I’ve never had much use for foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan, though I have admired his talent for framing run-of-the-mill neoconservative foreign policy views in ways that others, especially liberals, for some reason feel compelled to take seriously. But a new column by the Brookings Institution fellow and Washington Post columnist provides a great opportunity both to praise him for injecting some needed intellectual honesty in the nation’s defense and foreign debate, and to clarify some of my own views on the subject.
Kagan, like his fellow neconservatives, has long urged the United States to seek and maintain an unabashed global leadership role. They believe that nothing less than countering aggression everywhere and actively seeking to expand the ranks of pro-Western countries is needed to achieve adequate levels of American security.
Encouragingly, moreover, for the neocons, most Republicans and other conservatives seem to agree – thanks no doubt to Vladimir Putin’s moves to enlarge Russia’s influence in its backyard, to stunning terrorist advances in the Middle East, and to Iran’s growing influence in the region and nuclear ambitions.
Yet Kagan has rightly upbraided this critical mass of the American Right – especially in Congress – for not putting its wallet where its mouth is. His March 19 column observes that, for all their hawkish talk lately – including sharp criticisms of President Obama – most Republican Senators and Congressmen still favor the so-called sequester that leaves U.S. defense spending woefully short of the resources that their apparent agenda requires. As a result, Kagan writes:
“one is left to wonder whether the new tone is based on genuine conviction about the nature of the threats facing the world and America’s essential role in meeting them, or whether many Republican politicians just figure that hawkishness is a great way to run against the Democratic nominee in 2016.”
At least as important, he warns that pushing the nation into a tougher foreign policy posture without adequate funding would leave America in the worst of all possible positions, courting greater risks and dangers without the ability to handle them.
Where Kagan errs – profoundly, in my opinion – is in continuing to insist that Americans have no choice but to play this hyper-active global role, and that Republicans, conservatives, and other U.S. leaders must rally their somnolent countrymen to the cause with Churchillian displays of leadership.
As I see it, Kagan makes the same fundamental mistake made for decades by the internationalists of both the Left and Right who have completely dominated U.S. foreign policymaking. He completely misses the geopolitical and related economic advantages that make greatly reducing global engagement (along with measures to strengthen homeland defenses and maximize economic self-sufficiency) the only sensible course for the nation’s diplomacy. But I completely agree with his calls for higher defense spending for this crucial reason: As implied above, they are absolutely essential for giving not only “hawkish” conservative foreign policy strategies any chance of success, but for giving President Obama’s strategy and others on the Left any chance of success.
For just as the Right has propagated the dangerous myth that American foreign policies would be more successful and the world made a much safer place if only the president would show some actual and rhetorical muscle, Mr. Obama and the rest of the Left have propagated an equally dangerous myth: that America (and the world) would realize the same (vital) benefits simply by shifting more existing resources from the military to foreign aid, human rights promotion, environmental protection, international institutions, and other programs and actors that can achieve the same aims in benign rather than bellicose ways. (Libertarian conservatives of course have peddled their own variation of these claims.)
And these progressives pay no attention to homeland security and economic independence, either. In fact, their enthusiasm for Open Borders-style immigration policies can only weaken the former.
It’s true that, as Kagan notes, Mr. Obama supports military spending levels higher than those provided for in the Republican-backed sequester. But it’s also true that, as Kagan also notes, such spending levels cannot possibly advance and protect the interests the United States continues to declare.
Which brings us to my own views on the president’s record overseas. I have indeed strongly criticized Mr. Obama’s policies in the Middle East, toward Russia, and in East Asia (where he believes a combination of new military deployments and new trade deals can contain Chinese influence) for reasons that have struck many as at least neconservative-friendly. But I’ve tried to specify that I’m not endorsing anything like neoconservative goals. I’m simply trying to point out that the president’s blueprints and actions can’t possibly achieve its own objectives, and are all too likely to leave the nation needlessly exposed to danger.
Kagan’s critique of mainstream conservatives and Republicans is similar, and he deserves credit for making it. Now we need folks on the Left (and on the libertarian Right) to point out their own fellows’ delusions. And above all, politicians across the board need to pay attention. Until they do, America will be saddled with a leadership class divided not by rival viable foreign policy blueprints, but by rival foreign policy fairy tales. If you’re wondering why the world looks like a more dangerous place, that’s where the answer starts.