The Atlantic and The New Republic have both been on a roll lately, proving that long-form writing remains a vital part of our now-digital conversation. But I have to say I was underwhelmed by Bob Kagan’s endless piece, “Super-Powers Don’t Get To Retire.” The very title is simply wrong. Super-powers have retired again and again in world history – and it’s usually compulsory retirement. The retirement of both the British super-power in the twentieth and the previous Spanish super-power in the seventeenth came about because of imperial over-reach, in which the fiscal and economic costs of empire bankrupted the imperial motherland. And one of the striking lacunae in Kagan’s worldview is any sense that the US has limits, any awareness of the massive debt under which this country still labors, preventing all sorts of vital investments in education, infrastructure, and the like. The perpetual pattern of super-powers finding themselves hollowed out domestically, while for ever moving forward abroad, is one you would think Kagan would at least nod to. But like the neocons in the Bush administration for whom “deficits didn’t matter,” Kagan simply waves away the crippling cost of maintaining a military power greater than the ten next countries.
You can see this in the gob-smacking way in which some Beltway warriors casually want to the US to stay longer in Afghanistan, already the longest war in the history of the United States, costing the US, by some estimates, $10 million an hour. An argument for the eternal maintenance of American global hegemony that has no real accounting for that cost – in an age when most Americans are themselves struggling to retain their standard of living – is the definition of unserious.
Then, in Kagan’s view, there is the notion that there really isn’t much difference in the US confronting globally expansionist totalitarian empires and dealing with the usual tin-pot autocrats who have littered history for ever. The distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism – once made famous by Jeane Kirkpatrick – doesn’t seem to feature in Kagan’s worldview. But the only reason why the United States, after centuries as a Western hemisphere regional power, became the world’s policeman was totalitarianism – of the Nazi and then the Communist variety. Both the Axis powers and the Soviets harbored a universalizing ideology that demanded conquest, mass murder, and a huge modern military machine that reached Hawaii, all of which necessitated an American response. It is simply ludicrous to put Putin’s weak strutting around in his near-abroad in the same category of threat as the decades-long conquest of all of Eastern Europe by a totalitarian state. The uniqueness of the totalitarian threat was once a pillar of neoconservative ideology. Now that it might counsel a policy of prudent retrenchment, it’s suddenly absent from their rhetorical arsenal.
Then there is Kagan’s simply shameful refusal to note the catastrophes of over-reach that we just experienced in the Bush-Cheney era. You can read the essay and find not a scintilla of reckoning with that nightmare that Kagan himself did so much to promote. So we get an essay that deliberately and disingenuously says far more about America in the twentieth century than about America in the 21st. This after close to a hundred thousand dead in a broken, failed state called Iraq, thousands of fatalities of young Americans, and staggering costs. There is also no understanding at all that the United States can no longer argue that it may be a pain in the neck at times – but at least it’s better than the Soviets/Nazis. Growing up in another country, I can assure you this was a rampart of the case Americanophiles (including me) made in Europe for the US alliance for years. It was our logical ace. But that “lesser of two evils” defense of global hegemony has now disappeared, rendering US hegemony far less legitimate than it only recently was.
Kagan also refuses to acknowledge another key aspect of the Bush administration legacy – and his own. The United States no longer has a leg to stand on when it comes to basic, universal moral norms that undergirded the entire internationalist system the US set up. The US is the only democratic power, apart from Israel, to violate the Geneva Conventions at will. This country perpetuated a regime of brutal torture and has never reckoned with it. This country still detains innocent prisoners of war indefinitely without trial and still subjects them to the torture of foul force-feeding. This country seized and brutally tortured one of its own citizens, without any trial, and with no due process, in the case of Jose Padilla. Its former vice-president and a large chunk of a major party aggressively want to bring back torture as a formal instrument of American democracy. If you think the world sees America as it once did – either as the lesser of two evils or as a paragon of democratic norms – you are deluding yourselves. Kagan did his part in helping destroy that core legitimization of global hegemony. He cannot now pretend it hasn’t happened, even as TNR has shamefully ducked the question of torture for the past decade.
Then there is the simple conservative wisdom that meddling in countries you do not understand is usually a recipe for disaster. Take the one intervention many liberal internationalists liked and argued for – Libya. The solipsistic idea that all that was at stake was preventing a possible massacre in one city has led to a failed state where Islamist terror is now widespread. Today David Brooks waxes lyrical about Kagan, just as he might have before the Iraq War – while completely ignoring the core conservative insight that these foreign and alien cultures and societies are simply beyond our ability to control or direct with any real practical wisdom. No admirer of Oakeshott can possibly believe that the US’ attempt to coax and mold other countries into our political model would lead to anything but tears. What staggers me is that, after Iraq, this point still hasn’t been absorbed by the neocons. There has been no chastening. There is no humility. And there is precious little conservatism.
David also used a really revealing phrase.
He writes of American foreign policy in the 20th Century that “presidents assertively tended the international garden so that small problems didn’t turn into big ones, even when core national interests were not at stake.” America tends the international garden. The world is ours to trim and tweak, plant and grow, mow and cut. The idea that we are actually tending other people’s gardens does not seem to occur to Brooks. The imperial over-hang is that great.
Mercifully, the American people disagree quite strongly and have so far acted as a restraint on the Beltway’s desire for more war, more meddling, and more intervention. Mercifully too, we have had a prudent, conservative president whose vision is both far more in tune with the realities of this interdependent world – far more advanced, wealthy and self-confident than the destroyed vistas of 1945 – and with the American people, whose rock-solid support is still essential for any intervention in the world to have the slightest chance of success. But these are weak constraints against the forces in Washington that still hanker for the hegemon’s swagger. I fear that the wisdom of Obama may not prevail in a future Clinton White House; and I fear that non-interventionists in the GOP will be neutered by the military-industrial complex and the Cheneyites who still drink the Kool-Aid of post-Cold War hubris.
You want American power to regain legitimacy? A prudent retrenchment would help. You want America to retain the option of global military power? Put the US on a path to fiscal balance and economic growth again. You are afraid of autocrats? Why? They will be with us always and they almost always fail. What succeeds is the democratic economic model – which is much more imperiled today by the centrifugal forces of technology and inequality than in a century. What we need to do now is focus on restoring the core economic and democratic health at home before clinging to a role whose legitimacy is in tatters. Restoring our luster as a global model would do far more to encourage democracy around the world than top-down meddling in other people’s business. That is what Obama has done or tried to do. And if you want a sustainable form of prudent, US intervention in global conflicts, it should be your top priority.
(Photos: President Obama at West Point; Seen through splintered bullet-proof glass, US soldiers from 2-12 Infantry Battalion examine their damaged Humvee after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated on the vehicle, following a patrol in the predominantly Sunni al-Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad 19 March 2007; posters on the streets of Iran, after the Abu Ghraib revelations. All by Getty Images.)