Best Defense: Beltway Brigadier Robert Kagan Is All Wrong

By Logan, Justin | The American Conservative, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Best Defense: Beltway Brigadier Robert Kagan Is All Wrong


Logan, Justin, The American Conservative


WASHINGTON'S BIPARTISAN foreign-policy elite is worried. Neocons, liberal interventionists, and conservative hawks are all fretting about the specter of "isolationism" in the Tea Party. Facing a plucky band of freshmen congressmen who have expressed few clear views about the defense budget, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, has pledged that he is going to "educate" new members on the need to keep military spending right where it is. McKeon promises he "will not support any measures that stress our forces and jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform"--except, presumably, America's wars.

Into this fray steps Robert Kagan with a sprawling cover story in the Weekly Standard defending America's "benevolent global hegemony" and urging increased military spending. You have to give it to Kagan: he's

taken on a tough task. With the country mired in two treadmill-style wars, staring down red ink as far as the eye can see, and increasing numbers of Americans realizing our real problems are here at home, arguing for keeping military spending turned up to 11 is a challenge.

His argument centers on three claims. First, Kagan alleges that America faces a dire threat environment in which a more restrained strategy would only amplify the dangers. Second, he argues that cutting military spending can't solve our fiscal dilemma. And finally, he asserts that America simply cannot change its grand strategy, for we have always been interventionists.

Each claim is wrong: America could make substantial changes to its grand strategy that would save hundreds of billions of dollars per year without endangering our national security.

Secure Superpower

Kagan correctly points out that the only way to save real money on the military is to ask it to do fewer things. But because America faces an "elevated risk of terrorist attack" and an "increasingly dangerous international environment," he thinks strategic restraint would be perilous.

This song is getting old, especially coming from Kagan. In May 2000, he and William Kristol warned of the "emerging dangers" in China, Russia, Iraq, Serbia, and North Korea, saying that these problems were "proving more troubling" than the two had expected in their famous Foreign Affairs article in 1996. In retrospect, of course, the tone that was tellingly missing from this chorus of alarm bells was Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, the one true threat to the United States at that time.

Eleven years later, just how bad is the threat environment? Is the United States militarily insecure by any reasonable historical measure? Is our sovereignty in doubt, like the nations of Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries? Or how does America's threat environment compare to that of, say, presentday Israel--or present-day Iran? Kagan defines dangerous down. In fact, the United States is the most secure great power in modern history.

The U.S. will remain for years the world's largest economy. It accounts for nearly half of the planet's military spending. (Add in allies with a formal treaty commitment to America and the figure is closer to 70 percent.) We possess near ideal geography, with two weak, friendly neighbors to the north and south and two large moats to the west and east. America bristles with nuclear weapons. The threat of territorial conquest is zero.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Kagan has had an easier time threat-mongering, using terrorism as the justification for our towering military spending and activist grand strategy. But given his history of crying wolf, it is no surprise that he's inflating this threat, too. That's particularly problematic, given that terrorist's best weapon is our tendency to overreact and score own-goals, like the war in Iraq.

Only a tiny fraction of U.S. military spending has anything to do with terrorism. Virginia class submarines and V-22 Ospreys kill few terrorists. …

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