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I’ve never understood why the liberal and conservative, hawkish and dovish wings of the American foreign policy establishment have long made such a big deal out of Robert Kagan. With the Washington Post’s publication of his latest monthly op-ed piece earlier this week, his reputation is even more of a mystery.

According to Kagan, a neoconservative interventionist hawk who has found a home at the liberal internationalist (and sometimes interventionist) Brookings Institution, America “needs a discussion on when, not whether, to use force.” Obviously, Kagan is thinking of the recent rash of crises in Ukraine, the Middle East, and the South China Sea, and the muddled American response to each. But the idea that this confusion mainly reflects inadequate national debate on using force is baffling.

Maybe Kagan hasn’t been paying attention, but since the height of the Vietnam War ended, Americans, and especially their foreign policy elites, have debated nothing but the use of force. (Contrary to Kagan’s above suggestion, the view that the nation should never use force abroad has been completely marginalized.) It’s gotten the nation exactly nowhere, because discussing the use of force amounts to discussing tactics, or means.

What’s really been missing from the national foreign policy debate has been a rigorous discussion of goals – that is, national interests. Without a reasonable consensus on the objectives that using force are supposed to achieve, it’s impossible to examine the use-of-force issue in even a minimally coherent way. Put differently, as with any tactic, the utility or desirability of military force can’t be usefully examined in a strategic vacuum. One might as well discuss the pluses and minuses of swinging a baseball bat without considering whether this act will be taking place on a diamond or in a crowded supermarket.

I wrote most comprehensively about this subject way back in the 1980s, in an article in FOREIGN POLICY magazine titled “The Real National Interest.” I couldn’t find the piece on-line, but here’s a pretty good summary. If I find the full text, I’ll let you know.

In its absence, however, think of the matter this way. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, there wasn’t much of a American debate about whether a forcible response was warranted. Ditto for 9-11. When the nature of U.S. interests is screamingly obvious (i.e., defending the American homeland from attack), and the threat is serious enough, the imperative of responding with force is equally obvious.

Yet when, say, the murderous dictator of Syria used poison gas against his own people, but made no moves threatening the United States itself or even American allies, a heated debate over using force broke out nation-wide. It was resolved only operationally – not intellectually – when President Obama decided ultimately not to act. Indeed, once the Syrian civil war spilled over into neighboring Iraq, and presented the threat of a new terrorist sanctuary emerging in the Middle East, the Syria debate erupted again.

This blog will return to the subject of defining interests repeatedly. For now, let’s applaud Kagan for hoping that Americans can “move away from the current faux-Manichaean struggle between straw men and caricatures “ when they debate using force – and presumably the rest of our foreign policy. But let’s also recognize that, until he starts defining national interest in some reasonably precise way, he’ll continue to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.