The Selective Memory of Robert Kagan – The American Conservative
According to the Foreign Affairs reporter, Russia invaded Ukraine because the United States did not get involved in enough global conflicts.
WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 06: Robert Kagan, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s International Order and Strategy Project, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 6, 2016 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic “Emerging U.S. Defense Challenges and Global Threats”. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
In the pages of Foreign Affairs, the indefatigable Robert Kagan recently weighed in with another fervent appeal on behalf of the empire. Always the true blue American, Kagan of course avoids using the offensive E-word. He favors the term hegemony, which, he explains, is benign, implying neither domination nor exploitation but voluntary submission – “more of a condition than a goal”. Scratch the surface, however, and “The price of hegemonyoffers a variation on Kagan’s standard theme: the imperative of US militarized global primacy, whatever the cost and regardless of who pays.
Few would accuse Kagan of being a deep or original thinker. As a writer, he is less a philosopher than a pamphleteer, even if he has a real gift for packaging. Remember, for example, his famous claim that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Once reputed to express truth of Lippmannian depth, this warriors versus wimps formulation has since lost much of its persuasive appeal, not least because the warriors, aka “the troops,” have not fared particularly well when challenged. been sent to release, pacify or depose.
So, rather than being listed alongside Walter Lippmann, Kagan will likely share the fate of Scotty Reston or Joe Alsop, once prominent Washington-based columnists now utterly forgotten. Of course, the same fate awaits the whole herd of commentators (including this writer) who pontificate about America’s role in the world under the mistaken impression that top officials in the White House, Foggy Bottom, or the Pentagon ask for their advice. They rarely do.
That said, Kagan stands out from the rest of the pack in one respect: his talent for combining consistency and flexibility is unparalleled. He is nothing if not nimble. Whatever happens in the real world, he is ready to explain how events confirm the indispensability of assertive American leadership. In Washington (and in the pages of Foreign Affairs), this is always a welcome conclusion.
This agility is on full display in his most recent essay, its subtitle asking the question, “Can America learn to use its power?” Kagan comes to his own answer – the United States not only can learn but must – even if he is completely unaware of what the vigorous expenditure of American power over the past two decades has achieved, and at what cost.
His essay therefore contains various dark references to Russian misconduct, as well as a handful of reprehensible actions by China. Perhaps inevitably, Kagan also throws some ominous allusions to Germany and Japan in the run-up to World War II, in circles in Washington, the go-to source for authoritative historical teaching. As for America’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, he is silent. They are not entitled to a single mention – none, zero, none, nada.
According to Kagan, the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war happened at least in part because of American passivity. Successive post-Cold War American administrations have collapsed. Simply put, they did not try to control Russia. While it would be “obscene to blame the United States for Putin’s inhuman attack on Ukraine”, writes Kagan, “to insist that the invasion was unprovoked is misleading”. The United States had “played a strong hand badly”. In doing so, it gave Vladimir Putin reason to think he could get away with aggression. This is how Washington, as if it had stood idly by for the first two decades of this century, provoked Moscow.
By “exerting American influence more consistently and effectively,” presidents, beginning with the elder Bush, could have prevented the devastation suffered by the Ukrainians. From Kagan’s perspective, the United States has been too passive. Today, he writes, “the question is whether the United States will continue to make its own mistakes” – mistakes of inaction, he says – “or whether Americans will learn, once again, that It is better to contain aggressive autocracies early, before they have built up a head of steam.
The reference to the early containment of aggressive autocracies needs to be deciphered. Kagan conceals. What he is actually proposing are new experiments in preventive war, which after 9/11 have become the centerpiece of US national security policy. Kagan, of course, supported the Bush doctrine of preventive war. He was ready to invade Iraq. Implemented in 2003 in the form of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush doctrine produced disastrous results.
Now, even two decades later, Kagan cannot bring himself to acknowledge the grotesque immensity of that mistake, nor its side effects, including the rise of Trumpism and all its ancillary evils.
“Can America Learn to Use Its Power?” Whether this is considered an urgent matter is certainly the case. Yet to imagine that Robert Kagan has the qualifications to offer an intelligible answer is an illusion.
Andrew J. Bacevitch is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and editor of TAC.