I haven’t done the math, but it certainly seems as if every 4-5 years Kagan churns out another international-affairs manifesto. Each one seeks to capture the zeitgeist and define the terms of debate. Although he’s probably best known for Of Paradise and Power and its “America is from Mars, Europe is from Venus” catchphrase, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” is Kagan’s best work. Since then, its been a downhill slide through each new gloss on neoconservative thought.
Kagan’s piece in the New Republic, called “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” continues this depressing trend. At least half of the essay is a rambling account of 20th-century US foreign policy. It has a decidedly “paint by numbers” feel. If you know where it is going – and, since this is Kagan, that’s not a big mystery – you pretty much know which textbook-level historical facts will appear and which theoretical flourishes he’ll name check along the way.
The essay isn’t really worth a serious intellectual engagement. The world is going to hell because of the declining US defense budget, Obama’s desire to improve decaying US infrastructure, and probably because we haven’t bombed anyone in a whole three years. If we don’t stand up now, pretty soon Putin will be celebrating Orthodox Easter in London because Hitler. The whole thing is held together with pixie dust, repurposed post-it notes, and a piece or two of trident chewing gum.
What is interesting about it? For one, realism seems to have firmly reemerged as the bête noire for neoconservatives. For another, Kagan continues his attempts to deflect attention from the myriad ways in which Iraq undermined US power and influence. He also rewrites a bit of his own history on the subject. Here’s what he says in The New Republic piece:
At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest. Of all the American interventions of the post-cold-war era, only the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as directly related to America’s own national security.
Perhaps. But that’s certainly not how Kagan saw it at the time. For example:
He would be a greater threat to the United States even were the Americans and Europeans in complete agreement on Iraq policy, because it is the logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power. The task of containing Saddam Hussein belongs primarily to the United States, not to Europe, and everyone agrees on this — including Saddam, which is why he considers the United States, not Europe, his principal adversary. In the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, and in most other regions of the world (including Europe), the United States plays the role of ultimate enforcer. “You are so powerful,” Europeans often say to Americans. “So why do you feel so threatened?” But it is precisely America’s great power that makes it the primary target, and often the only target. Europeans are understandably content that it should remain so.
Now, it is true that Kagan routinely invoked world-order issues in advocating for war with Iraq. But he never stopped there. To take another example:
NOR IS THERE any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn’t fully grasped before. In the 1990s, much of the complacency about Saddam, both in Washington and in Europe, rested on the assumption that he could be deterred. Saddam was not a madman, the theory went, and would not commit suicide by actually using the weapons he was so desperately trying to obtain. Some of us, it’s true, had our doubts about this logic. The issue seemed to us not so much whether we could deter Saddam, but whether he could deter us: If Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 1991, would we have gone to war to drive him from Kuwait?
But after September 11, we have all been forced to consider another scenario. What if Saddam provides some of his anthrax, or his VX, or a nuclear device to a terrorist group like al Qaeda? Saddam could help a terrorist inflict a horrific attack on the United States or its allies, while hoping to shroud his role in the secrecy of cutouts and middlemen. How in the world do we deter that? To this day we don’t know who provided the anthrax for the post-September 11 attacks. We may never know for sure.
What we do know is that Saddam is an ally to the world’s terrorists and always has been. He has provided safe haven to the infamous Abu Nidal. Reliable reports from defectors and former U.N. weapons inspectors have confirmed the existence of a terrorist training camp in Iraq, complete with a Boeing 707 for practicing hijackings, and filled with non-Iraqi radical Muslims. We know, too, that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of September11, went out of his way to meet with an Iraqi intelligence official a few months before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center. As Leon Fuerth understates, “There may well have been interaction between Mr. Hussein’s intelligence apparatus and various terrorist networks, including that of Osama bin Laden.”
SO THERE IS no debate about the facts. No one doubts the nature of the threat Saddam poses. Most even agree that, as former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger says, “the goal . . . should be getting rid of Saddam Hussein.” Leon Fuerth recently wrote that Saddam “and his government must be ripped out of Iraq if we are ever to be secure and if the sufferings of the Iraqi people are ever to abate.”