Of the four or five thinkers who have had the greatest impact on my thinking, I would probably rank Reinhold Niebuhr near or at the top. I’m not really in the mood to give a full break down of Niebuhr’s influence on my thinking, so I won’t, but it suffices to say that his work has had an incredibly strong influence on my foreign policy views, and my general skepticism regarding the efficacy of American power. As such, you can imagine how surprised I was to see Robert Kagan – neo-conservative extraordinaire and co-founder of the Project for a New American Century – reference Niebuhr in a column supporting President Obama’s decision to double-down in Afghanistan (via my good man Dylan Matthews):
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out long ago, Americans find it hard to acknowledge this moral ambiguity of power. They are reluctant to face the fact that it is only through the morally ambiguous exercise of their power that any good can be accomplished. Obama is right to be prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, and he should do so even more vigorously. But he will not avoid the moral and practical burdens of fighting this war by claiming he has no choice. An action can be right or just without being necessary. Like great presidents in the past, Barack Obama will have to explain why his choice, while difficult and fraught with complexity, is right and better than the alternatives.
It’s pretty clear to me that Kagan is relying on the Niebuhr of The Irony of American History here, and for what it’s worth, I think his reading of Niebuhr’s point is more or less correct. Americans are uncomfortable with the moral ambiguities associated with the exercise of power, so much so that we are often unwilling to even give weight to those ambiguities, which in turn contributes to our perennial inability to understand the broader impact of our actions. That said, and at the risk of sounding a little uncharitable, Kagan is basically ignoring Niebuhr’s main point; he wasn’t trying to make Americans comfortable with the exercise of power so much as he wanted Americans to understand the limits of said power.
By Niebuhr’s lights, we should be incredibly skeptical – and even doubtful – of our ability to rebuild a society or a culture in any meaningful way. Which, broadly, is exactly what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. As far as I understand it, the whole point of committing tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan is to provide security in the hopes of strengthening the national government to the point where it both A) has the trust of the bulk of the population and B) can effectively monopolize the use of force within the country. The problem, of course, is that there really isn’t anything in Afghanistan’s history to suggest that this could be even remotely successful. And it requires a good deal of arrogance to believe that we – with our relatively limited understanding of the region – could succeed where many folks have failed.
With that in mind, it’s more than a little ridiculous to see Kagan reference Niebuhr. Not only is Kagan one of the standard-bearers of an intellectual movement which proudly disregards limits in a misguided effort to reshape the world, but he is citing Niebuhr in support of a war which the man would have almost certainly opposed.