranged chaos of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. All is swirl of lusting, murderous, satanic satire," Hill writes in Grand Strategies. Hill uses the word "lust" several times in connection with violence, especially "revolutionary" violence; no instance of religious or fascist savagery provokes him as much as progressive efforts to re-make history. He loves Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities because it damns the French Revolution, and he shares Dostoyevsky’s horror that partisans of the Enlightenment "did not desire better men…. They would cut off the heads of Shakespeare and Rafael." Better to rely on the leaders of warring states, and the amoral diplomats who enable and sometimes temper their work.
Reading between the lines of this book, it’s not hard to understand how Hill’s own career as a diplomat was marred, and ended, by too much diplomatic creative dissembling. Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh had "heard of Charlie Hill" well before he decided to collaborate with Worthen on her book and then to write this one. As Michael Desch explained in The American Conservative in 2008, "Hill was forced to resign from the Foreign Service after it became clear that he had concealed evidence of Shultz’s exten
sive knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal from federal agents."
Walsh’s final report of 1993 — on how American officials secretly funneled the proceeds of illegal arms sales to Iran to right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua — establishes that although Hill and Shultz opposed the Iran-Contra scheme, bureaucratic self-interest kept them from trying to stop it. In congressional testimony written by Hill, Shultz lied about what they’d known and when, compromising the public investigation but giving Reagan plausible deniability. By not telling the president or the public the truth about the scandal, Shultz and Hill hoped also to avoid retribution by top Reagan aides. As the report goes, "Independent Counsel concluded that Shultz’s testimony was incorrect, if not false, in significant respects and misleading, if literally true, in others, and that information had been withheld from investigators by Shultz’s executive assistant, M. Charles Hill."
Now Hill wants us to consider their mix of conviction and evasion a strategy worthy of Odysseus. Worse, the approach has become a template for his teaching of the classics to freshmen and Grand Strategy students "by verdict" and as "a priest," according to Worthen. At Yale during the week of 9/11, his apparent certitude reminded many of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s in New York. "This is an act of war," Hill told shaken students the morning of the attacks, "and that requires you go to war." Three days later he put his name on a public letter to President George W. Bush by the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, urging that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack … the eradication of terrorism … must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein." Two years later, Hill was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, addressing Yale students more as a Foreign Service spokesman or the headmaster of a military academy than as a professor of liberal education.
Now Grand Strategies confirms, unintentionally, what I suspected then: that Hill’s and Giuliani’s public performances were sublime because they’d been rehearsing for 9/11 for most of their lives, Hill since internalizing Simplicissimus at Brown and Giuliani since founding his high school’s first opera club. On 9/11, Manhattan became as operatic as the inside of Giuliani’s and Hill’s minds, a stage fit for a dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini, with bodies strewn about and the noble hero grieving for his people in a new dawn. These two adepts of classical culture rose to the occasion separately, but they bonded in 2008, when Giuliani named Hill the chief foreign-policy advisor of his presidential campaign, which hammered away at what they dubbed "the terrorists’ war on us."
Here, though, as in Iran-Contra, our wily Odysseus would keep on dissembling. In an interview in 2008 with the Yale Daily News, Hill said that he’d didn’t know how his name had gotten on the letter to Bush and that he’d tried to get it removed. A response posted on the newspaper’s website by PNAC executive director Gary Schmitt refuted him decisively, closing with, "Sorry, Charlie."
"Only literature, Hill claims, is "methodologically unbounded" enough to show "how the world really works." But Hill has stacked the deck by starting with a highly specific notion of "how the world works" and interpreting literature to suit his paradigm. A more serious literary survey might show how writers such as Reinhold Niebuhr or Jurgen Habermas and their counterparts in fiction address recent shifts in popular beliefs about power and legitimacy that have brought down armed regimes — the British in India, Afrikaners in South Africa, segregationists in the American South, and the Soviets in Eastern Europe — with very little carnage. Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World, published in 2004, shows how world literature and history can help explain such shifts.
Early in Grand Strategies, Hill offers a chilling metaphor for his vision. He writes that he was transfixed by the gaze of the ancient Greek priest and emissary Laocoon as he and his sons are strangled by serpents in sculpted marble, "the first artistic depiction of the anguished reaction of a body to painful defeat…. For me it is a look that can be seen across the ages,…. whether the face is contorted in pain or in calm contemplation, of one who can… see clearly into the [tragic] essence of things." The classical tragic hero’s gaze into the abyss is, "rightly understood … a matter of Grand Strategy."
But the man on whom nothing was lost has missed liberal education’s responsibility — and its unmatched capacity — to inspire an ethic richer than grand-strategic amorality amid perpetual conflict and mistrust. Instead, he has written Grand Strategies and is teaching the classics at Yale to show young Americans how to wield power and risk destruction with Laocoon’s pitiless, gnomic gaze.