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.