Politics & Policy

The ‘W’ Stood for ‘Wisdom’

Peter W. Rodman, R.I.P.

Peter W. Rodman, a former senior editor of National Review and senior Defense Department official, passed away Saturday after a fight with leukemia. Here his former boss and friend, Donald Rumsfeld, and others, pay tribute.

Douglas J. Feith

Peter Rodman had a clear eye. He was not only well-educated, but sensible. He could be philosophical, but also plain spoken and pragmatic. Take, for example, his attitude toward diplomacy.

Peter was both a scholar and practitioner of diplomacy. He wrote an illuminating history of the Cold War entitled More Precious Than Peace. And he participated in some of the most famous negotiations of the last forty years. He served as Henry Kissinger’s aide in the “opening” to China and in the peace talks on Vietnam and on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And, as Assistant Secretary of Defense, he traveled with Don Rumsfeld to assemble the “coalitions of the willing” for the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Peter also led important diplomatic missions — for example, to London to help establish the multinational peacekeeping force for Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban.

Peter appreciated skillful diplomacy. Because of silly accusations that the George W. Bush administration was “unilateralist” and “anti-diplomacy,” journalists would often ask administration officials if we “believed in” diplomacy. Peter and I lamented and laughed together about this foolishness. We recalled to each other the old joke about the man who was asked if he believed in baptism; “Heck,” the man replied, “I’ve seen it done.”

But Peter understood that there are conflicts in the world that are not misunderstandings. He recognized that some problems require dangerous regimes to be confronted, not placated.

Peter was an incisive and prominent voice in the Bush administration on the dangers of thinking that talk and blandishments are the keys to resolving our differences with Iran, Syria and North Korea. Peter argued that our goals there were to bring about new policies. If direct negotiations with their regimes were the best way to achieve those goals, he would favor them. He never subscribed to the notion that the United States should refuse in principle to talk with hostile or evil regimes. But if isolating such regimes and other forms of pressure are likelier to produce the necessary change in their policies, then that is what he favored. Peter was practical. In his view, people who advocated negotiations under all circumstances were being ideological, not realistic.

Peter brought enlightenment and often humor to any subject he addressed. He was steady and learned. He appreciated principle and irony. He loved the United States and was an estimable public servant who represented our country wisely, charmingly and very well. America owes him admiration and gratitude.

— Douglas J. Feith, as under secretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005, worked closely with Peter Rodman at the Pentagon.

John Hillen

During my time in the administration, I had no better or closer colleague that Peter Rodman.  We formed a NR-alumni duo (he as assistant secretary of defense, me as assistant secretary of state) that launched, among other programs, a strategic initiative intended to tie the Persian Gulf states more closely to the U.S. and thus less subject to both the bullying and clumsy seduction of Iran.   Peter and I traveled to the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East some half a dozen times, enduring and enjoying the hurry up and wait rhythm of international diplomacy.  There was no wiser policymaker, no better representative of our country, no more articulate champion of administration policy, and no finer traveling companion that Peter.  We treated with kings, princes, and every manner of minister in the region on those trips, and Peter was as comfortable and subtly commanding in a royal audience as he was joking with the team in the back of an Air Force plane or sitting exhausted during a layover in Frankfurt Airport.

Peter had strategic weight — and expressed the gravity of geopolitical thought better than anyone I knew in government, and with a clarity that no doubt made his mentor Kissinger very proud.  We developed an operating pattern during intense negotiations –  just as everyone was getting bogged down in interminable tactical differences Peter would step in with a comment of such profound strategic significance that both sides of the table would be forced to take a mental step back and ponder if they had not lost the forest for the tree.  I vividly remember one private meeting Peter and I had with the king of an allied country and the monarch sitting rapt as Peter laid out the geostrategic rationale for what he might wish to consider.  I had little doubt in my mind that as we left the palace the King must have turned to an aide and said something along the lines of “where can I find someone who thinks like that?”  Once, in setting up a negotiation with the Israelis, I noticed that the aides creating the agenda had not given enough time for Peter to speak.   I kept exhorting them with “more Rodman, more Rodman!” which they turned into a take off on the Saturday Night Live “more cowbell” sketch.  None laughed harder than Peter.

Our country is much the poorer for this loss of a great mind and the finest of men, especially since we fail to educate policy makers in geopolitical thinking anymore.  But we’ll need them, and it would be a fitting tribute if “more Rodman, more Rodman” became synonymous with creating the soundest policies through which we protect our nation’s interests.

— John Hillen is a former NR contributing editor and senior State Department official.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

His good friend, John O’Sullivan, sums up a life well-lived: Peter Rodman was a good man. Besides being the clear thinking, clarifying, lesson-learning future-looking foreign-policy mind, he was an encouraging, collegial mentor. I would say that he went out of his way to be generous, but it came so naturally to him.

When Bill Buckley died, Peter wrote: “Reading all the tributes that have poured in, one is struck by two things. First is that Bill’s life was a vivid refutation of the notion that great men don’t make a difference in history. Second was his personal decency, graciousness, and warmth. That is why so many of the tributes have been not only of respect, but of love.” The exact same thing can be said of Peter Rodman, so it’s no surprise he treasured and respected these traits in WFB.

Veronique and Peter had one of those love stories you wish you could bottle and give your loved ones not-so in love. They lit up a room in a way that no Washington room they were ever in was ever the same.

America has benefited from the live of Peter Rodman in more ways than it knows. His byline and dance card may be retired, but his impact will continue to influence.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

Roger Pardo-Maurer

Peter Rodman was a man who thought in terms of international systems hurtling, and sometimes colliding, like galaxies through the vast reaches of space and time. He instinctively grasped the importance of the Western Hemisphere to the long-term prospects of the United States. In particular, he envisioned the potential compatibility of Mexico, Central America, and Colombia as a system of some 200 million people growing ever closer to the United States through bonds of trade, security, culture, and demography. And so he quietly made the national-security case on the Hill for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, while deftly defusing crises you never heard of in our relationship with Mexico. Few were as influential as he in shaping the strategy of U.S. support that helped Colombians wrest their country back from narcoterrorists.

Peter’s intellect was of that sort than could impress even when he remained silent; none less than Henry Kissinger once singled him out as his brightest student. For all that, as his deputy, it was Peter’s tact and magnanimity that I found most inspiring, and most marvelous in terms of delivering the practical fruits of policy. This was especially true in the delicate business of cultivating bipartisan support for Colombia.

Peter had no illusions about bipartisanship as desirable per se, any more than he did about multilateralism. But in the case of Colombia bipartisanship was an invaluable ingredient in the sustainability of our strategy to help a friendly democracy defeat Latin America’s longest running insurgency. Colombians especially have reason to be thankful to Peter Rodman.

In our last exchange, just a few days ago, I asked Peter for his thoughts on an article I was writing about Colombia. My draft mentioned that U.S. policy had “commanded bipartisan support.” Peter’s sole comment was to “suggest” (a favorite word of his) that I change the word “commanded” to “earned.” I doubt if ever met anybody more civilized: more than a prince among men, he was a perfect gentleman to the very last.

— Roger Pardo-Maurer was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, 2001-2006.

Donald Rumsfeld

Peter Rodman was a dedicated public servant, an incisive strategist, a consummate diplomat, a serious pupil of history and a measured teacher of history’s lessons. He had a deep faith in the greatness of American democracy, and he understood that our nation’s foreign policy was at its best when it reconciled the moral idealism of America’s deep-seated liberalism with the conservative lessons of restraint and skepticism. Only by fighting on the moral terrain so often invoked by its enemies could the United States have a foreign policy with weight. But only by selectively choosing when and where to deploy its power could the United States sustain it.

With his rigorous intellect, unfailing sense of humor, and understated manner, Peter worked energetically over many decades finding bipartisan support for our nation’s foreign policy at home and a consensus among diplomats abroad. Unlike so many in the field of foreign policy, Peter was neither a partisan nor an advocate. He had no illusions as to the fundamental tensions and complexities of the profound and painful dilemmas of American foreign policy. He usefully characterized those irresolvable challenges so that they could be coped and dealt with. Peter understood the fundamental truth that problems without solutions are not problems, but facts.

I was fortunate to work with Peter on the stubborn challenges posed by the Soviet Union and its third-world adventurism during the Ford administration, the Middle East and the emerging threats to the nation-state system during the Reagan administration, and the new uncertainties of the 21st century when we worked together closely in the Department of Defense more recently. At every point along the way, I profited from his friendship, and above all, his advice and his admonitions. So, too, did America.

— Donald Rumsfeld is former U.S. secretary of defense.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest