June 16, 2014
McLEAN, Va. — In a much-discussed essay, the historian Robert Kagan recently depicted President Obama as presiding over an inward turn by the United States that threatened the global order and broke with more than 70 years of American presidents and precedence. He called for Mr. Obama to resist a popular pull toward making the United States a nation without larger responsibilities, and to reassume the more muscular approach to the world out of vogue in Washington since the war in Iraq drained the country of its appetite for intervention.
The New Republic cover article, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” struck such a nerve in the White House that many in the foreign policy establishment considered part of Mr. Obama’s speech last month at West Point outlining a narrower vision for American force in world affairs to be a rebuttal, and the president even invited Mr. Kagan to lunch to compare world views. But the rapid advancement of militants from Iraq and Syria on Baghdad, and Mr. Obama’s announcement on Friday that he was weighing the use of force to counter them, makes the debate suddenly less abstract.
To Mr. Kagan, American action to stop the militants is imperative, but a continued military presence in Iraq and action in Syria would have averted the crisis. “It’s striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of a military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster,” Mr. Kagan said in an interview.
A decade after their fierce advocacy for the war in Iraq largely discredited neoconservatives like Paul D. Wolfowitz and Richard N. Perle, who argued most loudly for democracy exportation through military power, Mr. Kagan is hardly apologetic about the current mess. Instead, he believes that the widespread frustration over Mr. Obama’s disengagement despite the resurgence of organized terrorist groups in the region has created the climate to again make the case for interventionism.
And who better to lead a cast of assorted hawks back into intellectual — and they hope eventually political — influence than the congenial and well-respected scion of one of America’s first families of interventionism?
His father, Donald Kagan, a historian of ancient Greece, is a patriarch of neoconservatism. His brother, Fred, is a military scholar who helped conceive the American troop increase in Iraq in 2007. His wife and unofficial editor, Victoria Nuland, is an assistant secretary of state and one of the country’s toughest and most experienced diplomats, whose fervor for building democracy in Ukraine recently leaked out in an embarrassing audio clip. And Mr. Kagan, who often works in a book-lined studio of his cedar home here in the Washington suburbs, exudes a Cocoa-Puffs-pouring, stay-at-home-dad charm.
“A very nice family,” said William Kristol, a family friend and the founder of the conservative Weekly Standard, whose father, Irving, is another of neoconservatism’s father figures and one of Robert’s first bosses.
Mr. Kagan, 55, prefers the term “liberal interventionist” to the neoconservative label, but believes the latter no longer has the stigma it did in the early days of the Obama presidency. “The sort of desire to say ‘Neocon! Neocon! Neocon!’ has moved out a little bit to the fringe,” he said.
Both Mr. Kagan and his brother are taking considerable pains to describe their advocacy as broadly bipartisan. “The urgent priority is to unite internationalists on both sides of the spectrum,” said Fred Kagan, while his brother, Robert, mentioned his briefing of a bipartisan congressional delegation at Davos and his good relations with top White House officials, including the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice. (Their father apparently did not get the memo, calling Mr. Obama’s speech “pathetic” and saying of the president, “We should not underestimate the possibility of extraordinary ignorance.”)
But Exhibit A for what Robert Kagan describes as his “mainstream” view of American force is his relationship with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who remains the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes. Mr. Kagan pointed out that he had recently attended a dinner of foreign-policy experts at which Mrs. Clinton was the guest of honor, and that he had served on her bipartisan group of foreign-policy heavy hitters at the State Department, where his wife worked as her spokeswoman.
“I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Mr. Kagan said, adding that the next step after Mr. Obama’s more realist approach “could theoretically be whatever Hillary brings to the table” if elected president. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he added, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Whatever it is called, it is a dominant strain in the Kagan clan. As a boy, Robert accompanied his father to the faculty club on the Cornell campus, where high-level conversation made an impression. (So did the philosopher Allan Bloom, the author of the conservative manifesto “The Closing of the American Mind,” who accidentally put out a cigar in his hand at a poker game.)
Fred Kagan, more cerebral than Robert, went on to become a West Point professor, and his paper for the American Enterprise Institute, “Choosing Victory, a Plan for Success in Iraq,” served as the intellectual basis for the 2007 troop increase, the so-called surge. Later, he went on to spend months with his wife, Kimberly, now president of the Institute for the Study of War, in Afghanistan, poring over Taliban correspondence at the invitation of Gen. David H. Petraeus.
They had some bad dates and then a good one at a Cuban restaurant where, Ms. Nuland said, they fell in love “talking about democracy and the role of America in the world.” The couple married in 1987. Ms. Nuland climbed the diplomatic ladder, serving as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott — now her husband’s boss at the Brookings Institution — and in the Bush administration, as a key foreign-policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and ambassador to NATO. When asked about her husband, Ms. Nuland recites a “he’s him and I’m me” mantra. Mr. Kagan offers that “with any marriage where do you leave off and they begin?”
“It’s hard,” he said. “We’ve been living through this world together for almost 30 years, and I don’t think there is a huge gap between us.” Mr. Kagan challenges his wife’s answers to how-was-your-day questions with shouts of “You are giving me talking points! What are you really trying to do?” Ms. Nuland carves up his drafts, writing, “We don’t care” across pages and “barf” across paragraphs.
But they do have boundaries. In his work, Mr. Kagan is not permitted to use any official information he overhears or picks up around the house, and must steer clear of specific regions his wife is working on and avoid ad hominem attacks and a snarky tone.
But Mr. Kagan’s views have not influenced his wife’s career one way or another, the couple said. “It’s a touchy question,” Mr. Kagan said. “Because when she does something, like on Ukraine, the left — and right — go, ‘Oh that’s just those neocons.’ ”
Even before Mr. Kagan’s essay, some critics saw evidence of overly activist tendencies in his wife’s provocative decision in December to hand out cookies to Ukrainian protesters; ditto for a subsequently leaked private conversation in which she weighed in on the makeup of the new Ukrainian government and offered a profane directive to the European Union. “Now, another member of the Kagan family, albeit an in-law, has been orchestrating the escalation of tensions in Ukraine with an eye toward one more ‘regime change,’ ” Robert Parry, a liberal investigative reporter, wrote in February on his blog, Consortiumnews.com.
Ms. Nuland declined to comment on her husband’s critique of her current boss’s foreign policy. “But suffice to say,” she said, “that nothing goes out of the house that I don’t think is worthy of his talents. Let’s put it that way.”
Inside the Obama White House, Mr. Kagan is viewed, said one former top official, as a “gentleman,” whose perspective is sought out because of his excellent grasp of history. But there is also a feeling that he dangerously glosses over the devastating effect of the war in Iraq, and that American force, when unsuccessful, undermines rather than advances American security and the global order.
At an intimate fund-raiser for Democratic Senate candidates in May at the Upper East Side home of the financier Blair Effron, Mr. Obama became animated when answering a question about his foreign policy. He said calls from hawks like Senator John McCain for American intervention in Syria and other global hot spots weres grossly irresponsible, according to one attendee. The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.
Mr. Kagan is equally resolute. The possible fall of Baghdad, he said, demands a response from Mr. Obama, who he fears has made up his mind to retrench the United States into a more “normal” and less internationally engaged posture. “I would be delighted to be cosmically wrong,” he said.