For the longest time, I was reluctant to get into book reviews. I mean, who cares what I think? Others do them from time to time; Paul Robinson, for one. But he’s an academic. JT does them regularly, specializes in reviewing Russia-related literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and her reviews are very enjoyable. But I know nothing of her background; perhaps she’s an academic, too. I am not. I didn’t finish high school, have no college or university education at all, and spent the best part of my adult life in the military.
But then, when you think about it, a book is really nothing more than a big, long article. When it’s meant to push your opinion in a certain direction – rather than simply entertain you, like in a novel – it is usually a pretty good barometer of the author’s personal opinion and way of thinking. I was looking for something to write about, I love deconstructing bullshit, and I just finished the book. So everything kind of came together at the right moment, and I decided to give it a try.
Usually when people say an author or celebrity needs no introduction, they just mean he or she is well-known in the field they chose, and intend to give them an introduction anyway. This will be no exception to that rule. Everybody who is even peripherally acquainted with American politics and foreign policy knows who Robert Kagan is. His advocacy for military intervention to imprint American-style freedom and democracy upon foreign populations, whether they want them or not, dovetails perfectly with the neoconservative agenda. But he considers himself a liberal interventionist, and the policies he advocates to constitute the ‘liberal world order’. If you read any of his books, you’re likely to see that phrase repeated many, many times. He is the husband of Victoria Nuland, currently the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State. She held the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest diplomatic rank in the United States Foreign Service. The Nuland/Kagans have moved for most of their adult lives in the corridors of political power, and a power couple more committed to American global dominance would be hard to imagine.
And now, except for cursory mention, we will part from Ms. Nuland; while I daresay she reads drafts of her husband’s books and may suggest the odd correction or improvement based on her personal opinion or knowledge, she did not write this book. So, first, the book. Its full title is “The Jungle Grows Back: America and our Imperiled World”. It was published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf of New York, and is dedicated to Kagan’s father, Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. The version I read costs $29.95 in Canada, $22.95 in the USA, and is 163 pages, not including footnotes. If you’re not busy, you could easily read it in a day. I have to confess I did not buy it; it was an impulse grab from a library cart of books waiting to be reshelved.
According to the author, the book was inspired by an essay for Idea Magazine, which for unknown reasons never appeared. Testimonials to Kagan’s writing prowess which appear on the back cover – which, as is traditional, refer to a different work altogether, Paradise and Power, America and Europe in the New World Order – are uniformly complimentary, as might be expected; who would feature a review which suggested “This guy writes like a Tourette’s sufferer who never learned how to swear”? Three out of four reviews contain the word “elegant”.
Kagan himself is Greek by birth, born in Athens. His father is of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. Kagan is from a family of well-educated writers – his brother, Frederick, is a military historian and author. Robert Kagan has a BA in History from Yale, an MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a PHD in American History from American University in Washington. The foregoing bio is from Wikipedia.
So, to the book. The summary on the inside flap is led by this bold paragraph;
“A brilliant and visionary argument for America’s role as the defender of peace and order throughout the world – and what is likely to happen if we abandon our long-term commitments”.
Just before we get into the nuts and bolts of this, a question – what would lead Americans to believe their country was the defender of peace and order throughout the world? I mean, unless you are a supporter of George W. Bush’s pretzel logic, best expressed in, “I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace”. From the standpoint, I guess, that if you want peace, you’re going to have to have a war first, you know, get that out of the way before we start with the doves and olive branches.
I mean, if you reviewed just the period beginning with the close of the Second World War and ending right now, the USA has been more or less permanently involved in war or a military intervention of some sort. There was a brief interlude of 7 years between the end of the Korean War and the onset of the Vietnam War. Some overlap, such as the Bay of Pigs intervention, which took place during the Vietnam War. After that conflict ground to a miserable conclusion, the USA went a whole 22 years before invading Grenada in 1983; defending peace and order, of course. America carried out a limited invasion of Panama in 1989, to remove Manuel Noriega. Things kind of went into war overdrive after that, with the first Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, Bosnia/Herzegovina from ’95 to ’96, the war in Afghanistan that started in 2001 and is still ongoing, the invasion of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, the droning of selected targets in Pakistan that began in 2004 and is still ongoing, the conflict in Somalia involving US and coalition forces which began in 2007 and is still ongoing. The invasion of Libya in 2011, which wrecked the most progressive country in Africa, and rolled right into the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, running until 2017. Another intervention in Iraq in 2014, which spread to US involvement in Syria which continues to the present. The Yemeni civil war in 2015, which featured the Saudi Kingdom, the USA and France against the Houthi rebels, still ongoing. Also in 2015, it was necessary to go back into Libya and wreck it some more, to instill order amongst the warring factions that emerged after the US-sponsored murder of the country’s democratically-elected leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The jungle grew back, you might say.
How many of those wars were pursued by the United States of America for peace and order? In how many cases was the USA’s entry into the conflict – if it did not in fact start it itself – because it had determined its contribution was imperative to restore peace and order? I mean, obviously you could argue that the USA entered any war in which it participated in order to bring it to an end with the victor being the side it wanted to win; it would hardly attack its allies in order to bring about an enemy victory. But isn’t that oversimplifying a little? Let’s look at the Korean War. Was that fought for peace and order? Not really; history assesses it as the first major battle fought to contain communism. Which originated with the Soviet Union – you’re going to see a lot of US militarism centered against the Soviet Union, because it and its successor, the Russian Federation, are lifelong ideological enemies of the United States. Vietnam? Nope; communism again. More properly called Socialism, it is the sworn enemy of Capitalism, and the United States is capitalist with a capital ‘C’. You might ask, “But wait – has a communist country ever attacked the United States? Well, the answer would be ‘No’, but Kagan gets neatly around that by arguing the United States, as the world’s guardian of the liberal world order, has an obligation to interfere wherever there is a threat to anyone’s peace and order. It’s probably just a coincidence that it always enters on the side which is not socialist, considering it is really none of the USA’s business if any country wants to be socialist. He also points out that America is in a unique position to do so, considering (1) it has the world’s most powerful military, far in excess of what it requires simply for its own defense, and (2) it is buffered on its landward sides by peaceful (Kagan prefers ‘weaker’) nations, so that it can deploy almost the entirety of its military power abroad, and not have to worry its neighbours will attack it while the Army is away; an adversary would have to go through Canada and/or Mexico first. I never thought of it that way, but in that he is perfectly correct. Mind you, security from attack by one’s neighbours would also argue for a more modest military, so the USA’s giant military machine must be intended for something else. Like foreign interventions. Just sayin’.
It would be too time-consuming to go through every war or intervention in which the USA was involved since World War II, from the viewpoint of whether America’s entry was motivated by its perceived obligation to instill peace and order. I will leave it to you to parse that issue on your own. But it would be hard to see how the USA shifted its sights from Afghanistan – where bin Laden was known to be hiding after striking against the USA on 9-11 – to taking out Saddam Hussein simply because it was overcome by the clarion call for peace and order. Similarly, its more recent ventures into starving countries of their main sources of income – as it has done in Iran and Venezuela – with sanctions it has no legal right to impose, so that the desperate populations do its heavy lifting and throw out their leader to make way for an American-approved replacement, are pretty hard to justify as being all about peace and order. Starving people’s children in order to coerce them into unwanted political change is kind of an ignoble way to impose your own values, and it is curious that countries targeted for such treatment are often resource-rich while the USA is home to the world’s largest concentration of wealthy investors in energy.
Anyway, let’s look more closely at Kagan’s core philosophy, which is the ‘liberal world order’ which simply must prevail worldwide, in order that humanity realizes its full potential in surroundings of peace and security. Well, not complete security, else nobody would need a military. Let’s say near-complete security. Despite these liberal murmurings, the internal movers and shakers of the US government – a group which includes Kagan, the influential and elegant philosopher – care nothing for the overall well-being of other countries beyond their utility as markets for American goods and services and partners in global trade, perhaps the odd military contribution to a coalition formed to impose peace and order somewhere else. This is evident in their strenuous attempts to overthrow governments which, by liberal standards, are doing a good job for their people – raising their standard of living, pushing back poverty, investing in infrastructure and national culture and supporting small business. Venezuela under the socialist Hugo Chavez saw poverty reduced by more than half, average growth of real income of 2.7%, and significant gains by the majority in employment, access to health care, pensions and education. Yet the United States never really stopped energetically trying to overthrow Chavez throughout his rule, despite Venezuela’s never showing the slightest inclination to attack America. In fact, during a pricing crisis in which American poor could not afford heating oil, Venezuela’s American company, Citgo, for three years donated heating oil to needy American families; $100 million worth to more than 200,000 families in 23 states in the winter of 2007. Its eventual reward for its generosity was to have all its assets in America seized by the Trump government, in an attempt to force Chavez’s successor – Nicolas Maduro – to step aside in favour of his American-hand-picked replacement, Juan Guaido.
Venezuela, I need hardly point out again, has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, publicly coveted by American investors and moneymen.
But in order that the facade of merciful intervention be preserved, America usually waits to be asked for its help. If such a request is not readily forthcoming, it is not above astroturfing an opposition movement through its ubiquitous non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). Occasionally it just gets fed up, announces that the ongoing conflict is too important to continue without a little American peace and order, and invites itself in. As it did in Syria, where its intervention saw steady gains made by extremist foes of Assad until they were in the suburbs of Damascus itself. At that point, the Syrian government did ask for help – from Russia – and ISIS was routed and in retreat across a broad front in less than two months; it never regained the momentum achieved during America’s ‘fight against ISIS’, in which US forces twice attacked the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) ‘by mistake’.
When America is invited to intervene, it is usually on behalf of a small minority, one which usually constitutes national elites who believe the country would be better off – certainly more prosperous – if they were in charge. This is the case in Venezuela, where the core of wealthy elites is ecstatic at the notion of Juan Guaido taking over and privatizing everything – to their immediate and significant enrichment – while the solid majority of middle-class and poor people is nowhere near so enthusiastic.
You’ll notice that about a quarter of the book is comprised of quotes which Kagan believes support his liberal-interventionist worldview. And to a large extent, they do, of course; it would be stupid to suggest Kagan does not have his devotees and disciples, just as it would be stupid and futile to argue there have not been others before him who recited a similar catechism – liberalism has any number of fanatical followers. While a steady stream of quotes by learned predecessors – Kagan constantly avails himself of, “As the great strategic thinker so-and-so said”, followed by a pithy quote, and this can be a device used by a dullard who has nothing to say, to foster the impression he is well-read. I have no doubt at all that Kagan actually is well-read and intelligent, and this particular quirk seems to be employed solely to convince the reader that he is just one picket in a solid phalanx of informed free-thinkers. For example, he quotes Kennan in the Long Memorandum as insisting it was only the determined containment of Soviet ambition that allows some historians to claim the Soviets were never a real threat. Kind of like that meme; What do you do? I kill zombies. You see any zombies around? You’re welcome. Those not prepared to take Kennan’s reasoning at face value are invited to believe the Soviet Union would have conquered countries left and right, had American determination not thwarted it. Since it did not, ipso-facto, American vigilance is responsible for peace.
In fact, the CIA’s own internal review concluded that “every major assessment from 1974 to 1986 substantially overestimated the Soviet threat”, immediate benefits of which were a frightened population willing to give up ever more liberty in exchange for security they really didn’t need, and regular injections of cash to an ever-growing defense budget which now stands at $716 Billion. For a country surrounded by weaker nations which would not ever dare attack it, just in case the point needed driving home. Is America shirking its responsibility to deploy its massive military might anywhere upon the globe that the liberal world order is not free to flourish? Not if the US government has anything to say about it.
The only part of the book in which I would say Kagan is evasive or flat-out lying is in his treatment of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration. In this his defense of American actions is pure mainstream media, and soft-pedaling of what America knew at the time. Supposedly the best-informed and most-aware satellite-fed, internet-stoked nation on the planet really thought Saddam Hussein had an up-and-running weapons of mass destruction program that he could focus on any nation he chose in no more than 45 minutes. And that is horseshit, and everybody who can read knows it. The leaders of the coalition nations agreed to go with Weapons of Mass Destruction because the scaring-the-shit-out-of-everybody was crude but compellingly reliable, and they wanted a reason to hit that fucker. It is as simple as that. Who said so? Paul Wolfowitz, a primary architect of the invasion, said so. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean everybody at the table knew Saddam possessed no such weapons, but the United States most certainly knew it.
About a third of the book is dedicated to taking potshots at Russia; although Kagan is apprehensive about the threat represented by the Heathen Chinee, he is at his most apoplectic on Russia. His depressingly pedestrian outline of Russia’s lust to reconquer the Baltics, while doubtless a family obsession born of his Lithuanian heritage, is substantiated by exactly nothing. Russia has complained regularly about the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, which is most certainly not characteristic of the liberal world order, but its actual threatening moves against the yappy little nations have been exactly zip. As I’ve pointed out on other occasions, the populations of the Baltic nations reached their zenith at the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, and they won their independence. Since that point, each has been in steady and steep decline. Here’s Lithuania.
I guess we are supposed to believe a huge part of the population in each country was so excited about being part of the liberal world order that it departed beyond the borders to spread the word of its euphoria. More to the point, why would Russia risk a showy and ultimately pointless military lunge to seize these midgets? According to national statistics from each, only Estonia is not in immediate peril of its native population sinking below statistical significance.
I had to snicker a little also at the suggestion – well, not so much a suggestion as it was offered as fact – that “It was after Ukraine negotiated a trade agreement with the EU that [Putin] invaded and seized Crimea.” The obvious implication is that the one was a consequence of the other – that a panicky Putin, terrified by Ukraine’s landing a sweetheart deal with the EU, jumped on Crimea. Is that anything like what happened? Of course it isn’t. Crimea was still very much a part of Ukraine when Yanukovych blew off the deal with the EU, for the simple reason that he had tried to reason with Stefan Fule and show him projections from Berlin’s economists on how much Ukraine stood to lose if its trade with Russia was cut off; “Ukrainian exports to Russia would decrease by 17 percent or $3 billion per year.” Fule was not interested in discussing it. This is a matter of public record. The same reference is explicit on the issue of Putin’s supposed paranoia about Ukraine having a closer relationship with the EU; “Russia had never had a problem with the EU,” said sources in Brussels familiar with the negotiations. After all, hadn’t Putin offered his backing for closer ties back in 2004? During a visit to Spain at the time, the Russian president said, “If Ukraine wants to join the EU and if the EU accepts Ukraine as a member, Russia, I think, would welcome this.”
The simple facts are that the EU became overconfident of the hold it had over Yanukovych, and insisted on his freeing Yulia Tymoshenko from prison as proof of his European ambitions, while dismissing his perfectly-sound apprehensions regarding the loss of Russian trade. Things went pear-shaped rapidly, and Yanukovych announced his intention to work more closely with Moscow’s customs union. The US State Department panicked, and threw together a coup (or more likely activated one that had been long-planned as a fallback if Yanukovych went squishy). Yanukovych was overthrown, a new kangaroo government appointed itself and, drunk with conquest, announced its intention to immediately repeal that law which granted official-language status to the Russian language in Ukraine, which nearly everyone in Ukraine can speak and nearly half use as their daily working language. Then, and only then, was a plan to return Crimea to Russia put in place, and it started with a sampling of public opinion to establish what Crimeans wanted. It has never been questioned, before or since, that close association with Russia was what Crimeans desired as a majority, rather than being part of Ukraine, and Crimea had made several previous attempts to that end.
I would still recommend this book for reading. The author is indeed an intelligent and well-read man, and in some places in the book he makes an impassioned and compelling case for liberalism. Comes to that, the ideals of liberalism are mostly commendable; that each man should be free to make his own informed decision on what system he chooses to live under. That he should be free to seek a decent job unfiltered by gender, colour, ethnicity or sexual preference, and that his government take steps to ensure such jobs as he seeks are available. That he should be free to read whatever material he chooses provided it is not hate literature or exhortations to overthrow the government, and observe whatever religious practices he prefers. That there should be limits on the power of government, that the country should have the rule of law, and that the government should be comprised of representatives elected by the public through a transparent system. In fact, but for the ownership by the people of the ‘factors of production’ (labour, entrepreneurship, capital goods and natural resources), you will not find much different between socialism and liberalism.
But isn’t it every man’s most fundamental right to choose his system of government, and to whom he will entrust his vote? Not entirely, according to Kagan. If he chooses other than the liberal world order, then he constitutes a threat to it, and it is the responsibility of the United States to change his mind; by force, if nothing else will get it done. It was a wise comment on liberalism which suggested to watch what they do, not what they say, and the crimes committed in the name of liberalism are nearly as numerous as those in the name of religion. Liberalism is just a philosophy. Anyone who thinks it is freedom is making a mistake.