Interview with Neoconservative Scholar Robert Kagan 'America Remains Number One'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, American neoconservative scholar and McCain adviser Robert Kagan speaks about the legacy of the Bush-Cheney years, America's future position atop a "League of Democracies" and how China and Russia will push Europe back into America's arms.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Kagan, many intellectual forerunners and former friends of the president are now distancing themselves from him, and some are even attacking him as a failure. You are missing from the list of neoconservatives performing a mea culpa. Have you never given George W. Bush advice that you regret?

Robert Kagan: Well, I mostly regret the advice not taken, not advice that I have given. But I can already tell what's next: the Iraq war…

SPIEGEL: …and you were undoubtedly one of its intellectual fathers. You spoke of "regime change" early on and of the need to forcefully remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Kagan: I was hardly alone. So did the Clinton administration and a majority of the US Senate. I believe that military intervention to bring down a foreign government should be the exception. But, in the case of Saddam, who was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and was threatening his neighbors, even the rest of the world, I thought it was necessary. I can't believe that people think that we would be better off if that inhuman dictator were still in power.

SPIEGEL: More than 4,000 of your fellow Americans have been killed in Iraq; more than 100,000 Iraqis are estimated to have died; and 4.5 million men, women and children have been forced to flee. Would you consider that a positive outcome?

Kagan: Of course not. The costs have been high for everyone -- and especially for the Iraqi people. I deplore the way the Bush administration has conducted this war. Mistakes were made. I don't want to make a big deal out of it now, but I was one of the few people who recommended a troop buildup only a few weeks after the invasion. It was clear to me that there were far too few American troops to confront a problem that was much too big for them.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it true that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld took advantage of the outrage over the 9/11 terrorist attacks to strike Iraq? Is it even possible anymore to deny that the war was based on manipulation, exaggeration and flat-out lies?

Kagan: That's absurd.

SPIEGEL: It's a commonly held view…

Kagan: The Bush administration's intelligence on Iraq was the same as the Clinton administration's, the German government’s and the French government’s before the war. We now know that Saddam wanted the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction -- and the world did.

SPIEGEL: But, unlike Washington, both Paris and Berlin did not want to go to war without UN approval. And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna asked the United States -- unsuccessfully -- for a few more months to complete its investigation in Iraq. But the US wanted this war for strategic reasons.

Kagan: In retrospect, we have to admit that Washington could have waited a while longer. That's a different question. But I think it's about time we moved beyond this silly conversation and these absurd conspiracy theories. There is a real debate as to whether we should have gone to war in Iraq. And now we should have an intelligent discussion about the new challenges we face in Iraq and elsewhere.

SPIEGEL: Sure, why not? But you cannot seriously dispute that the Iraq war -- its justification, its execution and its costs -- have also been playing an important role in the US election campaign.

Kagan: Yes, but as far as the troop withdrawal is concerned, Obama and McCain's proposals have become more similar. That's because Obama has changed his absolute positions. He no longer supports the irresponsible plan of withdrawing the troops too hastily. By the way, even the Europeans, despite all past differences, have recognized how important a stable Iraq is for the future. The French, in particular, apparently want to become involved in reintegrating the country into the international system.

'You Cannot Ackowledge Our Successes in Iraq'

SPIEGEL: What contribution should the Europeans make in Iraq, and what do you specifically expect from the Germans?

Kagan: No more troops. They're already having enough trouble with that in Afghanistan. But the new American president will undoubtedly ask the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to contribute more to economic reconstruction and to invest more in Iraq.

SPIEGEL: That requires a stable security situation.

Kagan: Correct. And, in that respect, ever since the surge, the additional troops we sent, there have been great successes…

SPIEGEL: …which are undeniable, though not necessarily sustainable. And this results primarily from the fact that the US government is paying bribes to tens of thousands of Sunni fighters to turn their backs on al-Qaida and no longer attack US troops.

Kagan: The money is really not the main issue. The issue is the entire new US military strategy, which establishes security and dramatically improves the lives of people. The New York Times recently reported that the overwhelming majority of al-Qaida terrorists have abandoned Iraq as a safe haven and that they are joining their fellow insurgents in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: The terrorists are undoubtedly concentrated in Afghanistan and in the border region with Pakistan, and some are certainly going to those places from Iraq. But this is not an entirely new development. The war against terrorism should have been waged in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, as Obama has said.

Kagan: You cannot acknowledge our successes in Iraq because Europeans can never admit that Bush is doing something right.

SPIEGEL: We would certainly be pleased to see George W. Bush "doing something right," as you put it. Why don't you tell us about the successes of his presidency?

Kagan: The Bush administration has managed to largely protect America against another terrorist attack like that of Sept. 11, 2001. This is a fact that may not be of great interest in Europe, but it is of central importance to us. And this absence of terror was by no means expected because many experts predicted -- after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon -- more attacks within six months. But now we have already had six terror-free years. As much as I want this to continue into the next administration, I am just as uncertain that it will happen that way. Perhaps America will look back one day and say: It was the positive legacy of the Bush-Cheney administration that they protected us against a major attack.

SPIEGEL: Anything else positive?

Kagan: You won't believe it: cooperation with the Europeans. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bush administration worked very closely with the Europeans, including the Germans, in its second term -- in the area of intelligence, but also in other areas. Washington made a very serious attempt to improve tense relations. And they have, indeed, improved.

The Legacy of Torture

SPIEGEL: And the negative aspects of the Bush era?

Kagan: We've already discussed the conduct of the Iraq war. And I believe that the all-encompassing war on terror limited the Bush administration's worldview excessively. For instance, too little attention was paid to the changes in Russia. The government also failed to take the rise of new powers, such as China, sufficiently into account.

SPIEGEL: Don't words like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib mean something to you when you think about the negative aspects of the Bush legacy?

Kagan: Of course they do. But I don't believe that they have damaged the reputation of the United States as consistently or even irreparably as many believe. Damage was done, clearly; but it can be repaired. Nor can anyone believe that our image in the past was always so wonderful. We Americans were never the angels sent from heaven that some in the world claim today.

SPIEGEL: But, in the minds of many Americans, the United States is God's own country…

Kagan: Yes, that's what they say, "God's own country." But one can find actions in American history -- in times of war, for example, or when there was a perceived threat to national security -- that are worse than Guantanamo.

SPIEGEL: But that doesn't excuse the human rights violations at Guantanamo.

Kagan: Of course it doesn’t. But take the Second World War, for example. That was when our widely revered president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, locked thousands of Americans of Japanese descent into camps because they were supposedly not to be trusted -- and all of that merely because of their racial origins. There were also offences during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, another highly respected president. And, in the same breath, we should deplore the excesses during the witch hunt against communists in the McCarthy era. In difficult times, the American Constitution comes under fire. The good news is that, as the threat diminishes, things quickly go back to normal.

SPIEGEL: As far as the camp in Guantanamo, this means….

Kagan: …that it will be closed. It will happen in the first days of the new president's term, whether his name is Barack Obama or John McCain. I don't want to excuse Guantanamo; it was a bad response to difficult questions. But these questions remain unresolved: What should we do with terrorists who do not consider themselves part of any country and who commit acts of violence across international borders? Where should they be taken? Do these lawless fighters deserve the full protections of the Geneva Convention? McCain has proposed holding an international conference to address this issue. I think that's a good idea.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain the torture and acts of humiliation at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad?

Kagan: A disgrace. In my view, it was a consequence of a failed American military strategy. The Pentagon kept thousands of people imprisoned under horrible conditions.

SPIEGEL: On such a central issue, can the responsibility be limited to lower- and mid-level personnel? Shouldn't former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld be brought to account?

Kagan: I don't know enough about who was responsible and at what level. Rumsfeld certainly didn't create Abu Ghraib, but he did create a situation that made something like Abu Ghraib possible.

SPIEGEL: Isn't the underlying offence the fact that the Bush administration made torture practices, such as waterboarding, acceptable?

Kagan: In my view, a red line was crossed there -- but out of fear, not malice. I do know that it is important to upholding America's image that we do not practice torture. For that reason, and after carefully considering all aspects, I support strict rules that prohibit this sort of thing.

Re-aligning in Response to Russia and China

SPIEGEL: Are you sure that your friend McCain shares this view? There are indications that he would be willing to relax his strict opposition to torture under certain conditions.

Kagan: No, I don't believe that; that's not the way I have understood him. He experienced firsthand what torture means. It's easy for Obama to be against any form of coercive treatment; few in his party have disagreed with him. But McCain has faced real opposition to this position within the Republican Party. It didn't help McCain with the party base.

SPIEGEL: He also plays up his outsider status in other ways and sees himself as an independent "maverick" -- as if he were not the candidate of the Republican Party, which is currently in power. Don't you -- who have intensively supported George W. Bush -- feel that the candidate's anti-Bush rhetoric is a bit over the top?

Kagan: You are wrong. I have not intensively supported President Bush at all. I have criticized his administration time and again on many issues. As to Senator McCain, there is no doubt that the president is not very popular at the moment. It makes sense -- in terms of campaign tactics -- to create distance from Bush. But McCain doesn't have to fake this distance. It's real.

SPIEGEL: The next leader in the White House will face a host of extremely difficult problems -- from the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the international financial crisis and a recession at home. And then there is the decline in America's standing worldwide. You are John McCain's key foreign policy adviser. Do you see the United States as a world power in decline?

Kagan: No. Many tend to glorify the role the United States played in the past. They talk about the days when America could do as it pleased. When were those days? I'm not familiar with them. Based on all criteria -- military power, economic influence, cultural dominance -- America remains number one, even though other, new players are increasingly challenging it in that role.

SPIEGEL: You mean the rising powers China, Russia, India…

Kagan: … and the competition with them. The years immediately following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire led some to believe that the struggle between systems had ended. To use Francis Fukuyama's famous words: "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy." But history didn't end. Almost everywhere, the nation-state is stronger than ever, and international competition among major powers has returned. The world has returned to normal.

SPIEGEL: Normal? In these days of globalized purgatory?

Kagan: Normal in the sense that great powers today behave as they always have behaved throughout history. The financial crisis doesn’t change this. There are no winners in the international financial crisis -- aside from those who bet on falling prices in the markets. But the crisis, as bad as it is, cannot hide the fact that we have a global divide ideologically, a divide between the club of autocrats and the liberal democracies. This competition will dominate the 21st century. We are facing an increasingly self-confident Russia, which is defending its traditional sphere of influence with all the means at its disposal -- look at Georgia --, and that is keeping Western Europe in energy dependence. And we see China, which is pursuing its own national interests with growing self-confidence and tremendous economic success.

SPIEGEL: Europe doesn't count because we Europeans, as you once wrote, are from Venus. Does that mean, in other words, that we are naïve pacifists, while America lives on Mars and is prepared to take military action, if necessary?

Kagan: Of course Europe counts. In fact, I believe the United States and Europe are going to become more dependent on one another in this new era. But I also worry that Europe is poorly equipped for an equally unexpected and unwanted geopolitical competitive situation. The EU has little to counter Russia's new politics of power, neither militarily nor institutionally nor mentally. Russia's current rulers do not long for integration into the West but for a return to their old national prominence, and they are prepared to manipulate the Europeans with their energy shipments.

'Europeans Ought to Be Happy to See McCain Win'

SPIEGEL: You want to form a "League of Democracies" to oppose the power of the world's autocrats, something that McCain has included in his proposed government program. What exactly does this mean?

Kagan: The two rising powers, China and Russia, are autocracies. They are undoubtedly becoming more aggressive and nationalistic. They will shape the entire international system to suit their purposes, unless democratically minded nations join forces and demonstrate their own collective will to shape the world order.

SPIEGEL: McCain has indicated that he would like to expel Russia from the G-8 club of leading industrialized nations.

Kagan: Actually, in a way, this is already happening. After Georgia, and now in this economic crisis, the leading nations have been conferring with one another, largely without Russia. The League of Democracies would not replace the United Nations but, rather, complement it in an important way. I would be very much in favor of expanding the UN Security Council to include Japan, Indian, Brazil and Germany. But we have already seen that this sort of thing is bound to fail because the Russians and Chinese veto it.

SPIEGEL: Do you no longer consider Islamic fundamentalism to be an acute risk?

Kagan: I believe that the idea of radical Islam is gradually losing its appeal. But, unfortunately, the risks of terrorism remain very grave.

SPIEGEL: In your book "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," you evoke the return of 19th-century-style, nationally influenced power struggles. But isn't one of the big differences the fact that the world's powers today are so extremely interconnected economically that they can no longer extricate themselves from these dependencies?

Kagan: Despite the current global economic crisis, I believe it is still true that conflicts among major powers usually stem from geopolitical rivalries but rarely from economic competition.

SPIEGEL: One of the biggest problems for the next US president will be figuring out how to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Would you advise McCain to approach the leaders in Tehran with a comprehensive offer to negotiate? Or to bomb the nuclear facilities if the Iranians do not stop their uranium enrichment?

Kagan: I believe that the military option must remain on the table. But an attack is extremely risky. I do not believe that the Iranians will respond to an offer to negotiate, no matter how generous. That's why I see sharper sanctions -- with the threat of more serious action -- as the only alternative.

SPIEGEL: Obama, at least, wants to try to offer the Iranians a great bargain. In the wake of the preventive-war era of George W. Bush, haven't we reached the age of negotiated solutions?

Kagan: You can be sure that Obama will combine his offer of negotiations with tough sanctions. He will call upon the Germans, in particular, to make painful cuts to trade relations.

SPIEGEL: An overwhelming majority of Europeans want to see Barack Obama become president…

Kagan: Yes, of the United States, although they would never elect someone like that in their own countries. But I understand the Europeans. I too believe that Obama would be an exciting choice, given America’s history. But also a risky one. He has no foreign policy experience compared with McCain, who has been to Europe dozens of times and is intimately familiar with world problems.

SPIEGEL: Speaking of experience, isn't McCain's choice of a vice-presidential candidate with no understanding of international issues a sign of an excessive willingness to take risks and a lack of judgment?

Kagan: Don't worry too much about Sarah Palin. And, believe me, the Europeans, in particular, ought to be happy to see McCain win. He will approach them, and he will be a positive surprise on questions ranging from global warming to the US's integration into international organizations. So, go ahead and let your heart beat for Obama; but use your head to choose McCain.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Kagan, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath in Washington, D.C.

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