I am befuddled what to make of the piece in this week's New York Times on Robert Kagan. The "so-called" historian of foreign affairs and noted neo-conservative advocate and champion of the now tottering Iraqi invasion of 2003 is suddenly our newest foreign policy savant apparently because he wrote a lengthy, indeed tedious, piece in a recent issue of The New Republic entitled, cutely, "Superpowers Don't Get To Retire." The article reads like a Wikipedia-sourced high school report on U.S. foreign policy from 1945 to 2014. Out of this dull montage, Kagan is apparently now viewed as a man of decision and literate expositor of necessary action who frontally challenges the U.S. president over the direction of America's international relations.
What exactly is Kagan preaching in his essay? It's hard to say, and yet not so hard to say. First of all, his musings restate the obvious -- foremost, that since 1945 the United States has played the leading role in the affairs of our world. Nobody denies that (though Kagan notes it as if some previously undiscovered truth). What mostly captures Kagan's attention is his second take-away gleaned from his "close analysis" of the past seven decades of U.S. policies -- namely, that, as he judges it, the only way Washington has been able to lead and project its influence around the planet is by the use of force. That, in a nutshell, is actually probably the best definition of neo-conservatism that I know of.
This belief-system (gospel) surely explains Kagan's deep disappointment in Obama (though his wife works with Obama in the State Department). For, by his lights, our chief executive has not learned the self-evident lessons of the past. Indeed Obama has refused to use US armed might all over the globe to settle crises in the Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Iran and where ever else trouble spots erupt. Obama, due to this seeming incapacitating restraint, appears, to Kagan, to be weak, irresponsible and ignorant.
Yet, in divining the entrails of the post-1945 years and setting out his thesis, Kagan barely addresses, or comes to terms with, the fact that almost all of our past presidents, Republican and Democratic, have mostly used restraint rather than force in handling crises of the past. This begins with Truman's decision to forgo overthrowing democratically-elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, Eisenhower in refraining from the using the atomic bomb after the French abandoned Vietnam or in intervening during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Nixon in going to China rather than attempting to isolate it militarily, Reagan in pulling US troops out of Lebanon instead of doubling down with more battalions after a devastating terrorist attack, George HW Bush sidestepping any military moves after the collapse of the Soviet empire, and yes, George W Bush, refusing to strike back at Russian President Putin after he grabbed off pieces of Georgia.
In fact, it would almost seem as if presidents who don't show respect for restraint are the ones who make the most blunders -- leading to our Vietnams, our Afghanistans and our Iraqs. Indeed, this seems to be the notable downside of the policies of such neo-conservative pluggers as George W Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld. Now, of course, we should note that there can be those rare exceptions where US military action is put to good use -- e.g., in our fight to save South Korea. But, deep down, it is clear that Kagan believes that once you are president, you should become, by definition, exclusively a commander-in-chief.
Last April 23rd, I had a chance to hear Kagan declaim at the Council on Foreign Relations -- along with a fellow neo-con John Podhoretz -- on American foreign policy. Kagan and Podhoretz, two plus-sized fellows, volubly recited all the reckless old John McCain/Lindsay Graham lines about Obama's serial failures, and bloviated on about the need for U.S. military primacy in every contemporary crisis we face. It was really beyond belief. But more remarkable is that, after all the wrenching experiences our country has endured under the so-called neo-con doctrine, it seems, in the person of Robert Kagan, to be slowly crawling back into respectability. Can this be true?
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