Beltway brigadier Robert Kagan is all wrong.

By Justin Logan

Robert KaganWashington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite is worried. Neocons, liberal interventionists, and conservative hawks are all fretting about the specter of “isolationism” in the Tea Party. Facing a plucky band of freshmen congressmen who have expressed few clear views about the defense budget, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, has pledged that he is going to “educate” new members on the need to keep military spending right where it is. McKeon promises he “will not support any measures that stress our forces and jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform”—except, presumably, America’s wars.

Into this fray steps Robert Kagan with a sprawling cover story in the Weekly Standard defending America’s “benevolent global hegemony” and urging increased military spending. You have to give it to Kagan: he’s taken on a tough task. With the country mired in two treadmill-style wars, staring down red ink as far as the eye can see, and increasing numbers of Americans realizing our real problems are here at home, arguing for keeping military spending turned up to 11 is a challenge.

His argument centers on three claims. First, Kagan alleges that America faces a dire threat environment in which a more restrained strategy would only amplify the dangers. Second, he argues that cutting military spending can’t solve our fiscal dilemma. And finally, he asserts that America simply cannot change its grand strategy, for we have always been interventionists.

Each claim is wrong: America could make substantial changes to its grand strategy that would save hundreds of billions of dollars per year without endangering our national security.

Secure Superpower

Kagan correctly points out that the only way to save real money on the military is to ask it to do fewer things. But because America faces an “elevated risk of terrorist attack” and an “increasingly dangerous international environment,” he thinks strategic restraint would be perilous.

This song is getting old, especially coming from Kagan. In May 2000, he and William Kristol warned of the “emerging dangers” in China, Russia, Iraq, Serbia, and North Korea, saying that these problems were “proving more troubling” than the two had expected in their famous Foreign Affairs article in 1996. In retrospect, of course, the tone that was tellingly missing from this chorus of alarm bells was Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, the one true threat to the United States at that time.

Eleven years later, just how bad is the threat environment? Is the United States militarily insecure by any reasonable historical measure? Is our sovereignty in doubt, like the nations of Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries? Or how does America’s threat environment compare to that of, say, present-day Israel—or present-day Iran? Kagan defines dangerous down. In fact, the United States is the most secure great power in modern history.

The U.S. will remain for years the world’s largest economy. It accounts for nearly half of the planet’s military spending. (Add in allies with a formal treaty commitment to America and the figure is closer to 70 percent.) We possess near ideal geography, with two weak, friendly neighbors to the north and south and two large moats to the west and east. America bristles with nuclear weapons. The threat of territorial conquest is zero.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Kagan has had an easier time threat-mongering, using terrorism as the justification for our towering military spending and activist grand strategy. But given his history of crying wolf, it is no surprise that he’s inflating this threat, too. That’s particularly problematic, given that terrorist’s best weapon is our tendency to overreact and score own-goals, like the war in Iraq.

Only a tiny fraction of U.S. military spending has anything to do with terrorism. Virginia class submarines and V-22 Ospreys kill few terrorists. Even the large ground forces needed to sustain nation-building projects in Muslim countries have little counterterrorism utility, serving to make us targets of terrorism rather than preventing it, as political scientist Robert Pape has argued.

Washington could easily scale back its overseas ambitions and save significant money in the process. To his credit, Kagan acknowledges that an entire school of thinkers—academic realists—has consistently offered a fundamentally different vision of American strategy since the end of the Cold War. Scholars like Eugene Gholz, Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Barry Posen have argued for a strategy of “offshore balancing” that would allow the United States to reduce military expenditures without compromising security.

These academics have suggested offloading responsibility for defending Europe to the Europeans and promoting stable balances of power in other regions, while retaining the world’s most powerful military as a hedge against unexpected trouble. Where another great power threatened to establish dominance in its region, the United States could intervene swiftly to restore the balance of power.

If the United States stopped providing security for wealthy clients like the European Union countries, Japan, South Korea, and Israel, they would orient their foreign policies away from free-riding on American taxpayers and toward defending themselves. Kagan implies that these powers might instead collapse: If the United States pulled in its horns, East Asian powers would “have to choose between accepting Chinese dominance and striking out on their own, possibly by building nuclear weapons.” Middle Eastern countries removed from the American security umbrella would face similar decisions with respect to Iran.

Missing from Kagan’s analysis is a shred of empathy for the states in question. Given the geography, history, and possible threats in question, these countries’ decisions to surrender or balance are remarkably easy choices to make. Nor does his claim jibe with international relations scholarship or history, both of which show that states tend to balance against threats rather than band-wagon with them.

The disconnect between the academy and the Beltway foreign-policy community could hardly be starker. Forty-five years ago, Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser sketched what they termed the “economic theory of alliances.” They explained that when several countries join together to protect a shared interest, smaller members have an incentive to free ride in the presence of a much larger, wealthier partner. Once the large, wealthy partner has stated its own vital interest in the objective—in this example, security—smaller countries believe that the larger contributor will pay for the goal itself even in the absence of “fair” contributions from the other partners.

The basic insight has stood the test of time. Ignoring this reality, Washington blindly subsidizes allies’ domestic welfare programs by allowing them to channel resources away from self-defense. There are many terms that could describe this phenomenon, but “fiscal responsibility” is not one of them.

How Big a Stick?

Kagan would not merely hold military spending constant. He wants more. As he points out, given the sweeping ambition of American strategy, fulfilling our commitments indefinitely would require “almost certainly more than current force levels.” But he offers no suggestions on how to right-size our forces. Thus his argument collapses into a case for continuing a strategy that Kagan admits is insolvent.

One suspects that political reality prevented Kagan from openly proposing large increases in military spending. But he ignores that same constraint in suggesting that elected officials can slash domestic entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to solve long-term budgetary shortfalls.

In attempting to cordon off military expenditures, Kagan protests that the real source of American debt is our entitlement system, implying that deficit hawks should target those programs. But even Republicans prefer cutting military spending to tinkering with Medicare or Social Security. A January poll from CBS News and the New York Times asked, “if you had to choose one, which would you be willing to change in order to cut government spending?” Among Republicans, 42 percent said the military, 31 percent said Medicare, 17 percent said Social Security, and 10 percent stated no opinion.

Republicans on Capitol Hill recognize these preferences, which explains the charade where they preen before media cameras and claim that they will get tough on the deficit by cutting … foreign aid and earmarks. Political reality says that progress on the debt means putting military spending, which has nearly doubled in the last decade, on the table.

Kagan instead engages in creative mathematics, claiming that immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan combined with “cutting all the waste Gates can find” as well as several weapons systems “would still not produce a 10 percent decrease in overall defense spending.”

False. America is spending roughly $120 billion per year in Afghanistan alone, and military expenditures including the wars fall between $700 billion and $750 billion. My Cato Institute colleagues Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble recently unveiled a detailed plan for strategic change that would allow cuts of at least $1.2 trillion in military spending over the next 10 years. That would not fix the long-term fiscal shortfall, but it would help.

Destiny Manifest

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Kagan’s argument is his claim that although “almost every war or intervention the United States has engaged in throughout its history has been optional,” America is destined to pursue a grand strategy oriented toward global intervention. Kagan presents the history of American foreign policy since 1898 as one of almost constant foreign intervention and implies that America’s “wars of choice” are its destiny.

Wars can be either choices or destiny, but they cannot be both. Still, this is a tantalizingly provocative argument, one that brings Kagan close to revisionist diplomatic historians like Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams, William O. Walker III, and Richard Immerman. (Of course, these scholars see America’s tendency to intervene as a bug; Kagan views it as a feature.)

But if the United States is likely to follow an activist grand strategy for the foreseeable future, this is closely related to the behavior of prominent public intellectuals like Kagan himself. The marketplace of ideas about American strategy is, from the vantage point of the interested citizen, a monopoly.

April 2011 coverKagan’s C.V. represents the phenomenon well. A columnist at the Washington Post, a veteran of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century and Weekly Standard as well as the liberal interventionist Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who is now at the Brookings Institution, Kagan is the embodiment of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment. If enough people with those credentials amended their views on America’s grand strategy, it could change.

There are more prominent hawks in Washington named Kagan than there are prominent critics of the status quo in this town. Despite the superficially vicious battles between foreign-policy elites in Washington, these fights generally take place between the 7- and 10-yard lines of one half of the field. Critics in the academy rarely make their way into public discussion. To suggest that the Beltway debate represents genuinely conflicting views of strategy does a disservice to the notion of a “marketplace of ideas.”

Ironically, by acknowledging an informed opposition, Kagan himself shows the way toward changing American strategy. It lies in opening up the foreign-policy debate, above all in Washington itself.

Justin Logan is associate director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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