2014 Is Not 1931

Robert Kagan accuses Obama of appeasement. Where’s his evidence?

Barack Obama and Neville Chamberlain, in very different decades (Reuters/Wikimedia)

Everyone has—or should have—a list of the commentators they disagree with fundamentally but nonetheless admire. When it comes to foreign policy, Robert Kagan tops mine. First, because Kagan knows the difference between being a hawk and being a Republican. His worldview is consistent but his view of the two parties is not. In the mid-1990s, for instance, he supported Bill Clinton’s war in Bosnia and harshly criticized the GOP Congress for not offering more support. Second, because Kagan knows far more American history than your average Beltway pundit. Several years back, he even took a semi-sabbatical from current affairs to get a Ph.D.

But Kagan’s essay for The Wall Street Journal this weekend illustrates the danger of being so entranced by historical example that it blinds you to contemporary reality. Kagan’s basic point is that today, as after World War I, the West’s war fatigue is leading it to appease dangerous adversaries. “As we head deeper into our version of the 1930s,” he writes, “we may be quite shocked, just as our forebears were, at how quickly things fall apart.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. For Kagan, the 1990s were “our version” of the 1930s too. “At the end of this bloody century, we all should have learned that appeasement, even when disguised as engagement, doesn’t work,” he wrote in a 1998 critique of Clinton’s China policy. “The word that best describes Clinton administration policy,” he wrote in an editorial with William Kristol the following year, “is appeasement.”

The analogy was bizarre then. The supposedly appeasement-minded Clinton administration went to war in the Balkans twice, the second time without UN approval. It extended NATO into Eastern Europe, spent more on defense than the next nine nations combined, and in 1998, bombed Iraq for almost three days straight, once again with no mandate from the UN.

And the analogy is bizarre now. “In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” writes Kagan near the beginning of his essay, “it is the U.S. that seems to be yearning for an escape from the burdens of power and a reprieve from the tragic realities of human existence. Until recent events, at least, a majority of Americans (and of the American political and intellectual classes) seem to have come close to concluding not only that war is horrible but also that it is ineffective in our modern, globalized world.”

Kagan’s use of the verb “seem” twice in two sentences should be a clue that he can’t remotely substantiate his claims. In fact, the only evidence in his entire essay is one quote from Fareed Zakaria and a vague paraphrase of a book by Moisés Naím. If American policymakers are truly “yearning for an escape from the burdens of power” and “com[ing] close to concluding … that war … is ineffective,” they have a strange way of showing it. Near the end of his first year in office, President Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. That same year, he began an expansion of America’s drone program that would lead him to authorize eight times as many strikes (so far) as George W. Bush did. In 2011, the Obama administration helped militarily depose Muammar al-Qaddafi. Over the last month, it has launched 130 airstrikes in Iraq, with more almost certainly to come, perhaps in Syria as well.

Beyond the Middle East, the Obama administration has reestablished military bases in the Philippines, begun stationing troops in Australia, and started holding naval exercises with Vietnam as part of its “pivot to Asia.” It’s helped kick Russia out of the G8 and created a “rapid-reaction” force to increase NATO’s capacity to project power in Eastern Europe. The frontier between Western and Russian power today, in this era of supposed American appeasement, is eastern Ukraine. Under Ronald Reagan, it was Berlin.

There’s only one sense in which American elites have “come close to concluding … that war is … ineffective.” They’re far more reluctant than they were in 2003, or even 2009, to wage land wars. But does that really constitute appeasement? Was Dwight Eisenhower an appeaser because he avoided land wars in the painful aftermath of Korea? Were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and, yes, Ronald Reagan appeasers because they avoided land wars in the 15 years after Vietnam? (Grenada is Reagan’s sole exception.) For almost a century, American foreign policy has oscillated between periods of greater and lesser enthusiasm for sending ground troops into harm’s way. Since America became a superpower, it has relied during the down times on air power, covert action, foreign aid, and nuclear deterrence, which is pretty much what Obama is doing now. In fact, Obama’s foreign policy has far more in common with American foreign policy in the 1950s and 1970s than with American foreign policy in the 1930s, when the U.S. spurned military obligations outside its hemisphere. But comparing Obama to Eisenhower or Nixon is a lot less alarming than comparing him to Neville Chamberlain.

And why shouldn’t Americans be more skeptical of land wars after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan? Kagan doesn’t say. For a man so keen that Americans learn from the experience of the 1930s, he’s strikingly uninterested in the experience of the last decade. He doesn’t defend the Iraq or Afghan wars. He doesn’t even suggest that the U.S. should send ground troops into Iraq, Syria, or Ukraine today. He simply suggests that Americans who oppose new land wars because of our recent, painful experience are latter-day Neville Chamberlains.

“It is hard to avoid the impression,” Kagan writes in his final paragraph, “that we have already had our 1931.” Actually, it’s not hard at all. It just requires paying less attention to 1931 and more attention to 2014.