Robert Kagan and the Ruin of Ideas
The neo-conservative commentator, Robert Kagan, co-founder in 1997 of the Project for a New American Century, and after that institution crashed amidst the ruins of Iraq, founder of its 2009 successor, the Foreign Policy Initiative, is continuing his crusade for a new Reaganism — which he construes as American world domination. Now it is with a new book, “The World America Made,” summarized in a long article in the May 26 issue of The New Republic, and received in that city with apparent enthusiasm.
His purpose has always been to put Reaganite foreign policy back on its feet — or what he and other conservatives (neo or otherwise) think Reaganist foreign policy really was, the “defeat” of Soviet Communism, achieved through “moral clarity” and outspending the Soviet Union in arms. Others might say that the USSR collapsed of its own internal contradictions, and because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s moral leadership.
Today the Kagan crusade seeks the defeat of Vladimir Putin’s new Russia through besieging it with new NATO states and economic sanctions. This, of course, is Victoria Nuland’s (Mrs. Kagan’s) department. When not engaged in that effort — currently in difficulty — the Kagan recommendation is that the U.S. confront Chinese power, and other states that abuse human rights, “rogue” states, and Arab terrorists, sweeping all of them into a new American world order.
Mr. Kagan appropriately takes his argument from history, dating it from America’s exceptionalist origins, Woodrow Wilson, and the First World War (which like many Americans he seems to believe the United States won, with 16 months at war and 350 thousand casualties, as against France’s four years and 6 million casualties, plus the other Allies). He says the war drew the United States out of its preoccupation with its own affairs to the “internationalism,” which he says was the true objective of President Wilson, as of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.
Although the Senate refused to accept League of Nations membership (because it would require member-governments to go to war on the vote of the League’s membership, which was constitutionally unacceptable to the Americans), Kagan says that the League was meant to be a vehicle for American power in shaping a “new world order,” a goal which Washington has never abandoned.
The Second World War made it possible for this conception to be realized. The author quotes Franklin Roosevelt as saying that in the liberal world order peace would have to be kept by force, envisaging a million American troops occupying postwar Europe. The Joint Chiefs expected to establish military bases around the world, “in areas well removed from the U.S.,” so that any fighting “would take place abroad.” Kagan says that this commitment to intervention was “the real revolution in American foreign policy,” operating, as Dean Acheson said, “in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests.”
This was, of course, substantially what did happen following 1945. Thus the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods economic institutions, and the construction of West European political, economic and security institutions (the former by French initiatives – the Coal and Steel Community, leading towards the European Union – and the latter by the British-led West European Union, later absorbed into NATO), all supported by the United States. The story is well known to us all; then we stumbled into the cold war, which dominated the international scene thereafter.
At this point Kagan’s narrative loses the point he wishes to establish, the success of the postwar global order, built up following the Korean War and the deepening freeze of the cold war, and subverted by the Vietnam War and Cambodian invasion. He treats these events without critical analysis. At this late date surely it is clear that the American misinterpretation of post-colonial Asian nationalism, as a Communist threat which the West must fight, produced disaster for all concerned, postponing for a generation the development of those states and producing a domestic crisis in the United States whose effects are still with us.
Then came the American plunge into the Middle East, making a parallel error, this time seeking revenge against Iran’s revolution. This was accompanied by Israel’s determination to dominate the developed or developing Islamic states, and the willingness of the United States to sustain this deep and lasting error. The Gulf War and the decision, against all knowledgeable advice, to set up what was to be a permanent American airbase in Saudi Arabia inspired al-Qaeda.
Next came the invasion of Iraq (for faked reasons) and Afghanistan, to destructive effect on the United States, and to its Islamic opponents as well, setting off and sustaining a “war of civilization” whose side-effects continue to be ruinous to the region and a threat to the West.
With this record, Mr. Kagan’s belief that the world is waiting for and will benefit from a benevolent American suzerainty beggars the imagination. Does no one ever look back at the ruins such ideas have already produced?
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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