Kagan doesn’t get it

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.

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6 thoughts on “Kagan doesn’t get it

  1. On the question of limits to power, at least pertaining to Afghanistan, well the region was subdued by foreigners twice before, although not without ethnic cleansing on a staggering scale. It is within our power limits(or at least your power limits, aided by we, your most humble and faithful sidekicks, the Brits) to eke out some sort of meagre victory, but only if we cheerfully embrace the ‘Mongolian Method’. Anything less, like the ridiculous wack-a-mole strategy crurrently being persued, has generational commitment stamped all over it.

    If I were the O-man, I’d hastily arrrange some sort of major offensive in Afghanistan and Iraq, declare a thundering victory in and high-tail it out of there. With no Americans in those theatres, it’s doubtful the media would cover the inevitable bloody aftermath, and the return of the troops might just provide a much needed poll boost. And depending on how cynical you want to be, you could even through a big victory parade to top it all off.

    I know what you’re thinking, but none of the above is any dumber than settling down there for the next quarter century.

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  2. Here’s the article I was looking for:

    http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htterr/20081017.aspx

    Quote:

    The Taliban fighters are willing to fight to the death, and have a psychological advantage over the army (most of the troops come from the lowlands). But outsiders have conquered Bajaur before. Alexander the Great did it 2,500 years ago, and the Mongols did so 700 years ago. But in both cases, conquest was accomplished in the Roman fashion (“they created a desert and called it peace.”) But in many respects, the army is going old-school on the Taliban, with most of the civilians fleeing, and any resistance getting blasted to rubble. When victory comes, it will be celebrated in a depopulated desert of rubble and empty homes.

    Btw, sorry about my avatar, it was made for a celeb gossip site, not a ‘serious bizness’ political blog.

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  3. It’s pretty startling that two major foreign policy thinkers from wildly divergent schools of thought – Kagan and Andrew Bacevich – both rely on Niebuhr for much of their analysis. I’m not a Niebuhr expert by any means, but I think that you and Bacevich are closer to Niebuhr’s original meaning.

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  4. The Soviet Union could not subdue Afghanistan; how do we think we can? It cannot be done by any major power. If another ideology decided to invade the US and conquer us, and then force their ideology on us; would they succeed? I would have thought a few years ago that they wouldn’t, but we have grown very fat and resigned about our beliefs and our concept of national pride. We as a nation, no longer have a unified vision of our nation and what we stand for. I wonder now if we would fight an invasion of ideology as hard as other countries have.

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  5. In my opinion the war is not being fought for ideological reasons, ideology is the cover. I believe this is a war of containment and, unfortunately, the US has taken on the job which, if we were more adept, would have been put on the backs of the Pakistani, Iranian and Russian governments. They all know the Taliban and their drug growing warlord allies are cancerous and a major threat to their regional interests. As long as NATO forces take on the responsibility they are able to sit back and appear supportive when they are actually working to continue the chaos.

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  6. “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. ”

    We can be doubtful, because that’s just good sense, and still proceed. No one had any real reason to belive either German or Japanese cultures could be reformed into anything that could support democracies, but we siomply had no choice but to try, however slight the chances. And frankly, on the cultural levels at least, both countries have a long, long way to go yet. But they’ll hold for now.

    “If I were the O-man, I’d hastily arrrange some sort of major offensive in Afghanistan and Iraq, declare a thundering victory in and high-tail it out of there. ”

    midievalpoetry, the avatar is perfect – for someone who appears so young, you have a very cynical and clear-eyed take on this.

    ‘The Taliban fighters are willing to fight to the death, and have a psychological advantage over the army (most of the troops come from the lowlands).”

    The Taliban are a very mixed group and there are some who will fight to the death because of religion, some because of a sense of territory, and some who will fight as long as the drug money is still flowing. Mainly people want peace, and so far Karzai and the foreigners can’t make it happen. And don’t forget that a lot of Pashtun are lowlanders too. The river valleys are the population centers, not the windy crags in the eastern mountains.

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