In the spring issue of World Affairs, Robert Kagan tackled head-on the myths and misapprehensions that have become synonymous with “neoconservatism”—and with the war that, according to Kagan, it did not generate. “The first thing that could be said about this neoconservative worldview is that there is nothing very conservative about it. But a more important question is, how “neo” is it? A central contention of those who insist that neoconservatism explains the Iraq War is that the doctrine is not only new but outside the foreign policy traditions that have guided the United States throughout its history . . . The further implication is that once this alien worldview is exorcised, the United States can return to its traditional ways and avoid future Iraqs.” The full version of “Neocon Nation” is available at WorldAffairsJournal.org.
Three of the authors named in Kagan’s essay—David Rieff, George Packer, and Ronald Steel—respond below in short essays of their own. Kagan then replies.
As I have written before, both in World Affairs and elsewhere, I am far more sympathetic to Robert Kagan’s account of the historic sweep of the American foreign policy tradition than to much of the self-indulgent sentimentalizing that passes for thought, and, even more grotesquely, oppositional thinking, on the same subject from the liberal-left. Perhaps this is because, although by European standards I am at my most extreme a rather “wet” centrist Social Democrat, in U.S. terms this practically makes me a Maoist. What is remarkable to me is that there is little in Kagan’s analysis particularly at odds with the left, as opposed to a liberal-progressive (whatever that may mean), understanding of America’s historic view of its mission in the world, its insistence on its exceptional character, and its claim that the preservation of and, indeed, the expansion of American power is a fundamentally moral act. Perhaps this is why Kagan’s work disturbs American liberals so much. From where I sit, though, Kagan’s argument is in the best tradition of the Frankfurt School—something I mean as a compliment, though I am anything but sure he will view it that way.
Kagan rightly notes that what he calls “moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, and global ambition” have been all but inscribed in the DNA of American foreign policy. How refreshing it is to have a man of the right insist on the point! For people on my side of the political divide—I am obviously not a Democrat, let alone a Progressive, whatever that may mean—it is like having all your Christmases come at once. It reminds me somewhat of the legitimizing of what had theretofore been “fringe” claims on the Israeli extreme left when the revisionist historian turned hawk, Benny Morris, demonstrated beyond doubt that Israel had been committed to ethnic cleansing—or, as Morris put it, “a systematic policy of transfer”—in the War of Independence/Nakbah of 1948, even though Morris himself was at pains to point out that he approved of the policy.
The problem, I think, is that Kagan is to some extent arguing against a straw man when he seeks to demonstrate that there is nothing “alien”—his word—to the American foreign policy tradition in neoconservatism. On that point, he is obviously right, and to the extent that critics of the neoconservatives have indeed been more interested in following “a winding intellectual path back to Leo Strauss, or to Leon Trotsky, or to the Jewish experience after the Holocaust,” as Kagan puts it with justifiable asperity, rather than looking at the speeches and policies of American leaders from McKinley to Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy to, yes, George W. Bush, Kagan wins the argument easily.
But it is one thing to argue that what is now called neoconservatism in foreign policy has been a major strand in the American internationalist tradition since the founding of the Republic and quite another to insist that it is its central tradition. Kagan’s penchant for binary thinking—by far his greatest intellectual weakness in my view—and his tendency to slip into categorical lesson-giving does not serve him well here, just as his insistence on Americans being “from Mars” and Europeans “from Venus,” though it surely helped sales of his book, Paradise and Power, was not, to put it mildly, his finest intellectual hour. Doubtless, neoconservatism is only one modern iteration of America’s special mission to bring democracy to the world, at the point of a gun if necessary. But the liberal internationalist tradition is a distinct reality as well, and Kagan goes too far in trying to marginalize it in his otherwise useful and bracing piece. In my view, again falling into that binary default mode of his, Kagan makes a mistake in not taking more seriously the influence of the anti-interventionist, anti-millennarian tradition on liberal internationalism, without which Franklin Roosevelt’s United Nations project, no matter how muddled and contradictory it seems in retrospect, would have taken a very different form. It is true that Kagan admits that there are “counter-traditions,” but to my mind he does not treat them with anywhere near the seriousness they deserve.
Having said that, it seems to me Kagan is absolutely right to insist that what we now call neoconservatism is “no aberration” within the American foreign policy tradition, and to mock the idea that, as he puts it, American imperialism was “some deviation from tradition foisted on an unsuspecting nation by clever ideologues”—the view that does indeed dominate the current thinking of liberals and the Democratic Party, which is awfully convenient given that it allows them to blame everything on the Bush administration, and somehow find it coherent to oppose the war in Iraq but back regime change in Khartoum in order to “save” the people of Darfur (regime change being the inevitable consequence, indeed a sine qua non, of any serious effort to intervene in that region, whether activists wish to admit this fact or not). Kagan is also correct, it seems to me, in pointing out how widespread support for the war in Iraq was among liberal Democrats and born-again realists when it still looked like things would go well and when the Bush administration was riding high. An argument about first principles between the American mainstream and the neoconservatives? Give me a break.
This revisionism about Iraq aside, what is perhaps most tedious about the liberal view is its desperate desire to have things all ways. Thus, American hegemony is basically all right as long as it is committed to the maintenance of international, and, crucially, multilateral liberal rule sets and the rest of the litany. Thus, Joseph Nye can insist with a straight face that “[American] primacy is not empire,” not even informal empire (no one, after all, thinks the American empire has the same bureaucratic structures and formal ambitions of nineteenth-century European colonial empires), largely because there are limits to its power and there are times when it is forced to bargain rather than impose its will. The fact that this “bargaining” takes place either with other great powers like Russia or China or with that economic empire known as the European Union does not seem to have led Nye and those who adhere to similar views to consider that it simply may be that the United States is a weakened and weakening empire.
There is something absurdly smug and legalistic about the liberal view. Take, for example, the celebrated phrase widely attributed to Richard Holbrooke—our perennially self-anointed secretary of state in whatever Democratic administration that comes along—that the United Nations works best when there is “real” U.S. leadership. That may be literally true (though I think all it really means is that, structured as it is, the UN can do nothing serious that America opposes). But Holbrooke was almost certainly trying to make the larger point that the context of multilateralism, if respected by the U.S., both legitimated U.S. power and somehow transformed that power into the power of what we absurdly continue to call the “international community.” To this one could add the effort by the Princeton Project on National Security, led by Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, to wrap American hegemony in the sanitizing cloak of a concert of (world) democracies. No doubt the fifth-century B.C. Athenians, too, preferred the term Delian League, which after all was the correct name for the alliance of 150 city-states of which Athens was far and away the most powerful, to the Athenian empire. Empires claiming to be democracies always have this problem, and the U.S. is hardly the first empire to claim to be a democracy.
In short, if the distinction between liberal internationalists and so-called neoconservatives can be boiled down to the fact that liberals seek an America that is hegemonic, is the last best hope of mankind, is entitled to establish international rule sets (after consultation, to be sure), but one that acts, in Jefferson’s celebrated phrase, with “respect for the decent opinions of mankind” and emphasizes so-called soft power, while neoconservatives largely seek the same hegemony—but believe that because the U.S. is the last best hope on earth, has the most military power, and the will to use it, then when in doubt its views should prevail—frankly what we are looking at here is the perfect illustration of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences,” not two fundamentally different approaches to the conduct of American foreign policy.
Kagan concludes his essay with the observation that “the idea that today’s policies represent a decisive break from the past would certainly come as a surprise to the many critics of American foreign policy across the generations, for there has not been a single criticism leveled at neoconservatism in recent years that was not leveled at American foreign policy hundreds of times over the past two centuries.” Precisely. And quite right those critics were, in my opinion, which is why, of course, while I largely share Kagan’s analysis, like the left historians such as William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber, whom Kagan rightly deploys in defense of his argument, I share none of his approbation for this American project. So when Kagan asks, “Are we really interested in abandoning this [interventionist] course?”—my answer is that, sadly, we are not. Otherwise, even the supposedly most far-left, anti-military, anti–Iraq War candidate, Senator Obama, would not constantly repeat that America is humanity’s last best hope or load up his foreign policy team with humanitarian hawks.
We will continue to argue about nuances (and pretend they are matters of principle rather than variations on the same theme). But it seems to me indisputable that, in Kagan’s words, “in 2008, as in almost every election of the past century, American voters will choose between two variations of the same worldview.” So, again, he is quite right: neither the mainstream of the Democratic party, which is likely to prevail in the upcoming elections, nor the mainstream of the Republican Party will have it any other way. In micro-terms, some things will certainly change—from the de facto legalization of torture to the lip service paid to international institutions. But in macro-terms, supporters of the Democratic nominee will discover in due course that “stay the course” is not a coinage that will fall from favor when George W. Bush returns to Crawford, Texas.
David Rieff is a journalist and author, most recently, of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.
If Robert Kagan has a quarrel with me, it seems to be that I took his ideas seriously. They occupy six or seven pages of The Assassins’ Gate, where they are described from the viewpoint of Kagan’s essays from the 1990s and early 2000s. Not a line in those six or seven pages, or anywhere in the book, says or implies that neoconservatism (or neo-Reaganism, in Kagan’s phrase—there was, after all, something neo about it) was a mutant strain of American foreign policy injected into the body politic by aliens—Jewish or otherwise. Perhaps others have made this argument; I haven’t. The “winding path” I followed didn’t lead to Trotsky or Strauss (“There is no Straussian conspiracy”); it went back to Reagan and forward to Wolfowitz. That’s the road Kagan himself took, and I even let him claim a seat in “the liberal tradition” of John Quincy Adams and Lincoln, T.R., Wilson, F.D.R., Truman, and Kennedy, without raising an authorial eyebrow. If Kagan had read me half as closely as I read him, he would have found it difficult and maybe even unworthy to use me for his polemical purposes. So much for intellectual gratitude!
But because his purpose is polemical, he required a straw man, which is the idea that historically illiterate writers have tried to make out of neoconservatism something foreign and incomprehensible—like Yiddish theater—instead of accepting that it’s as American as the Four Freedoms. And why does an intellectual as brilliant as Kagan need to prop up this rather flimsy straw man? Because he wants to establish a related but more ambitious point: that neoconservatism doesn’t really exist. That it’s no different from the thinking that led Lincoln to fight for the Union and Wilson to send Americans into a European war. That the invasion of Iraq was originally argued at the Constitutional Convention. That the worldview of Kagan and Perle is the worldview of Hamilton and Clay.
It is not among the assumptions of The Assassins’ Gate that nothing like neoconservatism has ever existed before. But it is among the book’s assumptions that neoconservatism exists. I can’t prove it to a mathematical certainty, but it’s worth noting that the neoconservatives themselves only began to deny the label when the war that many of them saw as the great test of their ideas went wrong. The language of newness and breaking with the past, the impatience with things as they are, the insistence on a specific doctrine, the embattled hostility toward unbelievers, the sense of belonging to a group of the like-minded that formed pressure committees and issued statements and pushed their own kind into positions of power and established points of connection across government agencies and acted as an insurgency in order to shake up the bureaucracy and change policy—all of these originated not with their critics but with the neoconservatives themselves. Ideologues have nothing to do with cabals, at least not in my mind, and Kagan sprays words like “conspiracy” and “trick” to taint my argument with the whiff of paranoia, if not anti-Semitism. But it’s impossible to write about the Iraq War without writing about a cohesive and self-conscious group of policymakers and intellectuals acting in concert and on the basis of a shared ideology—because that is exactly how they understood themselves.
Ideology is a tendentious word, and I use it carefully. One of the characteristics of most ideologies, including neoconservatism, is a sense that the old rules no longer apply. “This Defense Planning Guidance addresses the fundamentally new situation which has been created by the collapse of the Soviet Union,” begins the original 1992 draft of the Pentagon document, overseen by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and written by Zalmay Khalilzad and Abram Shulsky, which goes on to lay out a case for breaking the international bonds of the postwar era in order to preserve American pre-eminence—not as an ad hoc response to this or that foreign policy crisis, but as a matter of strategy and principle. “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” asserts George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002, which transformed the suppressed 1992 document into national policy. “It’s a product of fevered minds,” Wolfowitz answered a journalist’s question about a possible “Straussian Connection,” “who seem incapable of understanding that September 11th changed a lot of things and changed the way we need to approach the world.”
One doesn’t have to believe that neoconservatism sprang fully armed one fine morning from the head of Robert Kagan in 1996, or Paul Wolfowitz in 1998, or George W. Bush in 2001 to know that it is not the same as the thinking behind the Truman Doctrine or the New Frontier. The postwar “preponderance of power” and “situations of strength” sought by Democrats and Republicans alike were essentially different from the neoconservatives’ central idea, which is American world domination. Kagan quotes the lofty phrases of inaugural addresses and wartime speeches, then puts democracy promotion at the center of neoconservatism to prove by metonymy that Roosevelt and Kennedy were neocons, too. But the core aim of Kagan and William Kristol’s “neo-Reaganite foreign policy,” first unveiled in 1996, was global hegemony. Containment led to Vietnam, but unlike J.F.K. and L.B.J., who didn’t want to take on China and East Germany as well, neoconservatives were ready in April 2003 to continue on to Damascus and Tehran in the illusion that Iraq was conquered. The rejection of the Geneva Conventions, the argument that containment and deterrence are outmoded, the belief that international agreements are hindrances, the idea of a revolution in military affairs that would obviate the old battlefield constraints, the sense that freedom and democracy are natural human states which require only the lifting of oppression, above all the conviction that American power is and should be the sole arbiter of world affairs: correct or not, all of these tenets of Bush’s foreign policy broke with long-established practices and hard-won insights. They were put into practice with the blind zeal and indifference to fact that only ideologues could muster. The results keep coming in blood and tears.
One can find foreshadowings of neoconservatism throughout the history of American foreign policy or the speeches of its makers. But the architects of the Bush Doctrine believed and acted as if they could free themselves from quaint and archaic constraints without devastating consequences. Their critics aren’t the ones who ignored history; it’s the neoconservatives who did that. As a senior administration official told former Ambassador Barbara Bodine when she tried to explain some of the limiting factors in Iraq’s past at the time of the invasion, “We’re smarter than history.”
The real question is why Kagan doesn’t want neoconservatism to exist—why, instead of being pleased by his six or seven pages in The Assassins’ Gate, he needs to turn them into caricature and then deliver a history lesson. I think the answer must have something to do with Iraq. The war that was supposed to prove that the old rules didn’t apply has made them look like eternal iron laws. Paul Bremer had a sign on his desk in the Republican Palace that said, “Success has a thousand fathers.” The second part is equally true, and Kagan, who enshrines “honor” as a shining quality of American foreign policy, might try to practice it himself, as all too few neoconservatives have done in the wake of the Iraq War (Lawrence Kaplan is the only one who comes to mind). Rather than mocking the war’s critics for being unfamiliar with the speeches of John Quincy Adams, Kagan should climb down from the level of grand strategy long enough to consider the reasons for our catastrophic failure in Iraq. The answer might have something to do with neoconservatism.
George Packer writes about foreign affairs and politics for The New Yorker. He is the author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq.
It's a sure sign that an insurgent political movement is in trouble when it starts proclaiming how deeply mainstream it is at heart. Such is the state into which neoconservatism has fallen today: blamed for the quagmire of Iraq; its adherents pilloried as behind the scenes manipulators with Svengali-like powers over gullible bureaucrats and legislators; friendless in a cold world where virtue has to content itself with being its own reward.
Salvaging something from this train wreck is not an easy task, nor one that can be dumped on frail shoulders. But Robert Kagan, the movement’s most clever and rhetorically gifted advocate, has made a bold and imaginative attempt. Although Kagan’s argument is often weaker than his fluid prose style, the neoconservative Establishment is fortunate to be blessed with a skillful writer who lends decent manners and intellectual seriousness to a movement burdened with angry polemicists.
He is, in other words, the friendly face of neoconservatism, a movement generally dominated by red-faced shouters and finger-pointers noisily engaged in denouncing what they label “Islamo-fascists” at home, who are presumably ensconced in the media and the academy—just as their intellectual forebearers did in their often self-serving quest for what they used to call the “global communist conspiracy.”
The central purpose of Kagan’s bracing essay is to relieve neoconservatives of responsibility for the Iraq War. Certainly, if the war had not turned out so disastrously, or if its neoconservative promoters had not played such a significant role in promoting it, this effort at historic reconstruction would not be necessary.
His argument boils down to two main points. First, neoconservative political ideology lies squarely within the American political tradition. Moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, global ambition—these are all American values. They are also, he insists, the values of neoconservatives. There is no conflict, there is no distinction. In other words, we are all neocons, whether we know it or not.
Secondly, he observes, quite fairly, that the war would likely have happened even without a major neoconservative input. By 2002, he tells us, most Americans, including liberals who have now turned against the war, favored the invasion of Iraq because they “believed in American power and the ability of the United States to use that power to beneficial ends in the world.” Here, with due respect, one must point out that Kagan is being disingenuous. The vast majority of Americans, including liberals, did not support the invasion of Iraq because they thought it would bring prosperity and democracy to a benighted land. They did so because they believed the political leaders who told them that the Iraqi regime was building nuclear and chemical weapons.
To suggest that the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent devastation of that country, was an act of benevolent idealism on the part of the Bush administration, acting upon the deepest democratic impulses of the American people, is not only a distortion of history but a slippery and unworthy attempt at political evasion. There is plenty of blame to go around for the Iraq War. But it should be laid on the shoulders of its promoters and enablers, not on a frightened and angry American public gullible enough to believe them.
Neoconservatives are understandably anxious because they feel that they are being saddled with all the blame for a misconceived and failed war. Is this unfair? To some degree, yes. Although prominent neoconservatives were among the most ardent promoters of the war, they were not alone. And, more importantly, they were not those with the ultimate power of decision.
Aside from the vaporous notions of idealism, beneficence, and democracy promotion cited by Kagan, there are considerably more significant reasons that impelled our invasion of Iraq. These relate to crass, but powerful, motives of ambition, revenge, and opportunity.
First, President George W. Bush was determined to finish the job his father had started but never completed: the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and his replacement with a compliant satrap. That objective was quickly obtained.
Second, the fruits of war were so tempting: a secure source of a vital commodity sought by industrial and military competitors.
Third, defensible air bases for the projection of American power over an economically vital and politically unreliable Middle East and Central Asia.
Fourth, the powerful temptation of a victory that seemed not only cheap and easy, but also politically popular.
Even without the encouragement of neoconservative publicists and promoters, the argument for a clean and popular adventure, a “splendid little war,” to borrow from Theodore Roosevelt’s excited argument in 1898 for an attack on Spain’s vulnerable colonies, seemed irresistible.
Kagan, however, is intent on providing moral justification for an act of aggression. He argues that neoconservatives, like all Americans, are motivated by the desire to spread democracy, and that this was a major reason why they urged the invasion of Iraq. To this end he cites such public promoters of the democracy doctrine as Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that he only wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” when he brought America into the power struggle among Europe’s imperial dynasties.
American leaders have certainly used the democracy syndrome as justification for the myriad interventions into which they have plunged the nation over the past sixty years. Neoconservatives are not alone in citing this reason as justification for the war in Iraq. However, unlike more generic interventionists, they are strikingly selective regarding the areas of their concern. It is almost exclusively confined to the Middle East. In other areas where popular reform movements have been ruthlessly suppressed by U.S.-supported regimes—such as those in Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador—they have been noticeably silent, or even supportive of the repressive regimes.
The Iraq War was not launched to bring the blessings of democracy to the benighted peoples of the Arab world. If it were, we should also have invaded Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, to name the most obvious targets in need of benevolent intervention. Indeed, the idealism that Kagan tells us inspires neoconservatives does not, most strikingly, seem to apply to the area closest at hand. If there is one part of the world that neoconservatives seem to have largely ignored in their declared quest for social justice for the downtrodden, it is the United States itself.
Is there anything unique about the foreign policy of neoconservatives? Kagan tells us that there is not. But this is not quite true. There is something special about it. It is focused largely on the Middle East. Certainly there is nothing wrong with this. The nation abounds in interest-group politics. We are, after all, a mosaic of peoples from everywhere, with emotional ties in all directions. But it is disingenuous to pretend that these ties do not exist. Or that they do not inform the neoconservative approach to American foreign policy.
On his larger point, Kagan is right in insisting that neoconservatives should not be blamed for instigating the failed war in Iraq. They played their part, and they have had their own special reasons. But they are hardly alone, and it would be erroneous to maintain that it would not have happened without their influence. Indeed, such an accusation reeks of scapegoating—an activity in which the architects and cheerleaders of a failed policy are all to likely to indulge when beseiged.
Defeat in this moment of reckoning will be no orphan. But neither should it be a single parent. There were a number of players in this tragedy. Yet we will have learned nothing from it if we console ourselves with Kagan’s tempting excuses: that it stemmed from an excess of idealism, or from our uncontrolled “messianic impulses,” or from our deep-seated moralism.
Our war in Iraq happened because the prize was so tempting and because it seemed so easy to grasp. Call it hubris, or imperialism, or greed, or simply the temptation of power. It was all of those things. But we will delude only ourselves if we accept Kagan’s soothing reassurance that it all stemmed from an overwhelming compulsion to do good. In this tragedy the cheerleaders were not innocent bystanders.
Ronald Steel is professor of international relations and history at the University of Southern California.
I want to thank all three respondents for taking the trouble to respond to my essay, and at such length and with such verve. I am pleased, but not surprised, that the responses of David Rieff and Ronald Steel indicate that our broad analyses of American foreign policy are roughly similar, even if our prescriptions are not. Rieff in particular is without peer today in having the intellectual honesty and courage to point out that what passes for “liberal” foreign policy these days is really a different—and not all that different—version of the old American hegemonism.
Some day I would like to sit down with him and discuss what are the real, as opposed to the ideal, alternatives to the present course of American foreign policy. I do not deny there are other traditions, and I discuss them at greater length in Dangerous Nation and will have occasion to discuss them again in the second volume of my history of American foreign policy. My only claim is that these other traditions have not usually triumphed. I would argue the reason they haven’t triumphed is because the impulse to impress upon the world American ideology, in all its manifestations, is deeply ingrained. Rieff himself has not been immune to this impulse in the past. Today he advocates a different approach, but I wonder, as we move forward, whether he will find it possible to adhere consistently to a policy of abstention overseas, or whether there may be events in the world which, as in the past, will drive even a die-hard anti-interventionist to support intervention, even in causes not directly related to America’s “vital interests.”
I must say I was puzzled by George Packer’s angry response to my essay. I mention him only briefly, and certainly not in an unflattering way. I give him credit for using the term “neoconservative” in a neutral and descriptive manner, not as a polemic. In fact, the reason I use his book to launch my discussion is that it is a serious and sober treatment of the subject, which is rare, and therefore a worthy counterpoint to my own views. I meant it as a sign of respect. I do disagree with his analysis, but my disagreement is respectful. Unfortunately, after being fair and neutral in his discussion of neoconservative views in his book, he has now joined with the loonies in depicting the neocons as Dr. Evil, with a desire for “world domination.”
Packer accuses me of misreading him. I don’t think I have. The starting point of my essay is his assertion that the war was inexplicable except as a product of neoconservative thought, and that this thought represented a departure from the past. That is what he wrote, and he has repeated it again in his response to my essay. What’s more, it is what a great many people believe, thanks in no small part to his book. It is hardly a straw man. The fact that it is easy to refute, as Rieff points out, has not prevented it from dominating the discourse.
As for neoconservatism having alien origins, in Packer’s inquiry into the ideological roots of the Iraq War he does trace neoconservative thought in part back to Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky. I did not accuse him of claiming a conspiracy, only of searching for the roots of a very traditional American foreign policy worldview in unnecessarily obscure (and foreign, and yes, Jewish) places rather than in obvious, mainstream American places. Why did Packer take his trip down the “winding path” when there was another, very straight and clearly marked path open before him?
This is where we disagree, and I think it ought to be possible to disagree without rancor. I believe Packer’s claim for the great differences between the attitudes of the Achesonians and of today’s “neoconservatives” is mistaken. It is an inaccurate, rose-tinted view of the past that makes it easier to condemn the present. Dean Acheson once said that the United States was the “locomotive at the head of the mankind, and the rest of the world is the caboose.” He expressed contempt for the United Nations, and for Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Wallace, and believed the world’s only hope was the amassing of overwhelming American power and its principled exercise. He vehemently opposed negotiations with the Soviet Union until the United States amassed a “preponderance of power” everywhere in the world. He did not call for a war to liberate Eastern Europe, but neither did I or other “neoconservatives.” Yet left revisionist historians attacked him with the same vigor, and with most of the same arguments, that critics of neoconservatism employ today. The point of my essay was to refute the false dichotomy between the present and the past and to raise the uncomfortable realities of continuity.
I want to thank Ronald Steel for his kind words. I agree with his analysis of the origins of the war (though not with his claims that the Bush administration deliberately deceived people.) I do not believe the United States went to war in Iraq primarily to implant democracy. I state my own view of the causes of the war in the essay’s second paragraph:
. . . that after September 11, 2001, American fears were elevated, Americans’ tolerance for potential threats lowered, and Saddam Hussein naturally became a potential target, based on a long history of armed aggression, the production and use of chemical weapons, proven efforts to produce nuclear and biological weapons in the past, and a murky relationship with terrorists. . . . After September 11, the Bush administration weighed the risks of leaving Saddam Hussein in power against the risks of fighting a war to remove him and chose the latter, its calculus shaped by the terrorist attacks and by widely shared suppositions about Iraq’s weapons programs that ultimately proved mistaken.
Later, I reiterate the motives of the Bush administration, noting that they were inherited from the Clinton administration:
The fear of Saddam’s weapons programs, the concern that his weapons might some day end up in the hands of terrorists, the belief that containment was failing, that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a serial aggressor….
It is in my discussion of the broad themes of American foreign policy, these days attributed to “neoconservatives,” that I discuss the idea of promoting democracy as a constant in American history. I do believe this American sense of mission, in its broadest sense, played a role in the Iraq intervention, as it did in earlier interventions in Kosovo and Haiti, in Panama, and in the first Gulf War. Because Americans perceive themselves as the great defenders of their liberal principles in the world, they tend to see all their actions as fitting broadly within the context of the defense of freedom—whether they do or they don’t. I believe Steel would agree with this.
Finally, I am amused to be accused of trying to absolve myself of responsibility for supporting the Iraq War. I have never attempted to do so, although I have watched many people who have tried over the past few years. Their efforts are usually accompanied by dishonorable condemnations of those with whom they once agreed. One of my aims in the essay was to show that it is precisely the effort by so many to absolve themselves and the nation from responsibility that led to the narrow focus on a small group of “neoconservatives” as the catchall explanation for a war that went awry.
Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund. He is the author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams.