OxBlog

Monday, October 23, 2006

# Posted 12:06 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AMERICA THE DANGEROUS: Robert Kagan has a new book out. I've known for seven years it was going to be a good one. I worked for Kagan as a research assistant right after I graduated from college and had the privilege of reading some early drafts of his chapters on the age of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.

I believe this will be the book that establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kagan is the kind of original thinker who transcends partisan or ideological labels. I believe that Dangerous Nation will be the kind of book that liberals don't just read because they want to know what conservatives are thinking, but because it is a book that can educate any reader, political disagreements aside.

At a moment when 'neo-conservative' has become something of a slur on both sides of the aisle, it is especially fitting for a book to come out that demonstrates not just how powerful neo-conservative thinking can be, but also how subtle -- or dare I say "nuanced"?

Yes, that is the right word. That nuance is on display in the cover story of the October 23 edition of The New Republic, which is Kagan's four-page digest of his book's main argument. The essay's sub-title summarizes its purpose quite effectively: "Against the myth of American innocence."

Earlier this year, Peter Beinart constructed an entire book around the premise that the most dangerous thing about conservatives is their inability to recognize America's moral failures. Yet a recognition of such failures is at the very heart of this work by Kagan, arguably the most important neo-conservative thinker today on the subject of foreign policy.

If the byline were removed from Kagan's essay in TNR, it might be mistaken for a polemic from the far left. Kagan writes:
Far from the modest republic that history books often portray, the early United States was an expansionist power from the moment the first pilgrim set foot on the continent; and it did not stop expanding--territorially, commercially, culturally, and geopolitically--over the next four centuries. The United States has never been a status quo power; it has always been a revolutionary one, consistently expanding its participation and influence in the world in ever-widening arcs. The impulse to involve ourselves in the affairs of others is neither a modern phenomenon nor a deviation from the American spirit. It is embedded in the American DNA.
More unusual is Kagan's paying attention to what Europeans think of the United States -- not now, but 200 years ago:
From the beginning, others have seen Americans not as a people who sought ordered stability but as persistent disturbers of the status quo. As the ancient Corinthians said of the Athenians, they were "incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so." Nineteenth-century Americans were, in the words of French diplomats, "numerous," "warlike," and an "enemy to be feared." In 1817, John Quincy Adams reported from London, "The universal feeling of Europe in witnessing the gigantic growth of our population and power is that we shall, if united, become a very dangerous member of the society of nations."
This passage begins to suggest how a straightforward reckoning with American history can serve as the foundation for a conservative worldview rather than a liberal one. It was not the well-behaved, mythical America that rose from obscurity to greatness. By extension, the often arrogant and ideal-driven unilateralism of today won't bring down the "postwar international order".

One all-important reason that Kagan's writing transcends the partisan divide is that he is capable of seeing things from a perspective often reserved for liberals. (The same is true of Max Boot.) It isn't just that Kagan can recite his opponents' talking points, but that he can focus their interpretive lens on American history. For example, Kagan writes that:
By expanding territorially, commercially, politically, and culturally, Americans believed that they were bringing both modern civilization and the "blessings of liberty" to whichever nations they touched in their search for opportunity. As Jefferson told one Indian leader: "We desire above all things, brother, to instruct you in whatever we know ourselves. We wish to learn you all our arts and to make you wise and wealthy." In one form or another, Americans have been making that offer of instruction to peoples around the world ever since.
Yes, even in Iraq. How many critics of the occupation wish that they could have discovered that Jefferson quote for themselves in order to highlight some of the brutal ironies of our democracy promotion efforts?

Yet Jefferson's words also point to the less common conclusion that we have become far more humane in the pursuit of liberty. Native Americans feared white Americans. But Shia mainly fear Sunni, and Sunni, Shia. You won't hear Democrats say it, but we really are fighting for a noble cause in Iraq, however ineffectively.

But isn't there still a profound hypocrisy at the heart of an effort to promote democracy that entails horrors such as Abu Ghraib? Kagan's history provides insight into that question as well:
John Quincy Adams had noted with pride that the United States was the source of ideas that made "the throne of every European monarch rock under him as with the throes of an earthquake." Praising the American Revolution, he exhorted "every individual among the sceptered lords of mankind: 'Go thou and do likewise!'"

A Russian minister, appalled at this "appeal to the nations of Europe to rise against their Governments," noted the hypocrisy of Adams's message, asking, "How about your two million black slaves?" Indeed. The same United States that called for global revolution on behalf of freedom was, throughout its first eight decades, also the world's great defender of racial despotism.
As Kagan further illustrates, some Americans fiercely opposed Quincy Adams' zealousness, sensing the dangers of an ideological crusade:
The conservatives of the slaveholding South were the great realists of the nineteenth century. They opposed moralism, rightly fearing it would be turned against the institution of slavery. As Jefferson Davis put it, "We are not engaged in a Quixotic fight for the rights of man. Our struggle is for inherited rights. ... We are conservative."
To the chagrin of Mr. Davis, the moralists won out. And the lesson to be learned from this brand of aggressive idealism?
The result has been some accomplishments of great historical importance--the defeat of German Nazism, Japanese imperialism, and Soviet communism--as well as some notable failures and disappointments. But it was not as if the successes were the product of a good America and the failures the product of a bad America. They were all the product of the same America. The achievements, as well as the disappointments, derived from the very qualities that often make us queasy: our willingness to accumulate and use power; our ambition and sense of honor; our spiritedness in defense of both our interests and our principles; our dissatisfaction with the status quo; our belief in the possibility of change.
I look forward to a very impressive book.
(15) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
[Quote From Book]
By expanding territorially, commercially, politically, and culturally, Americans believed that they were bringing both modern civilization and the "blessings of liberty" to whichever nations they touched in their search for opportunity.
[/Quote From Book]

That's the white-man's burden argument; nothing new or original. It has been the basis of European imperialism for centuries. And therein lies the danger of believing it; see what happened to all the imperial powers of previous centuries.
 
David,

What are you smoking?
 
Thanks for the constructive criticism. I take your comments very seriously.
 
I hope Kagan has some discussion of the traditional uses of these muscular engagements for domestic political purposes. It seems to me that the engagements can part of a project of enlarging and creating consensus around certain American values (TR), or part of a more divisive political approach based on spoils and lawlessness (nullification)(Jackson). You can guess which precedent I think the current administration follows. To the extent you think this distinction could help round out Kagan's history, where would you put Truman and Reagan?
 
Actually, Anon, it hasn't been the basis of European imperialism for centuries.

See, for example, "The Age of Reconnaissance" by Parry. There was some piety in the sales brochures, but only the monks really did that stuff. The rest was for gold and glory.

There were concerns about being bested in resources (timber, naval stores) bases to protect shipping, there were mercantilist concerns. After the Reconquista ended (1492), a society which had evolved to breed fighting men had no fighting. The most turbulent spirits went west, while the monarchs had a double to celebrate seeing their backs.
The Brits went to India to back up the Honorable East India Company and found themselves owning a subcontinent after the Mutiny.

Kipling thought of it as the White Man's Burden, and, perhaps, so did TR. And what the colonial officials thought is probably not recoverable, or, if recoverable, creditable. But those guys, if they had all the whitemansburden schtick down real well, came at the end, not the beginning.
Perhaps the imperialism ended badly because it stopped being sufficiently imperialistic.
 
Thanks for the constructive criticism. I take your comments very seriously

You can not give constructive criticism to the delusional.
 
Mr. Aubrey,

You left Africa completely out of the equation there.
 
Hi David,

I look forward to reading your book review. If I may, I think that a chapter by chapter review, like the one for The Good Fight, would be rather interesting.

In the meantime, I'll add Kagan's new book to my reading list.
 
"That's the white-man's burden argument." Of course it is. Who is going to take care of Darfur? When the "whitest" of the whitemen are paralyzed to act, genocide continues. Most help for the Tsunami victims in Indonesia came from whitemen. The Arabs wouldn't lift a big fat finger, claiming that it was Allah's punishment. The white men even helped dig out the Iranians in their earthquakes. Btw, I'm not a white man, but I love this country founded by whitemen. Of course there are spineless whitemen whom we call frogs, or unenlightened whitemen,the Ruskies. Those whitemen are actually burdens, we are not talking about them.
 
Randy.

Africa. Okay. Until the late nineteenth century, white men rarely got inland past the fall line of the great rivers. Such colonialism as there was south of the Sahara was coastal. The Dutch settled South Africa, but were relatively coastal until the Zulu and Matabele wars depopulated huge areas to the north, allowing Dutch immigration north into much of what we now consider South Africa.
Europeans made their way in East Africa by getting along with the major tribes, or being out of their way, until the advent of larger, better armed European armies. The pattern we saw in Latin America didn't happen in Africa, and what did look like colonialism wasn't finalized until the end of the nineteenth century at the great map-sharing extravaganza at what I recall--don't care to look it up--was called the Congress of Berlin. Someplace in there.
African colonialism had about seventy years to run.


For the fun of it, see the old novel, "Sanders of The River". It was made into a movie with Paul Robeson as one of the lead characters.

You'd have a hard time publishing that today.
 
Kagan's argument sounds somewhat like Niall Ferguson's book on America -- Collosus -- which, as I understand it, says that the US has, since its inception, been an imperial power and should face up to this. That said, I haven't read either so this is just a passing observation!
 
Richard Aubrey,

You left out Belgium and Portugal, arguably the two most brutal colonial occupiers. If you haven't read King Leopold's Ghost or The Scramble for Africa, I recommend them highly.

There should be a special place in hell for Leopold
 
Randy. I know about them. I got a minor in subSaharan African studies decades ago.
The point remains: The actual colonization we recognize as imperialism ran about seventy years.
Up until railroads and bigger armies--the European state's increasing wealth made that possible--travel by river was the only way to go. And that stopped at the falls line. Most of subS Africa is a plateau and there is an escarpment/head of navigation someplace up there beyond which white settlement was sparse for some time. The Congo, draining a basin, allowed European influence to move farther inland than from other directions, but the entire thing was river-specific.

It is likely that the difference in disease vulnerability explains the difference in colonial patterns. See Mann, "1491".
 
What most Americans do not understand about neoconservative insiders is that they are very clever in their propaganda for adhering to the Leo Srauss agenda in bringing about an elitist ruling class. Lies and deception are permitted in the neoconservative scheme of things.
Robert Kagan is a Straussian intellectual. Try reading this article to understand where these people are coming from:
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article5010.htm
 
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