The Glib Gangster Strikes Again

He comes from good neocon stock: Brother Fred and sister-in-law Kimberly
are both leading defense intellectuals, instigators of Obama’s Afghanistan escalation. Not surprisingly, Robert Kagan’s new book on foreign policy is a neocon foreign-policy pep talk, neatly packaged as a very long magazine article.

Condensed to one sentence, the book says: We’re still number one! Sure, China’s economy will overtake our own as the world’s biggest within a couple of decades, and the other “BRIC” nations—Brazil, Russia, and India—are also growing rapidly as regional powers. Might the United States scale back its global ambitions to make room for the peaceful rise of these powers? How about taking a time out from building, then abandoning, $750 million embassies deep in Central Asia to focus on nation-building at home?

Oh, please. Stay the course! According to Kagan, the liberal world order of (sort of) free trade and (some of the time) peace is almost entirely due to American power — hard military power, especially. Kagan doesn’t explicitly say that America’s failure to maintain military bases in 140 nations will result in global chaos and flesh-eating zombies; he just strongly implies it. In our altruistic goodness, we get sucked into “commitments” and “responsibilities” all over the globe, the result being that the rest of the world, they just can’t live without us. Even the mildest retrenchment of American power would be, in Kagan’s calm and measured phrase, “preemptive superpower suicide,” and bad for others as well.

Kagan, like many a Washingtonian, doesn’t seem to have noticed that our self-inflicted wounds after September 11 have not redounded to American prestige, economic well-being, military strength, or any other index of power. He is kind enough to proffer a shruggy excuse for Iraq—hey, it wasn’t as bad as the Vietnam War, was it? Far from expressing contrition, Kagan still seems sulky that Germany and France decided to sit out Iraq.

Nothing is more unbecoming than superpower self-pity, but that is the mawkish lifeblood of Kagan’s book: Why don’t they like us? After all we’ve done for them… In this vein, Kagan compares our blip of post-Iraq introspection to Jimmy Stewart preparing to toss himself off the bridge at the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life.

But the cinematic mood of Kagan’s little book is less Capra than gangster. What Kagan doesn’t know—can’t know, and will never know—is how much his spiel sounds like the pitch of a protection racketeer, the unsubtle shakedown of a strong nation addressing the weak.

“Hey bud, nice world order ya got working for ya—be a real shame if it started to unravel a little bit. Now why don’t ya give me 5,000 of your young men, help me invade Iraq, or Iran, someplace like that? Hey, don’t get sore!”

It would be a comfort to laugh all of this off as the lingering bad breath of the Bush-Cheney debacle. Boy, would this be wrong. For Robert Kagan has the ear of the prince now more than ever. A cover story in the neoliberal New Republic (the go-to rag for hawkish Democrats with fancy law degrees) brought Kagan’s triumphal ode to the attention of one Barack Obama, who’s been gushing about it to reporters and even worked it into his January State of the Union speech. We are all stuck with the statecraft that the Kagans have made; even out of office and even after the futile calamities of Iraq and Afghanistan, the neocon hawks still shape our foreign policy discourse. (Did I mention that Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, is the spokesperson for Obama’s State Department?) Washington has learned nothing.


Chase Madar is a lawyer and writer in New York. His first book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, was recently published by O/R Books; he writes for the London Review of Books, Le Monde diplomatique, and TomDispatch.

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