The Godfather; A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 5)

Shoot First and Ask Questions Later

Sonny, the Don’s undisputed heir, is the most shaken by the attempted hit on his father, whom he venerates. His simplistic response to the crisis is to advocate ‘toughness’ through military action, a one-note policy prescription for waging righteous war against the rest of the ungrateful Mafia world.

Disdaining Tom’s pleas that business will suffer, Sonny’s damn-the-torpedoes approach belies a deep-seated fear that the only way to re-establish the family’s dominance is to eradicate all possible future threats to it, however remote. While such a strategy makes emotional sense following the attempted hit on his father, it runs counter to the long-term interests of the family. Vito himself knew that threats against his position were a fact of life; while his policy revolved around minimising them, he well knew that, in a world governed by power, they could never be entirely eliminated. As the Don put it to Michael, ‘Men cannot afford to be careless.’

By contrast, Sonny’s Neo-conservative approach is built around the strategically utopian notion that risk itself can be eliminated from life altogether though the relentless—and if necessary, preemptive—use of violence.

In Sonny, Tom is confronted with the cinematic archetype of the modern-day Neo-conservative hardliner. Their resulting feud resembles nothing so much as the pitched political warfare between Wilsonians and Neo-conservatives that has come to dominate the American political landscape:

NEOCON: ‘Hey, get this, Sollozzo wants to talk—can you imagine the nerve on that son of a bitch? Last night he makes a hit on pop, and today he wants to talk…’

WILSONIAN: ‘We oughta hear what they have to say.’

NEOCON: ‘No, no more. Not this time, Consigliere; no more meetings, no more discussions, no more Sollozzo tricks.’

WILSONIAN: ‘Sonny, this is business, not personal.’

NEOCON: ‘Well then business will have to suffer, alright? And do me a favour: no more advice on how to patch things up—just help me win alright?’

Where Tom sees Sollozzo as a reasonable if aggressive businessman whose concerns, like those of previous challengers, can be accommodated through compromise and conciliation, Sonny sees an existential threat—a clear and present danger that, like Iran in the view of many Republicans, must be swiftly cauterised.

One can imagine Sonny’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach would meet with the approval of such neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen. Confronted with the Iran crisis, Sonny would urge an immediate military strike, primarily as a way to cut through ambiguities and arrive at some sort of moral and strategic clarity, however illusory. As with the Neo-conservatives, so desperate to remove a possible emerging nuclear threat from Iran, it is unlikely that Sonny would make a cost-benefit analysis of such a military strike.

What, Ahmadinejad is not even in control of Tehran’s nuclear program? Don’t waste time, says Sonny. A US air strike would fail to accomplish anything of lasting military value and would only succeed in uniting Iran and the region against America? Stop being weak, says Sonny. A failed trike would imperil American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf States, Morocco, and Egypt, directly benefitting al-Qaeda and Isis? I knew you didn’t have the guts to do this, says Sonny. As is true for neoconservatives, Sonny would be unlikely to let facts get in the way of his desire for military action, however wrongheaded.

Instead, by starting a gangland free-for-all in the wake of the hit on his father, Sonny unwittingly severs long-standing family alliances and unites much of the rest of the Mafia world against the Corleones. The resulting war, like America’s Iraq debacle, is one of choice rather than strategic necessity. As has been true with empires since the beginning of time, Sonny’s rash instinct to use military power to solve his structural problems merely hastens the family’s decline.

As the past few years have shown, military intervention for its own sake, without a corresponding political plan, leads only to disaster. Yearning for the moral clarity that the Corleones’ past dominance had given them—a dominance not dissimilar to that enjoyed by America during the Cold War—Sonny cannot begin to comprehend that the era that made his military strategy possible has come to an end. Blinded by a militant moralism bereft of strategic insight, he proves an easy target for his foes.

The Neo-conservatism that Sonny espouses grew out of a movement that has been far less prominent in American history than either Tom’s Wilsonianism or Michael’s realism. Emanating from disillusioned Trotskyites, such as Irving Kristol, who had belatedly seen the error of their ways in Stalin’s excesses, these fierce Cold Warriors have remained true to a core principle of their earlier allegiance—permanent revolution, this time for a democratic world.

As Trotsky said of socialism, only when the whole world hewed firmly to a single ideological line could the planet be genuinely safe for sustained peace and prosperity. Modern-day neocons, substituting democracy for socialism, evidenced by President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address declaring that America cannot really be secure while tyranny exists in the world. The problem with this view is that such an end of history does not correspond with any period in the global record. It is a formula for perennial warfare, living beyond the country’s means, and a quick decline for America, still the greatest hope of the world.

Sonny’s fate is emblematic of Neo-conservatism’s follies. Unwisely, and against the advice of his mother, Sonny attempts to arbitrate the escalating domestic disputes between his sister, Connie, and her abusive husband, Carlo Ricci, failing to see that the beatings his sister endured from Carlo came at the behest of Don Barzini, the Corleones’ closest peer competitor. For Sonny’s reaction to all the evils of the world, whether beyond his ability to solve or not, is entirely predictable: ‘Attack.’ Unilaterally rushing to avenge his sister by pummelling Carlo, Sonny is struck down by his legion of foes, his body riddled with bullets. As has proven true for neoconservatives over Iraq, there is a depressing logic to his hit. In place of understanding the world, Sonny based his strategy on accosting it; the world’s striking back, as happened in Iraq, is an obvious conclusion.

Written with A. Wess Mitchell

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