James Forsyth

‘When bloodied, we bloody’

Arch neocon Robert Kagan on America’s robust role in the world

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‘Innocent people can’t do any good in the world. First of all, there are no innocent people, and, second of all, exercising power is not an innocent activity.’ This is not the kind of straight talk you expect to hear in Brussels, but Bob Kagan is a man with little time for polite fictions. Three years ago he ruffled feathers by arguing that the trans-Atlantic falling-out over Iraq was not an unfortunate misunderstanding but a consequence of the fact that today Europeans are from Kantian Venus while Americans are from Hobbesian Mars. Now he has written a book claiming that the traditional view of America as an innocent, isolationist power is a myth. Instead, he argues that America has always been an aggressive, expansionist power — a Dangerous Nation, as the book’s title has it. Kagan is not a trendy European intellectual, though, but America’s most perceptive neoconservative thinker.

Kagan comes from one of those families that could provide the entire panel for a highbrow Radio Four discussion programme. His father is Donald Kagan, America’s pre-eminent classical historian and the author of the definitive modern history of the Peloponnesian war. His brother is a renowned military historian, and his wife is the US ambassador to Nato, which is why he lives in Brussels. Kagan himself is an impressive figure. Co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, a contributing editor to Washington’s two most influential magazines and a columnist for the Washington Post: a kind of Timothy Garton Ash on steroids.

Kagan claims that the lesson from his history of US foreign policy is that it won’t change much even post-Bush and post-Iraq. Kagan points out that America elected Ronald Reagan just five years after the end of Vietnam, which was a far more divisive and humiliating conflict for the United States than Iraq is. Indeed, Kagan seems to think that the next president might be even more hawkish. He notes that the Republican frontrunner John McCain — whom Kagan advises — was talking about ‘rogue state rollback’ when George W. Bush was still saying, ‘We’re too arrogant and all that kind of stuff.’ As for Hillary Clinton, Kagan thinks that ‘she’d be very eager to prove early on that she’s not being pushed around in the world’.

Kagan knows his own mind and is certain that he knows America’s too. As we talk about Iraq, Kagan announces that, ‘If we started to pull out or even pulled out, we’d be back in again within a year.’ He explains that ‘as soon as it becomes clear that a terrorist organisation based in Iraq is planning operations against the United States, which will certainly be the case, no American president can say well that’s just unfortunate’. As Kagan puts it, ‘The reality of Iraq is unavoidable.’

He is scathing, though, about Bush’s handling of the war. Kagan has long believed that the US needs more boots on the ground and has produced a flood of articles to argue the case in recent weeks. He describes Bush as the ‘opposite of Lincoln’, noting that Lincoln regularly changed tactics and generals during the Civil War while Bush seems wedded to a failed strategy in Iraq. Kagan says that Bush’s determination to stick with the same number of troops and the same military leadership is ‘just baffling, baffling’.

He is more complimentary about Bush when it comes to Iran. Kagan ruminates that Bush ‘may well feel that “I did not get elected President, did not live through 9/11, to be the President that allowed Iran to go nuclear on my watch.”’ Kagan begins to articulate what a strike on Iran would have to do: take out its nuclear programme, its air force, its navy and destroy its command and control. At this point, he concludes that if America is going to do all this, it might as well change the regime while it is at it.

I ask Kagan how America would respond if it were hit by another terrorist attack. Without missing a beat, Kagan answers, ‘Militarily.’ ‘If we take another big hit, especially if it is a much bigger hit, nobody is going to say, “Oh gee, this must be happening because we’re causing people problems, so let’s close in.” They’re going to say, “Go get somebody.”’ He speculates that it would be a bad day to be Iran. ‘It depends where the origins are: it could be a bad day to be Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon — who knows? The Americans at root are traditional human beings in that their response to being bloodied is to bloody somebody else.’

Kagan is quite happy to acknowledge realities that others shy away from. Whether it be that America is an expansionist power, that democratisation is an ‘ex-post facto rationalisation’ for the Iraq war or that ‘we did things that made al-Qa’eda feel they had to attack us’. This, perhaps, explains why the Marxist Morning Star so strongly recommended his book to its readers — something that Kagan seems understandably embarrassed about.

Kagan and I are chatting the day after the British press has been full of reports about a State Department official writing off the special relationship. Kagan is unconvinced. ‘If you try to imagine the United States going to war over Britain’s opposition, that’s a pretty big blow. The Americans can understand that the French are opposed to them. They can almost understand that the Germans are opposed to them — especially when it is Gerhard Schröder — but for Britain to be against them....’ This is seemingly unthinkable even for Kagan, who muses that even now ‘Americans see themselves reflected by Britain’s opinion of them more than anything else’.

Kagan is full of praise for Tony Blair, describing him as ‘one of the more resolute politicians of recent years’. He does, though, criticise Blair for pushing Bush to go back to the UN for a second resolution on Iraq, saying Blair ‘really led Bush down a bad path on the UN stuff’. He points out that this is indicative of the fact that ‘Blair influenced Bush as much as Bush influenced Blair’. He’s unexcited about either Brown or Cameron as Blair’s successor. In either case, he says, it is ‘like going from Thatcher to Major’. He is confident, however, that once Bush has gone it will be easier for British politicians to embrace America again.

The purpose of Dangerous Nation is to persuade Kagan’s fellow citizens that they have been trying to expand their influence across the globe from the moment that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock; but that, rather than being a problem, this is the glory of America. What his fellow Americans do need to do is ‘recognise that you’re doing it and that in doing it you’re going to anger other people and you need to be prepared for that’. Kagan’s martial talk might sound rather primitive to supposedly sophisticated, postmodern ears. But looking around this violent and unstable world, one can’t help but feel that he is better prepared for it than the rest of us are.

Dangerous Nation is published by Atlantic Books (£25).