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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.

David P. Goldman
February 09, 2012
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)
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.

A Somalia-style debacle in Egypt, an Islamist tyranny in Tunisia, civil war in Syria, and similar horrors through the Arab world now seem a likelier terminus for the so-called Arab Spring than a “healthier world order.”

Kagan states that “Americans believe that democracy is the best form of government and the only legitimate form of government for everyone everywhere.” Never does it occur to him that democracy might not take root in largely illiterate populations immured in tribal life. Nearly half of Egyptians are illiterate, and nine-tenths of Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. Three-fifths of Egypt’s people live on or around farms, but the country imports half its caloric consumption. Few of the country’s 3 million university students are employable by world standards.

In Kagan’s way of looking at the world, differences among cultures and religions do not come into consideration. No matter that America’s notion of “inalienable rights” descends from the biblical concept of covenant, an act of divine self-limitation unthinkable for Islam’s absolutely transcendent deity. Nor does he consider the possibility that some cultures may encounter modernity and crack up.

Kagan simply venerates the form of democracy itself, with the passion of the true believer. “It is demonstrably true that democracies rarely go to war with other democracies,” Kagan claims. That is a strange argument for any American to make, given that one democracy—the Confederacy—fought the bloodiest war in our history against another democracy, namely the Union of northern states. The South went democratically to war for the evil goal, among others, of expanding slavery. Another democratically decided war—against Mexico in 1846—prepared the ground for the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his Memoirs, “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

The South fought until nearly a third of its military-age men had fallen. Except for the Serbs in World War I, no people in modern times sacrificed more than the South, showing that democracy can unite a people behind an evil cause. In that respect the Confederacy emulated democratic Athens of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides explains why Athens voted for an attack upon the Sicilian city of Syracuse, also a democracy: “The general masses and the average soldier himself saw the prospect of getting pay for the time being and of adding to the empire so as to secure permanent paid employment in the future.”

Why the South would lose 300,000 men to defend slavery, or Athens 10,000 men to conquer Sicily, is easy to understand. Less obvious is why the North would sacrifice 500,000 to stop it. The Union marched to war singing of the grapes of wrath in paraphrase of Isaiah 63:3, where God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments.”

American democracy brought forth good as well as evil, and the defining event in our history was the conflict between them. Surely there must be something greater than democratic procedure that informs the American character. But it removes the moral onus, not to mention the painful historical memory, to flatter ourselves with the notion that our democratic institutions as such are the solution to all problems and that the world would be a happy place if everyone did what we did.

Instead of looking at ideas in the abstract, Kagan might pay closer attention to the interplay of ideas and actual human behavior. Kagan frets that “Americans may convince themselves that decline is inevitable,” citing Charles Krauthammer’s quip that decline is a choice. Maybe so, but that choice is not based simply on our abstract ideas about America’s proper role in the world. It is based on the deeply significant choices that we make every day as individuals and as members of families, choices that in our society continue to be heavily influenced by religion.

Far from declining, America’s relative strength will increase in the coming decades, and for a reason that Kagan excludes from consideration: the fact that we continue to have children. Among the major industrial nations the United States is the only one with a fertility rate at replacement level. It is the only industrial nation with a growing workforce. At the present trend, America’s share of the working-age population of the industrial world plus emerging Asia will grow from 12 percent to 28 percent by the end of the century.

Trends of this sort never continue in a straight line, to be sure. But America’s demographic momentum is so much stronger than its competitors’ that a relative decline in America’s economic position is extremely unlikely. In the long run, all nations die, unless we have children. The great fertility differential will make our epoch a golden age for some people but not for others.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too).

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.