If you look back at the unsigned editorials on foreign policy (almost all written by Peter) and at the articles signed by him for the years 1992-98 in National Review, you will find a treasure-trove of mature, conservative, far-sighted, prudent wisdom on foreign policy. He foresaw, for instance, the rise of radical Islamism as a serious threat to the West as early as 1994 — and warned against our treating it as mainly a response to mistaken Western foreign policies. Indeed, almost any single article would serve as a good example of Peter’s prescience, but here is one: a warning from 1994 about the Clinton administration’s doctrine of “interdependence”:
No one can doubt the value of cooperating with other nations, but this is an Administration that sees a great advance of civilization in American self-denial. American unilateralism is the principal sin to be avoided; our blood and treasure are to be spent only at the behest of others, not for anything so primitive as U.S. self-interest. This mushy multilateralism is another example of the apparently incurable liberal preoccupation with America’s moral insufficiency.
And it has, does it not, an oddly topical ring?
But as Rick Brookhiser and other NR colleagues have already recalled, Peter was much more than a foreign-policy strategist in his NR years. He was a very fine writer — clear, readable, and witty — on a range of topics that included his love of Benny Hill. He was a strong force for commonsense in our editorial discussions. He managed to reconcile colleagues who were itching to disagree terminally. And he was, quite simply, terrific company.
Peter also took the opportunity of being out of office in those years to write his important book, More Precious Than Peace: Fighting and Winning the Cold War in the Third World. Published in 1994, it came out too soon for a public that had not yet realized that Reagan’s presidency had been a great historical success. It surely needs to be republished in paperback, for it tells the important story of how the Reagan doctrine helped tipped the balance against Communism in the very third world that the Kremlin had made a priority for its intelligence and foreign policies. Much of it may well have originally appeared under the rubric “Top Secret.”
Peter’s final time in government was as a senior figure in the Pentagon. The Iraq war was not one of his direct responsibilities — and Peter anyway was always extremely discreet and loyal in office — but he defended its strategic importance strongly. He was in particular a strong backer of the surge. His last book, fortunately almost finished before illness struck him down, will likely cover Iraq among other matters pertaining to what makes a good foreign-policy president. But it is a tragedy compounding a tragedy that he should have been lost to us at the very moment when he would have been able to share his extended reflections with the world on almost 40 years in and around the making of U.S. foreign policy.
Peter and I took our families on a joint vacation to Turkey last year. We had a wonderful time and planned to do the same against next year. Peter was full of his subversive jokes. On hearing that the library at Ephesus was connected by a secret passage to a brothel: “I think the time has come to check a few footnotes.” So I will miss a dear friend as well as valued colleague.
What is telling is that, to judge from the tributes pouring in, so many people feel as I do about Peter. Students who met him only a few times remember a helpful and kindly guide almost as vividly as friends of long years remember an entertaining friend who was always there when things went wrong. He combined all sorts of virtues. He was kind and tough-minded, sharply witty and gentle, firm and understanding, intellectually serious and light-hearted.
Or maybe the mystery is easy to solve: Peter was not simply good company. He was a good man. And almost everyone recognized it.
We at National Review send our deepest condolences to Veronique, Theodora, and Nicholas and pray humbly but confidently for the repose of Peter’s soul.
– John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.