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Robert Kagan Sticks to His Guns

Nearly two decades after getting Iraq wrong, the foreign policy scholar wonders why Americans have lost their mettle.

Robert Kagan, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee December 6, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Urging his countrymen to support the then-forthcoming U.S. invasion of Iraq, Robert Kagan insisted in 2002 that “No step would contribute more toward shaping a world order in which our people and our liberal civilization can survive and flourish.” Please note: not could possibly or might, but would. Kagan was certain.

In March 2003, George W. Bush took that step. Opinions may differ, but as far as I can tell, neither our people nor our liberal civilization have flourished in the nearly two decades since. Now, however, Kagan is back. And he’s not giving an inch.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features a new rendering of what we have come to expect from Kagan. The title, “A Superpower, Like It or Not,” is less important than the straightforwardly didactic subtitle: “Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role.” Not should or ought to, mind you, but must. “The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad,” he insists, “is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States.” There is no alternative. Of that, Kagan remains certain.

The piece consists primarily of a tendentious reading of history since the turn of the 20th century, designed to show that the American people are always on the verge of abandoning “their proper place and role in the world” and thereby allowing the forces of darkness to run wild.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Kagan’s narrative relates to the Iraq war that he once promoted as essential to preserving liberal civilization. As it turns out, according to Kagan, the war in Iraq and its counterpart in Afghanistan rank as minor episodes of minimal relevance to his overall thesis. Indeed, he chides those who refer to “the relatively low-cost military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘forever wars’.” In both instances, he writes, “Americans had one foot out the door the moment they entered, which hampered their ability to gain control of difficult situations.”

Kagan offers no figures on dollars expended, ordnance dropped, or casualties inflicted or absorbed to illustrate what he means by “relatively low cost.” Nor does he explain how having one foot out the door meshes with the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq rank as the two longest wars in U.S. history. Instead, he cites popular unhappiness with these two wars as “just the latest example of [the American people’s] intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats.”

In other words, the problem was not the Bush administration’s rashness in framing its response to 9/11 as an open-ended global war. Nor was it the non-existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction cited to justify the Iraq war, the incompetence of senior U.S. military leaders who flubbed the occupation of countries the United States invaded, or subsequent horrors such as Abu Ghraib that made a mockery of Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Rather, the problem was that the American people lacked Robert Kagan’s commitment to preserving peace and forestalling threats.

For Kagan, the key to preserving and forestalling is to amass and employ military power. So he laments the fact that U.S. military spending as a percentage of GDP is less today than it was during the Cold War. That the United States also stations fewer troops abroad than it did during the “long twilight struggle” is another source of concern. Why these comparisons are relevant to the present moment he does not say. Nor does he note that at present the United States easily leads the planet in military expenditures and in the number of foreign bases it maintains. His bottom line is that the Pentagon needs more money and more warriors.

“The time has come,” he concludes, “to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility.” Americans “need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.” Kagan laments the fact that “A failure to be square with the American people has led the country to its current predicament.”

Let me suggest a different interpretation: It is time to be square with the American people about the consequences that stem from the reckless use of military power and the abuse of U.S. troops. Our actual predicament derives from the less than honest claim that history obliges the United States to pursue a policy of militarized hegemony until the end of time. Alternatives do exist.

The wonder is that the editors of Foreign Affairs have not yet caught on.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.