Give Peace a Pass

Give Peace a Pass

"America's expansiveness, intrusiveness, and tendency toward political, economic, and strategic dominance are not some aberration from our true nature," writes Robert Kagan. "That is our nature."

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The source: “Cowboy Nation” by Robert Kagan, in The New Republic, Oct. 23, 2006.

Throughout the ideolog-ical vicissitudes of the Clinton and two Bush administrations, the United States deployed troops to or bombed Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghan­istan, and Iraq, averaging a new military adventure every 19 months. A new direction? Surpris­ingly, no. “Americans stand almost alone in believing in the utility and even necessity of war as a means of obtaining justice,” writes Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (2006).

Kagan’s portrait of America is precisely the opposite of its ­self-­percep­tion. “The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war,” said President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War. “The United States is a peaceful nation.” Indeed, as America struggles militarily in Iraq and Afghan­istan, Kagan says, there is a sense that the nation has gone astray, becoming too militaristic, too idealistic, and too arrogant. It has become an empire rather than the reluctant good neighbor that seeks only peace and ­stability.

From its march down the Mayflower gangplank to its toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue, America has been a revolutionary power, consistently expanding its participation and influence in the world, Kagan argues. From the 1740s through the 1820s, Americans pressed westward from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, southward to Florida and Mexico, and northward to Canada, eventually subduing the native Indians as well as pushing France, Spain, and Russia off the continent. Only Great Britain managed to hang on, clinging to the northern ­latitudes.

This did not happen by accident. Thomas Jefferson saw a vast “empire of liberty.” Secretary of State William Seward predicted that America would become the world’s dominant power, “greater than any that has ever existed.” Dean Acheson called the United States “the locomotive at the head of mankind,” and Madeleine Albright said it was the world’s “indispensable nation.”

Americans decry war. They are uncomfortable with using war to achieve their objectives, suspicious of power (even their own), uneasy with using influence to deprive others of freedom, and disapproving of ambition. So they compose comforting narratives of their imagined innocent ­past.

“It is easier than facing the hard truth,” writes Kagan. “America’s expansiveness, intrusiveness, and tendency toward political, econ­omic, and strategic dominance are not some aberration from our true nature. That is our nature.”

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