Dangerous Nation (I)

Robert Kagan:

Historians will long debate the decision to go to war in Iraq, but what they are least likely to conclude is that the intervention was wildly out of character for the United States. Since the end of World War II at least, American presidents of both parties have pursued a fairly consistent approach to the world. They have regarded the United States as the “indispensable nation” and the “locomotive at the head of mankind.” They have amassed power and influence and deployed them in ever-widening arcs around the globe on behalf of interests, ideals, and ambitions, both tangible and intangible. Since 1945 Americans have insisted on acquiring and maintaining military supremacy, a “preponderance of power” in the world rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory. They have declared their readiness to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” by forces of oppression, to “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend freedom, to seek “democratic enlargement” in the world, and to work for the “end of tyranny.” They have been impatient with the status quo. They have seen America as a catalyst for change in human affairs, and they have employed the strategies and tactics of “maximalism,” seeking revolutionary rather than gradual solutions to problems. Therefore, they have often been at odds with the more cautious approaches of their allies.

This is true but deceptive. Yes, every American President since 1945, and several before it, have shared similar premises (at least publicly) and employed similar rhetoric about the United States' role in the world. But our chief executives have differed significantly in how they went about implementing the "indispensible nation" vision that Kagan limns in this passage. America's finest postwar Presidents, Eisenhower and Reagan, were distinguished by their restraint in the use of military force; they intervened frequently around the world, yes, but surgically rather than sweepingly, and they deliberately avoided investing large numbers of American soldiers to open-ended commitments in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Bush, by contrast, seems likely to be remembered as part of a tradition of American overreach that runs from the Phillipine-American War through Woodrow Wilson, the decision to drive to the Yalu in Korea, the disastrous slow-motion escalation in Vietnam, and now the attempt to democratize Iraq. If you abstract far enough upward, Bush is squarely in the post-WWII American foreign-policy tradition. But so is every President before him, which suggests that abstracting this far hides the distinctions that make all the difference.