A neocon by any other name

Robert Kagan, author, essayist, former diplomat, pre-eminent thinker of what is called ”neoconservatism” — and now foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain — would like it to be known that there are many things that he is not. He denies, despite all claims to the contrary, that he is a disciple of Leo Strauss, the father of the neocons, thousands of Google hits to the contrary notwithstanding. He is uncomfortable, too, he says with the title ”neocon”.

Instead, he insists he is ”liberal” and ”progressive” in a distinctly American tradition.

A hate figure for large sections of the left, Kagan has been blamed for many things, prominent among them being one of the intellectual authors and cheerleaders for the US-led war in Iraq. So when it comes to Kagan, the gloves are off. He has been denigrated for being a writer on Middle East issues ”who knows no Arabic”; an expert on military affairs who has not served in the military. Others have been stronger still, accusing him of ”spewing out one falsehood after another” about the progress of the war in Iraq.

These days, Kagan is to be found in Brussels in the house provided by the US State Department to his wife Victoria Nuland, America’s permanent representative to Nato, a pretty place with cherry trees blossoming in the extensive garden. With one bestseller under his belt — Paradise and Power — about the growing divide between the US and Europe, next month will see the publication in the United Kingdom of his latest book The Return of History and the End of Dreams.

Heavily extracted and trailed in the US, it has reopened the bitter debate about what America’s role should be in the world.

There is a curiosity here. For while shares in neoconservatism are doing worse than a subprime encumbered bank, Kagan’s reputation in the wider world continues to go from strength to strength. In large part — agree with him or not — it is powered by his lucid, simple prose and an attachment to the pared-down, classical skills of essay writing.

Paradise and Power featured in bestseller lists worldwide. A book from Kagan is big news. Despite the loathing he inspires in many liberal quarters, Kagan has emerged as one of America’s most controversial and compelling essayists, still profoundly able to influence the American foreign policy debate as a writer who commands respect in equal measure with his ability to send blood pressure soaring.

And should McCain emerge as the Republican beneficiary of a Democratic nomination race that is now closely approaching one of those Victorian bare-knuckle fights that went on for scores of rounds, then Kagan’s views are likely to emerge as influential in foreign policy once more.

By the assessment of his harshest critics, Kagan’s latest statement on global politics, outlined in an extract in the New Republic magazine, is a recipe for further unilateral US embattlement and belligerence. In truth, what Kagan has so far outlined is more sophisticated than that. His thesis is essentially a rebuttal not only of Francis Fukuyama’s notion — in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union — that ”no serious ideological competitors [exist] to liberal democracy” — but also of a number of recent books that have argued that increasing wealth, in the short term, leads to democracy.

The Kagan view, instead, is that the wealth of China and Russia is fuelling the rise of new autocracies in competition to the democratic world: the creation of new geopolitical faultlines. It is this that has already led some of Kagan’s critics to suggest that following the failure of the neocon project, he has simply picked it up, brushed it down and found new enemies to confront.

Kagan’s upbringing was steeped in the roots of the present brand of American political conservatism which he has come to epitomise. His father Donald, a historian at Yale, was best known for his study of the Peloponnesian War. His brother Frederick was a historian at West Point and author of While America Sleeps with his father, a book that called for increased spending on defence.

In a short 2006 essay written for the Weekly Standard, the house journal of the neocons, Kagan recalls the debates between his father and Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, and one of Leo Strauss’s key disciples. Kagan and his brother were brought up in the heat of campus debate on issues both intellectual (among other things, was Plato ”kidding” in The Republic?) and political, exposed to prominent figures in what would come to be called neoconservatism, not least followers of Strauss.

”It is true that I have known Straussians almost all my life,” Kagan recalled in 2006. ”And the one thing I was taught about them from the earliest age is that they are wrong. The person who taught me this was my father … who spent a good portion of his time at Cornell University in the 1960s arguing with Allan Bloom. As a youngster of eight or nine, I got to witness many of these arguments in the faculty lunch room, where my father would take me. They were fun.”

Those arguments then focused on the esoterica of Strauss’s philosophy, which Kagan has admitted he found difficult, as many did, to understand, not least that history’s great thinkers were engaged in a conversation across the ages. Kagan’s interest in history is rooted in the present.

By the time Kagan arrived at Yale, he had fashioned the family interest in politics and public service into an passion for writing, sitting up all night editing the magazine he founded, and relaxing in fierce competitions over the ”big power” board game Diplomacy, the favourite game of both JFK and Henry Kissinger.

Like many who would emerge at the centre of neoconservativism with the election of George Bush, Kagan cut his teeth in politics as an official serving in the US State Department during the Reagan administration as a member of the policy planning staff. Later, he was a principal speechwriter for the secretary of state George Schultz and deputy for policy in the Bureau of International-American Affairs.

It was these years that would shape Kagan’s political thinking which he would define in a seminal essay, written with William Kristol and published in the influential journal Foreign Affairs in 1996, calling for a neo-Reaganite foreign policy. Writing in the middle of the Clinton presidency, they argued that US conservatives were adrift. ”Today’s lukewarm consensus about America’s reduced role in a post-Cold War world,” they wrote, ”is wrong. Conservatives should not accede to it; it is bad for the country and, incidentally, bad for conservatism. Conservatives will not be able to govern America over the long term if they fail to offer a more elevated vision of America’s international role. What should that role be?”

Their answer was this: ”’Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the ‘evil empire’, the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of US foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America’s security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests and standing up for its principles around the world.”

In the aftermath of the war against Iraq which he so strongly supported, some of Kagan’s certainties have changed while others, it appears, have simply been reinforced. These days, Kagan will tell you over iced tea that the sharp separations he identified in 1996 in US foreign policy between the [Woodrow] Wilsonian multilateralist tendencies of Bill Clinton and the unlilateralism of the Bush years are less distinct, and that most mainstream US foreign policy follows the same trajectory: ”ambitious and expansionist” in their pursuit of common universal values. A case in point, he says with a wry smile, was Hillary Clinton’s comment last week that she would ”obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.

Kagan is also a little less certain, it seems, about the durability of US power, an issue that at one point seemed like a given in US conservative discourse. ”The thing that I would say is that US power is not eternal. I am not saying that it won’t come to an end. Because it will.”

He has, it appears, moderated a little his view on Iraq. Not that it was right to remove Saddam Hussein, a policy he says now once had ”1 000 fathers”, but now has only half a dozen or so who will still stick by it. What bothers him now are the failures of the postwar period of nation building. And for a man so critical of the functioning of many of the international institutions, not least the UN Security Council, he concedes that the American appetite for unilateral action has eroded US legitimacy precisely at a time, he believes, that democracies need to be working together to promote their fundamental values in the new confrontation with the globe’s newly confident autocracies.

If one thing is certain, it is that Kagan’s controversial views once again will be much talked about. Or, as his father Donald has described it: ”His courage is that in the process, he annoys people. And he is prepared to take the consequences of speaking annoying truths.”

The Kagan lowdown

Born: 26 September 1958, in Athens.

Best of times: Perhaps the game of American football played against his father, a professor, at Yale University.

Worst of times: The descent of the US-led occupation in Iraq into anarchy.

What he says: ”Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus: they agree on little and understand each other less and less.” from Paradise and Power.

What they say: ”No rational person would believe a word Robert Kagan says about anything. He has been spewing out one falsehood after the next for the last four years in order to blind Americans about the real state of affairs concerning the invasion which he and his comrade and writing partner Bill Kristol did as much as anyone else to sell to the American public.’ Glenn Greenwald, Salon.

”Although in the past we have often disagreed, I consider this one of the seminal treatises without which any discussion of European-American relations would be incomplete and which will shape that discussion for years to come.” Henry Kissinger on Paradise and Power. – guardian.co.uk Â

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Peter Beaumont
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