Whatever America’s fiscal woes, and the mounting costs of its open-ended military engagements across the world, the defense budget must remain sacrosanct, and its troop deployments must remain entrenched – if America’s “decline” is to be staved off. Or so says Robert Kagan, who at a panel discussion on Tuesday at Brookings in Washington challenged the notion that America was entering an inevitable, and irreversible, era of decline. To start chipping away at military assets would be to commit “preemptive superpower suicide.”

Kagan, a part-time historian, took the long view in the discussion. America is, yes, currently facing a crisis of legitimacy – in the domestic sphere, where the ultra-partisan debt ceiling scrap recently exposed the alleged flaws in America’s political system, previously an example to the world; and internationality, with America’s seeming inability to win a decade-long war against a guerilla army in Afghanistan, despite its unequalled military resources. But we’ve seen this all before, says Kagan: the 1960s and 70s saw high-profile assassinations, the Watergate scandal, and the slowly unraveling misadventure in Vietnam.

All of this served to discredit “brand America” at the time both at home and abroad, and gave rise to familiar grumblings about inexorable American decline. And all the while the Soviet Union posed a far greater challenge to American interests than China does today. Indeed, as fellow panelist Kenneth Lieberthal remarked, American economic interdependence with China is such that the U.S. is poised to benefit from a strong China, provided it doesn’t concede it too much strategic advantage and international leverage – we want a China that “operates within the liberal, post WWII order, rather than one dominated by Chinese values.”

America still has reason to swagger, Kagan maintains, despite the dire portents. But to reduce military outlays would be to surrender this position of pre-eminence – “when we cut defense, then we enter decline” – and besides, we must honor our “commitments,” pragmatic and moral. Vulnerable countries across the world, in Asia especially, want us to continue intervening, apparently. For this a clear mandate is found, said Kagan, in the fact that, in spite of the Bush years and the Iraq fiasco, the Arab League still begged NATO to intervene in Libya. That this was likely nothing more than a proxy, backhanded means of settling a neighborhood vendetta against Gaddafi – note the Arab League’s silence over their more favored regime in Syria – is argued by Daniel Larson in an earlier post.

With all this talk of “superpower suicide,” Kagan refused to entertain the notion that America might not, in fact, wish to remain a superpower – that it might think twice about maintaining indefinite military commitments overseas, and be periodically “obliged” to intervene in failed states and take sides in other people’s civil wars. American imperialism is, in Kagan’s discourse, something self-evident and inalienable – anything that threatens its reach and authority is a threat to America itself. Hence why cuts in the defense budget are synonymous with American decline.

The American public is now, more than ever, on a different page than Kagan – most discernibly among right-wing groups such as the Tea Party – with economic hysteria predominating and the popular outlook growing increasingly insular: American jobs over Arab tyrants, the chant might go. At the Republican Straw Poll last weekend in Ames, Iowa, Ron Paul’s staunch antiwar arguments drew roars of assent from one of the most conservative gatherings in American politics – the crowd that bestowed victory on Tea Party culture warrior Michelle Bachmann (with Ron Paul coming a impressive second).

But the fact of this populist backlash appeared not to perturb Kagan, who, as something of a democratic skeptic, reiterated the responsibility of political elites to make difficult decisions over foreign policy, regardless of public opinion – or public “ignorance,” as he termed it. Foreign military adventures are “rarely popularly demanded,” he said, and the onus rests on the administration – congress can rarely be relied upon to be sufficiently bellicose – to demonstrate how they are “necessary” and, failing popular or congressional support, exercise its prerogative, constitutional or otherwise, in instigating future interventions. Some things are simply too important to be left to democracy.

In the vein of Harvey Mansfield’s proscriptions for a manly presidency, an unbridled superman executive is what will save American empire and pre-empt the nation’s “decline.” It is fortunate for Kagan, therefore, that although he acted as a foreign policy advisor for John McCain in the 2008 election, America was landed with Obama as president – a man who clearly shares Kagan’s belief in an executive poised above and beyond the people, as he demonstrated in his readiness to plunge America into the Libya debacle without a congressional nod. The future, it seems, is safe for neoconservatives.