Neocon Mea Culpa

Robert Kagan explains the neocon case convincingly in a recent interview. But America needs less utopian dreams and more gritty facts to guide its foreign policy.

Robert Kagan, probably the most affable, lucid and provocative of neocons, and definitely the most productive, is featured in a five page interview in the current issue of the influential German weekly Der Spiegel. The interview has added piquancy not simply because the interviewer, in good Teutonic fashion, addresses Kagan as "Dr.," but also because Kagan is an adviser to John McCain and would undoubtedly hold a major foreign-policy position in a McCain administration. Even as Kagan declares that "American remains number one," the interview reveals the extent to which the views of the neocons have been battered by the war in Iraq and the shortcomings of the McCain campaign itself.

A good chunk of the interview is given over to rehashing the Iraq War. Kagan acquits himself quite well, refusing to become a de facto spokesman for the Bush administration. Instead, like McCain, he plays up the failings of Bush and Co., most notably their failure to send sufficient troops to Iraq at the outset of the war. While dismissing some of the more outré conspiracy theories floating around Europe about the origins of the war, he wisely concedes that Bush might have acted precipitously in attacking Saddam Hussein: "In retrospect, we have to admit that Washington could have waited a while longer." And "mistakes were made." Of course, did Washington need to attack at all? Kagan falls back on morality-"I can't believe that people think that we would be better off if that inhuman dictator were still in power." To which Spiegel comes back with the human toll in Iraq itself. Tit-for-tat.

What's striking about Kagan's stands is what he doesn't say. The term democratization seems to have been banished to the sidelines, replaced with talk about power competition with Russia and China. Kagan, as in his new book The Return of History and the End of Dreams (reviewed in The National Interest by Anatol Lieven), focuses on the nation-state as the center of action. The world, he maintains, has "returned to normal." When pressed to explain his views in the interview, he posits a stark

global divide ideologically, a divide between the club of autocrats and the liberal democracies . . . We are facing an increasingly self-confident Russia, which is defending its traditional sphere of influence with all the means at its disposal-look at Georgia-and that is keeping Western Europe in energy dependence. And we see China, which is pursuing its own national interests with growing self-confidence and tremendous economic success.

As Kagan sees it, Europe and America will grow closer as they seek to counter these rising powers. The world economic crisis, Kagan suggests, is largely irrelevant to these trends.

But is it? No neocon has yet explained how America is going to maintain its current level of military expenditures and commitments abroad while the economy goes belly-up. Despite the language of national interests employed by Kagan, he fails to indicate how or why the United States would help Europe ease its dependence on Russian energy. What's more, he is seamlessly projecting from current trends into the future, which is always a dangerous business. Is Russia really a rising power? Or is it a claptrap enterprise held together only by Vladimir Putin's authoritarian measures? It would seem wiser to at least consider the possibility that the global competition that Kagan envisages will not, in fact occur.

The gravest weakness in Kagan's analysis, however, is its stark dichotomy between autocrats and liberal democracies. This is simply a new form of the old, bifurcated neocon weltanschauung, to borrow a venerable German term. Good on one side, evil on the other. The fact is that America's alliances have never been divided up that tidily-during the cold war, Washington allied itself with bad guys to tackle what it saw as even worse ones. McCain's, and Kagan's, endorsement of a League of Democracies and calls for booting Russia out of the G-8 are weirdly utopian prescriptions for strategic confusion, if not disaster. The United States has had enough utopianism; mere competence is what's required.

This is why it comes as something of a shock when Kagan concludes his interview by breezily observing, "Don't worry too much about Sarah Palin." No? Why not? Kagan may say "go ahead and let your heart beat for Obama; but use your head to choose McCain," yet he remains the one asking everyone else to take a leap of faith. Don't leap.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.