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Fool’s Gold

Middle East expert Robert Kagan argues in a new book that American foreign policy has spawned a golden age of liberal democracy. He’s wrong.

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An American flag flies at the former Sather Air Base in Baghdad in December 2011, shortly before the departure of the remaining American troops from Iraq. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

America’s global activism made possible today’s golden age of liberal democracy and free markets. This is what Brookings Institution Middle East expert Robert Kagan argues in his new book, The World America Made. What makes the work so disappointing is that Kagan stops the discussion just where it ought to begin, that is, with the religious and cultural content that informs democratic institutions.

Kagan’s purpose in defending U.S. foreign-policy activism here is to deflect criticism of America’s unpopular engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is no easy task, and to perform it, Kagan adopts the two-stage approach to persuasion made famous by Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man: Establish first that there is trouble in River City, and then propose a solution, namely a marching band. Kagan also offers a marching band, but with 40 divisions behind it.

Where River City is concerned, Kagan’s argument is unexceptionable: Without American leadership, the feckless Europeans can’t be counted on to do anything, and the Chinese can’t be counted on not to do things badly. America shouldn’t abandon its position as the leading world power.

What America should do with that position is a different question. In his columns at the Weekly Standard and the Washington Post and in a series of books, Kagan has been the punditry’s most insistent advocate of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 6,400 U.S. dead and more than 30,000 wounded, and direct and indirect expenditures in excess of $3 trillion, nation-building is ballot-box poison. Kagan finds it easier to preach generalities. That makes the present volume read like a poor man’s cholent, with the meat of the matter lost in filler. His most important and controversial assertion is that Muslim democracy constitutes a new global wave of democratic advance, but he makes his case weakly and in passing.

“Americans have often been plagued by doubt [about nation-building],” Kagan allows. “They have resented the costs, both material and moral. Wars are expensive, and occupations even more so. A century ago it was José Santos Zelaya and Victoriano Huerta. In recent years it has been Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Omar, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi.” That’s like saying, “Honey, I bought a lawn mower, a tennis racket, a Bentley, and a new set of patio furniture.” The highest estimate I have seen for the cost of America’s 1998 action against Serbia’s Milosevic, refugee resettlement and all, is about $25 billion, perhaps a hundredth of the combined costs of Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention the near absence of casualties.

There was little opposition to bombing Serbia and sending peacekeepers afterward. But there has been impassioned objection from both left and right to a massive, multiyear commitment on the premise that America could engineer Muslim democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even worse, the Iraqi adventure exacerbated the Iranian nuclear threat. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, explained in 2009, America couldn’t strike at Iran’s bomb-building capacity: “We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf.”

In 2004, Kagan lauded in the New York Times the “small but growing movement among scholars of Islam, a group diverse enough to include Gilles Kepel of France and [fellow Weekly Standard contributor] Reuel Marc Gerecht of the United States, that believes the real promise of democracy lies with devout Muslims.” And he continues to believe that the world revolves around the prospects for Muslim democracy. After the second great wave of democracy that followed World War II, and a third wave from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Kagan writes:

it is possible that in the Arab Spring we are seeing a continuation of the Third Wave, or perhaps even a fourth. The explosion of democracy is about to enter a fifth straight decade, the longest and broadest such expansion in history.

He has no illusions that Muslim democracy, should it materialize, will be friendly to America:

Americans, having helped topple dictators in the Middle East, are not sure how they feel about what may follow. The inevitable victory of Islamist parties in some Arab states will probably bring governments to power that are less accommodating to some American interests than the previous dictatorships had been.

But Kagan thinks this is a good thing rather than a bad thing: “Americans’ enduring interest in a liberal world order generally transcends other, more narrow and temporary interests. The United States can lose an Egyptian ally but still gain a healthier world order.” Indeed, he lauds the Obama Administration for helping to topple erstwhile Arab allies: “America found itself withdrawing support from longtime allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. … American power became a decisive factor shaping the regional and international environment in which the Arab political turmoil unfolded.”

One doubts if any outcome in the Arab world would change Kagan’s mind. In fact, an Islamist government may be the least of Egypt’s problems. With its economy in free fall and its foreign exchange reserves running out, Egypt may soon find itself with no government at all, like Somalia. The Deputy Supreme Guide (that is his actual title) of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood warned recently that economic collapse would “transform a peaceful revolution into a hunger revolution” and asked for American help. Nonetheless, Egypt also is prosecuting American democracy activists, risking the American aid it now receives.

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While I find Mr Goldman’s insights illuminating and refreshing, I also find some problems with his insights. One example, pointing out that the US population will continue to grow while the populations of so many other countries shrink. Makes some sense. But will the growing US population be like past US populations? Will the growing US population be as devoted to the work ethic as our parents and grandparents were? Will the growing US population be as abhorrent of governmental intervention into lives and governmental subsidies for ‘good behavior’ as our parents and grandparents were? Will cradle to grave education in collectivism now foisted on Americans take its fatal toll on the spirit of future generations? I hope Mr Goldman is not confusing quantity with quality.

Shalom Freedman says:

A central element in Kagan’s argument is refuting those who speak of America’s inevitable decline. In his arguing for the overall military, economic, political and cultural strength of the U.S. Kagan is very convincing.
There is a problem with his overestimating ‘democratization’ especially in the Islamic world.


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Fool’s Gold

Middle East expert Robert Kagan argues in a new book that American foreign policy has spawned a golden age of liberal democracy. He’s wrong.