This afternoon President Barack Obama announced that he is sending "up to 300" troops to Iraq—not for combat, he swears, but merely as "military advisors." (When I was growing up, in the aftermath of Vietnam, "these are just advisors" was a punchline.) The unreconstructed neocons are pushing for a much deeper intervention, with Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan editorializing in The Weekly Standard that we should "act boldly and decisively"—always dangerous words in the mouths of those two—by "not merely conducting U.S. air strikes, but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground." (*)
Meanwhile, Kagan's brother and fellow hawk Robert has been the talk of D.C. for the last few weeks, thanks to his New Republic feature "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." The New York Times even tells us that the president invited him to the White House "to compare world views." Robert Kagan's article is, to be fair, a genuinely interesting document. It is deeply wrong, but it is wrong in an informative way: This really is how a lot of America's foreign policy elite sees the world. Its sweeping critique is aimed not at that familiar bogeyman, "isolationism," but at people who are "not isolationists" and "favor the liberal world order insofar as they can see how it touches them" but "are no longer prepared to sacrifice very much to uphold it." Its unexamined assumption is that our sacrifices have been keeping the world order afloat.
"In the half-century following World War II," Kagan claims,
the United States successfully established, protected, and advanced a liberal world order, carving out a vast "free world" within which an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity could flower in Western Europe, East Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes rose to dangerous levels, the period was characterized above all by peace among the great powers. The United States and the Soviet Union did not come to blows, and just as importantly, the American presence in Europe and East Asia put an end to the cycles of war that had torn both regions since the late nineteenth century. The number of democracies in the world grew dramatically. The international trading system expanded and deepened. Most of the world enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity. There was no shortage of disasters and near-disasters, as well as the two costly wars in Asia—but the strategy was largely successful, so much so that the Soviet empire finally collapsed or voluntarily withdrew, peacefully, under the pressure of the West's economic and political success, and the liberal order then expanded to include the rest of Europe and most of Asia. All of this was the result of many forces—the political and economic integration of Europe, the success of Japan and Germany, and the rise of other successful Asian economies—but none of it would have been possible without a United States willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.
Think about what's missing from that passage. Despite the passing allusion to the Western Hemisphere, Kagan says nothing about Latin America, where the effect of the Cold War was not to advance liberty and self-government but to beat them back. The space that the United States "carved out" there, to borrow Kagan's phrase, included several viciously repressive regimes, many of them installed with Washington's assistance. And the contested spaces were ripped apart by proxy wars between the eastern and western alliances. (As Kagan says, America and Russia "did not come to blows." But people taking American and Russian money did all the time.)
The same was true in two more places the passage ignores, the Middle East and Africa. In Angola and in Somalia, the thugs that Washington was willing to aid included even people who moments earlier had been proclaiming themselves Communists. As for East Asia, it's striking how quickly Kagan moves from writing that the American presence there "put an end to the cycles of war" to acknowledging that U.S. troops were involved in "two costly wars" in the region. Setting aside Korea and Vietnam, the U.S.-aligned parts of East Asia included not just liberalizing lands like Japan but places like Indonesia, where a Washington-backed dictatorship was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and other atrocities.
Please note: The facts in the last two paragraphs are not controversial. They are accepted not just by the Cold War's critics but by its defenders, who argue that the greater good of defeating Communism sometimes meant getting into bed with ugly allies. My point is how prettified Kagan's account is. Yes, Western Europe and Japan prospered under U.S. protection (though even here, you shouldn't forget that they kept that protection long after they were wealthy enough to defend themselves). But for great swaths of the planet, Washington and Moscow's proxy fights contaminated local politics, effacing rather than enabling self-government. When, as Kagan puts it, "the liberal order then expanded" in the 1980s and '90s, it entered not just areas that had been ruled by Communist dictatorships but areas that had been ruled by anti-Communist dictatorships—sections of the "free world" that were at last allowed to taste some freedom. This was possible not because Washington had become the sole "preserver and defender of a liberal world order" but because it was more willing to pull back.
But not, alas, to pull back far enough. The war in Iraq was a disaster. Kagan calls Bush I's operation in Somalia "the most purely humanitarian, and therefore most purely selfless, intervention in American history," but the actual result of America's ongoing meddling in the Horn of Africa has been to exacerbate the area's problems; the one period when things there seemed to be improving came in the interval when the U.S. decided to leave it alone. And do you want to know a word that doesn't appear anywhere in Kagan's article? Libya. In that country, NATO did what people like Kagan wish the alliance had done in Syria: It helped depose a dictator who was harshly repressing his enemies. And Libya today, like Syria today, is a zone of brutal chaos.
Kagan's preserver-defenders were not able to drop a free and peaceful order into Tripoli from the sky, because the work that needs to be done to create a free and peaceful Libya has to be done by the Libyans themselves. The same goes for Iraq: Instead of bailing out a prime minister who dug his own grave by refusing to compromise with the Sunni opposition, Washington could let the Iraqis find their own balance. That may mean some bloodshed along the way, but you know what? That's going to happen if American combat troops land there too.
Real order is built from the ground up, and outside intervention can derail it more easily than it can help it along. If recognizing those limits means retiring, then this superpower not only can step down; it should.
(* Correction: In an embarassing error that will surely follow me to the end of my career, this article originally confused Fred and Robert Kagan. The first two paragraphs have been amended to fix the mistake.)