April 5, 2000

Punch & Judy at The New Republic

The most effective way of stifling debate is to pretend that a vigorous debate is already taking place. If those two are practically at each other’s throat, there is scarcely room for a third opinion! An outstanding example of a Punch-and-Judy pseudo-argument is to be found in the current issue of the New Republic. Robert Kagan reviews at excruciating length The Coming Anarchy, Robert Kaplan’s slender new book – actually a collection of his most recent articles. Robert Kaplan is often described as a "pessimist." Robert Kagan, on the other hand, is a believer in American intervention in as many countries and as often as possible. That, I take it, means that he is an "optimist." In reality, Kaplan and Kagan are indistinguishable. The only difference is one of style. If "democracy" is what turns you on, you go for Kagan. If you think "democracy" is for wimps, you go for Kaplan. Kagan’s hero is Woodrow Wilson; Kaplan’s is the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. But on one issue Wilson and Hobbes are of one mind: Without America, the world is lost.

It is a good rule of thumb that any allegedly "iconoclastic" thinker who appears frequently in the pages of the New York Times cannot be all that "iconoclastic." And, of course, Kaplan’s views are mainstream to a fault. His brusque dismissal of democracy, which Kagan makes such a great show of disputing, would hardly shock our foreign policy elite. For all his tough-guy posturing, Kaplan rarely takes a position at odds with that of the US Government. "[A] multiparty system merely hardens and institutionalizes established ethnic and regional divisions," Kaplan writes in The Coming Anarchy, "Look at Armenia and Azerbaijan, where democratic processes brought nationalists to power....A coup in Azerbaijan was necessary to restore peace and, by developing Azerbaijan’s enormous oil resources, foster economic growth. Without the coup Western oil companies would not have gained their current foothold, which has allowed the United States to increase pressure on neighboring Iran." This is typical Kaplan: swaggering contempt for "nationalists," celebration of a "coup" even though it brought to power someone as repulsive as former Soviet Politburo member Heydar Aliyev, and rejoicing at the triumph of Western corporations who will now "foster economic growth." By a happy coincidence, Kaplan’s passions are also those of the US Government. His enthusiasm for Aliyev is second only to President Clinton’s. Moreover, Kaplan is flogging a dead horse. Does anyone seriously believe that the United States has ever pursued the goal of universal democracy? Do we need to waste time listing the dictators who made their countries safe for foreign investment and were good friends of the United States? Indeed, Kaplan admits as much when he blurts out that "our post-Cold War mission to spread democracy is...a pose. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, America’s most important allies in the energy-rich Muslim world, our worst nightmare would be free and fair elections." "Pose" is a rather delicate way of putting it. "Fraud" seems a more suitable word.

Kaplan’s "realism" consists of championing US foreign policy for what it is, rather than for what it purports to be. The US Government wants US corporations to be able to move in and out of countries at will. And, sure enough, Kaplan wants the same. "What is good for business executives is often good for the average citizen," he drools, "For years, idealists have dreamed of a ‘world government’. Well, a world government has been emerging – quietly and organically, the way vast developments in history take place. I do not refer to the United Nations....rather, I refer to the increasingly dense ganglia of international corporations and markets that are becoming the unseen arbiters of power in many countries. It is much more important nowadays for the leader of a developing country to get a hearing before corporate investors at the world Economic Forum than to speak before the UN General Assembly." This may appear as bleak to some, but not to Kaplan. That is why it is absurd to describe him as a "pessimist." There is nothing in the human condition that a hefty dollop of corporate capital cannot remedy. You can see why someone like Robert Kagan would be put off by this sort of thing. It is not that he disagrees with anything Kaplan says. But it is one thing to champion free markets in the abstract, and another thing to trumpet the fact that the US Government is serving private, not national, interests.

For Kaplan, no less than Kagan, is a fervent proponent of US military involvement everywhere. Kaplan does not care very much about "national greatness." He just wants to make the world safe for "international capital." Last April he was ecstatic about the bombing of Serbia. Adopting his usual tough-guy pose, he wrote in the New York Times: "The humanitarian nightmare in Kosovo may be reason enough for NATO’s involvement in the former Yugoslavia, but for the United States there are vital strategic stakes involved as well. These stakes justify the use of any NATO measures needed to defeat Serbia, including the use of ground troops, because nothing less than the future contours of Europe are now being decided." But Kaplan’s message was anything but level-headed or realist. To justify his bloodthirsty belligerence he propounded a hysterical theory – one very much in accord with the fashionable hatred of the Serbs. The Serbs had to be crushed in order to save Europe from division between East and West. "The Balkan states were burdened by centuries of Byzantine and Turkish absolutism," he wrote, "The admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into [NATO] has formalized this dangerous historical and religious redivision of Europe: between a Roman Catholic and Protestant West and an Orthodox Christian and Muslim East. However, Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign in Kosovo has now given the West a chance to reverse this process. A real NATO victory, one that not only gives the Kosovars protection but also knocks Serbia off its perch as the region’s military threat, would go a long way toward stabilizing the continent." Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all share Serbia’s Eastern Orthodox version of Christianity. As, of course, does Russia. And that’s very bad. "Appeals to conscience will not keep Greece a...member of NATO, nor will they keep Romania and Bulgaria from slipping into the sway of Russia. What is required is nothing less than a complete NATO military....Only Western imperialism – though few will like calling it that – can now unite the European continent and save the Balkans from chaos." It is hard to exaggerate the extraordinary shallowness of debate in the United States when ignorant ravings like these are treated as serious geopolitics. But this is the role Kaplan plays. While "moralist" Anthony Lewis simpers about the Albanians and cries out for bombing on one side of the Times Op-Ed page, there on the other side of the page is "realist" Kaplan offering pseudo-historical mumbo-jumbo while also crying out for bombing. That way all bases covered.

In the January issue of The Atlantic, Kaplan writes "What I took away from Israel was not Zionism so much as realism: whereas Israel’s phobias about security might seem extreme to outsiders, life in Israel taught me that the liberal humanist tendency to see politics predominantly in moral terms was equally so. In Israel I often met foreign journalists who demanded absolute justice for the Palestinians and talked constantly about morality in politics, which in practice meant that anyone who disagreed with them was ‘immoral.’ You couldn’t argue with these people. My right-wing neighbors in a poor, oriental part of Jewish Jerusalem sought absolute security. You couldn’t argue with them either, but at least their arguments were grounded in self-interest and not in airy abstractions." Notice how Kaplan’s self-serving "realism" enables him to avid serious engagement with the issues. He could have counterpoised the views of the Palestinians to those of his "neighbors" in Jerusalem. One "realist" would have confronted another. Instead, he takes cheap shots at the "liberal humanists."

"The real tragedy is that Kaplan's realism precludes him from making the only appeal that can plausibly be made to the inhabitants of the world's stretch limousine: the appeal of universal morality and common humanity," Kagan concludes, "Kaplan tries to appeal to us on the pragmatic, material grounds of realism. If we do not pay attention, he warns, we will lose money, we will lose security, we will become sick with disease. Many realists believe that these arguments are not only legitimate, but also that they are the only arguments that are likely to persuade. They are wrong on both counts." Well no, the "real tragedy" is that Kaplan devotes his energies to providing justifications for an imperialist US foreign policy in terms that flatter our policymakers. There is nothing that pleases the Talbotts, the Holbrookes and the Bergers more than the idea that they are "tough guys." They are no moralistic wimps, they are in it for the money. What Americans get out of empire or what our imperial subjects get out of it interests neither them nor Kaplan at all. Another tragedy is that this is the only debate that we are permitted to have. Will we justify our military attacks on other countries by invoking morality? Or by pragmatic self-interest? The issue of America's right to bully the rest of the world is off the table. That's for wimps. Just ask Kaplan. Or Kagan.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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