The Warrior Class
Bill Kristol and the National Greatness Crowd
would love to have a war
By Tom Bethell
The American Spectator
July/August, 2001

Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, the co-editors of a recent book called Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, have been among the leading agitators for less friendly relations with China. In a stream of furious editorials and op-eds, they press upon us a more belligerent attitude, not just toward China, but toward the world in general. The metaphor of Munich is never far from their lips. "We lost," their prominent Washington Post op-ed piece was headlined, when the U.S. aircrew, forced to land on Hainan Island, was about to be returned to American soil in April. They sounded disappointed that an opportunity to start a war with China had been missed.

Kagan, oddly, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard, a political magazine published by Rupert Murdoch. Their tirades receive so much attention from the news media that, to Chinese officials accustomed to a government controlled media, they probably seem like semi-official government policy statements. Their furious editorial in the Standard, arguing that the spy-plane incident had caused us a "profound national humiliation" could hardly have received greater prominence. When Vice President Cheney appeared on the talk shows at that time, both Cokie Roberts and Tim Russert splashed quotes from the editorial on the screen and sought Cheneyís reaction to the claim.

In his recent New Republic article, "How Bill Kristol Ditched Conservatism," Franklin Foer detailed the many ways in which Kristol and his Weekly Standard ally David Brooks "have come a long way in the past three years," championing environmental protection and campaign finance reform, for example, but he failed to note the extent to which their foreign policy views are congruent with those of Marty Peretzís New Republic, for which Foer works.

Kristol and Brooks, who constitute "a minority in their own office," according to Foer, openly repudiate principles of individualism and constitutional government and substitute for it a philosophy of state power. Their question: "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?" can be charitably described as eccentric. At times they have verged on accusing their opponents of lacking patriotism, but they are probably sensible enough not to ignite that fuse.

In addressing our "world responsibilities" and advocating a "fundamental change" in the way we think about them, Kagan and Kristol set forth a precautionary or anticipatory principle that delivers limitless influence into the hands of those who claim to see danger where others see tranquility. We should "weigh in," they write, not just "when" crises erupt but "preferably before they erupt." They fervently repudiate unilateralism, and believe that American preeminence will require "an even greater U.S. commitment to its allies" than at present. In so arguing they reject the lesson taught in the mid-1980s by Irving Kristol, who noticed that the collective-defense structure of NATO discouraged our allies from pulling their weight. It is worth noting that Irvingís political views in general are much more sensible than those of his son, Bill, whose surname for years conferred on him the benefit of a good deal of doubt.

Kagan and Kristol Jr. advocate a strategy of "regime change," an Orwellian phrase for overthrowing governments they dislike. One example shows just how cockeyed their judgment is. When their introductory chapter to Present Dangers was written, Slobodan Milosevic was still hanging on to power. We had shown the requisite "national greatness conservatism" by bombing Belgrade, but we had inexplicably failed to send in ground forces to "topple the Milosevic regime." Against those who had urged caution, because "the removal of one man provides no solution to a problem," Kagan and Kristol write that we "may wish to reflect on the American experiences in Germany and Japan." In the event, even without nukes and the modern-day equivalent of Patton in the Balkans, the Milosevic regime was toppled anyway – by Serbs themselves. They rose up against their own police state, just as other East Europeans had done a decade earlier. But if U.S. ground troops had done the job for them, we would have not only have preempted that achievement but would surely still be stuck there, surrounded by a population far more resentful than grateful.

As to China and the spy plane episode, "this entire crisis has really been about Taiwan," Kristol and Kagan wrote at the time. Those eager for conflict with China contrast Taiwanís (recent) democratic status with that of the unelected government in Beijing. They think that this creates a moral justification for our intervention on behalf of Taiwan, when desired. But it looks more like a pretext than a justification. We might more sensibly wonder whether the relations between these two parts of China is any more our concern than the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico is Chinaís concern.

As it happened, at about the same time as the spy plane incident, the Puerto Rican government sued the U.S. Navy to stop using the nearby island of Vieques for practice bombing runs. How would our armchair militarists respond if China were to weigh in on Puerto Ricoís side? The Chinese "need to understand" Kagan and Kristol write, "that their efforts to force the United States away from the defense of Taiwan cannot succeed." Letís substitute proper names, put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine that the following passage appeared in a militarist journal in Beijing: "The Americans need to understand that their efforts to force China away from the defense of Puerto Rico cannot succeed." How would we react if China were to send their spy-planes up and down the East Coast, just beyond the limits of international waters? Would our armchair hawks sit back contentedly and say, "Thatís their right"?

Such Chinese surveillance flights wonít happen any time soon, of course, because over 50 years ago they adopted the self-impoverishing ideology of 19th century Western intellectuals: Communism. So they canít afford expensive maneuvers. For the last 20 years, however, their leaders have made an effort to move toward capitalism, while remaining in power under the tattered banner of Communism. Itís a trick that no other regime has pulled off, and quite possibly the Chinese wonít be able to either. But they surely recognize that capitalism is the only system that generates wealth, and they cannot have avoided noticing how well it has worked for Chinese elsewhere, including Hong Kong and Taiwan itself. So they have started down the capitalist road.

That may be the real source of Kristol & Co.ís hostility, of course, for only a wealthy country has the ability to impose its will on others, and a rich China may indeed prove to be more dangerous than a poor one. If so, maybe they should argue that China is dangerous not because it is Communist but because it is threatening to become capitalist. That way they could forget about the GOP, which they want to do anyway, and forge an alliance with the Democrats. Itís a strategy that would also appeal to their hero, John McCain.

The Chinese rulers now allow their own people to prosper, perhaps recognizing the truth of Dr. Johnsonís dictum that people are never more harmlessly employed than when earning a living. For families who are able to buy a car, or farmers who can buy a tractor for the first time in their lives, the right to vote for a different set of rulers in Beijing now and then doesnít matter very much in the scale of things, just as it didnít matter for the residents of Taiwan over the many years when they had little control over who was in charge in Taipei. The same was true in Hong Kong, which was filled to the overflowing with Chinese and undemocratic until 1995, only two years before sovereignty was transferred to Beijing. Thank God K & K didnít summon up bombing raids there.

A friend of mine in Washington noted recently that the real objection to Beijing seems to be that they want to be No. 2. But if Messrs. Kagan and Kristol and others in the "national greatness" camp are planning to stir up conflict with anyone who aims merely to be the second most powerful country in the world, they have devised a formula that will ensure a hostile relationship with the whole world. Not a good idea.

One who realizes this is Owen Harries, the editor of The National Interest, a quarterly journal founded and published by Irving Kristol. In a recent article on "The Anglosphere Illusion," he quoted Edmund Burkeís comment that "among precautions against ambition it may not be amiss to take precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition . . . We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it."

"I believe that the United States is now in dire need of such a warning," Harries wrote. In the decade since the Gulf War, he added, "what we have seen has been a pattern of indiscriminate and irresolute – but unrelenting – busyness, of interfering and lecturing, of a promiscuous though largely ineffectual use of force and of sanctions. It is a pattern that is alienating an increasing number of states, and that, if persisted in, will ultimately be dangerous for the United States."

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