September 7, 2006

Kagan Places Iraq War in Liberal Tradition

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Robert Kagan had heard the question before. It was midway through his lecture on “Culture, Identity and Conflict” last night in Bailey Hall, and Haoming Qiu ’07 wanted to hear what Kagan had to say about the war in Iraq. Qiu was only interested in Kagan’s response, but by the end of the night, it seemed like everyone in Ithaca had weighed in on the subject.
Kagan’s lecture, the highlight of an academic symposium in honor of David J. Skorton’s presidential inauguration, was focused on the historical precedent for America’s invasion of Iraq. Specifically, Kagan discussed the evolution of American liberalism, charting the changes in American foreign policy from the nascent stages of the American state.
“Originally,” Kagan said, “we were the Greta Garbo of nations. We wanted to be left alone.”
From Greta Garbo, the United States began to take a more expanded role in foreign affairs, becoming “the reluctant sheriff of the world” without engaging too much in the affairs of its international neighbors. Ultimately, though, America found itself in a position of global preeminence, thoroughly integrated into the international community and possessed of a significant amount of influence in foreign affairs.
“The United States equates success with the well-being of mankind,” Kagan explained. “America is characterized by its spiritedness in defense of hearth and home, and especially in defense of its beliefs.”
Among those beliefs, Kagan explained, is a commitment to the universal rights of mankind, rights that cannot be violated by any government or national leader. In effect, the American preoccupation with universal rights has inspired the United States to take an increasingly prominent role in foreign affairs. To Kagan, the expansion of that role is deeply rooted in the tenets of American liberalism.
“History suggests that liberalism has more often been a spur to the exercise of power than it has been a [check] on that power,” Kagan asserted. “The Declaration of Independence declared that the United States was a nation because it believed in universal rights, and that defined [the new nation] in universal terms.”
Kagan continued to argue that the deep roots of American liberalism are reflected in the current universality of American ideology. Regardless of political affiliation, Americans are all fundamentally liberal, in the sense that they care about the rights of mankind and are willing to work for progress and reform in the international community. Simply put, Americans are more similar than they think.
“The main debate [in American politics] is taking place within a common liberal paradigm,” Kagan contended. “It isn’t so much an argument as it is a family squabble.”
Kagan referred to the similar policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations toward Iraq as an example of the universality of American ideology. For Kagan, the only real debate in American foreign policy is how to implement a singular American doctrine.
Like most of the Cornell community, Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, disagreed. He was one of two featured discussants at the academic symposium who offered his own take on the subject of Kagan’s lecture. He argued that, far from being the manifestation of a universally American liberal ideology, the American invasion of Iraq was a product of the Bush administration’s markedly neo-conservative attitude toward foreign affairs.
“The invasion of Iraq is a result of radical neo-conservatism and its inept translation into domestic and foreign affairs,” Katzenstein contended. “For neo-conservatives, greatness and the struggle for freedom are the goals [of foreign policy].”
In fact, Katzenstein asserted, the U.S. was not always as interested in expanding its foreign influence as it is today.
“Compared to the revolutionary power we are today,” Katzenstein explained, “America [in the past was interested in] the status quo.”
Prof. Isabel Hull, government, another discussant at the symposium, was equally critical of Kagan’s analysis.
“The American citizenry is gravely split,” Hull argued. “You would need to travel far back to find a time as divisive as we see now.”
Hull compared the current Bush administration to an imperial Germany of the early 20th century, pointing to the administration’s unilateral action in Iraq and its claim to the right of preemption. In that action, Hull saw the beginning of the end of American power on a global scale.
“Rule by sheer violence reflects that power is being lost,” Hull said. “A choice between law and lawlessness is a choice we have to make as Americans.
The Cornell community seemed to side with the two professors, repeatedly asking Kagan to explain his defense of the Bush administration. For the Cornell students in attendance, the debate was just what they had come to see.
“I found the debate very stimulating,” said Emily Bartlett ’09. “I enjoyed listening to other people’s viewpoints, and found it interesting to see both sides of the issue.”