Robert Kagan: Neocon Renegade?

by Jim Lobe 

I, for one, am very eager to hear what Robert Kagan thinks about the framework agreement that has just been negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran. I’m particularly interested in what he thinks of Israeli and Republican efforts to sabotage it in one way or another.

He hasn’t addressed the issue much (that I’m aware of), other than to deplore Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two successive monthly columns for The Washington Post (here and here), the last on the eve of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Those dissents were striking not only because they contrasted rather dramatically with the aggressive defense mounted by the vast majority of prominent neoconservatives of both the invite and Bibi’s appearance, but also because Kagan’s long-time partner in neocon crime, Bill Kristol, had clearly played some role in arranging the affair and greeting the prime minister as one of Boehner’s specially invited guests in the gallery (along with Sheldon Adelson, of course).

Kagan, of course, has been perhaps the most influential neoconservative intellectual of his generation. And for much of the past 20 years or more, he has teamed up with Kristol, the neoconservatism’s other princeling, to define the movement’s agenda. In 1996, the duo appealed to fellow-Republicans to embrace America’s “benevolent global hegemony” and resist the siren song of isolationism that seemed ascendant in the party at the time in their Foreign Affairs article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy.” One year later, the two co-founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). After that group’s demise in the desert sands of Iraq, they also co-founded, along with Dan Senor and Eric Edelman, the equally hubristic Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in 2009 as a neocon attack dog against the presumed realist impulses of the incoming Obama administration and any signs of resurgent isolationism in the GOP.

But in the last two years, in particular, it seems that Kagan may have become something of a renegade. Unlike the vast majority of the movement leading lights, who have promoted “democracy” and “human rights” as mainly tactical weapons for deployment against perceived enemies of the United States and Israel, Kagan appears to have taken these concepts seriously. Indeed, he has apparently taken them even more seriously than neoconservatism’s core tenet since its birth in the late 1960s: the defense of Israel no matter how obnoxious its leadership, policies, or actions (or how much those leaders, policies, and actions contradict basic democratic values).

Split over Egypt

The emerging split between the two princelings became pretty blatant shortly after the 2013 military coup d’etat against the democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Kagan came out emphatically against any normalization of relations with the new government controlled by Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. In contrast, despite two daylight massacres by the security forces of hundreds of peaceful protesters in Cairo and the detention of thousands more, Kristol argued against any suspension of military aid to the regime. In the weeks and months that followed, virtually every prominent neocon (with the notable exception of Elliott Abrams) rallied behind Kristol’s (and Israel’s) position, leaving Kagan as a lonely champion in the movement for the Wilsonian ideals that many commentators had foolishly (in my opinion) come to associate with neoconservatism. (I wrote a longer essay on this theme immediately after the coup in a post entitled “Neocons and Democracy: Egypt as a Case Study.”)

Kagan, however, has stuck resolutely to his guns. In an extraordinary column (“Why the United States Shouldn’t Support Egypt’s Ruling Generals) published by The Washington Post nearly a year ago, he complained about the growing pressure by Israel and its lobby here to restore military aid that the Obama administration had initially suspended:

Many members of Congress also believe that by backing the Egyptian military they are helping Israel, which, through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has actively lobbied Congress for full restoration of military aid. Even though the Morsi government did not pull out of the Camp David Accords or take actions hostile to Israel, the mere presence of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt frightened the Israeli government.

To Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel, the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on the extermination of Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable. Perhaps from the standpoint of a besieged state like Israel, this may be understandable. A friendly observer might point out that in the end Israel may get the worst of both worlds: a new Egyptian jihadist movement brought into existence by the military’s crackdown and a military government in Cairo that, playing to public opinion, winds up turning against Israel anyway.

Israel has to be the judge of its own best interests. But so does the United States. In Egypt, U.S. interests and Israel’s perceptions of its own interests sharply diverge. If one believes that any hope for moderation in the Arab world requires finding moderate voices not only among secularists but also among Islamists, America’s current strategy in Egypt is producing the opposite result. [Emphasis added.]

This, of course, was a remarkable passage given Kagan’s importance in a movement that has long promoted the notion that U.S. and Israeli interests (and values!) were fundamentally the same, especially as regards the Middle East and the “war against terrorism.” Particularly remarkable was the observation that Israel “has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel,” which concisely exposed not only the total hypocrisy of the pro-Israel hawks (and Netanyahu) who rallied behind George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” after the invasion of Iraq, but also the deep contradictions between the aspiration of building a democratic Palestinian state and Israel’s long-standing preference for Arab autocrats. (Hence, the deeply ironic name one of the most aggressive pro-Israel groups in Washington: the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)

A Double Heresy

Kagan has since returned to that theme. In his appeal for Netanyahu to politely decline Boehner’s invitation, Kagan noted that Bibi’s presence here was “not good for the American debate over Iran.”

At the end of the day, that debate has to rest on a consideration of U.S. interests, not those of Israel. The two sets of interests may be congruent in some instances, but they are never identical, because no two nations’ interests are ever identical. …

On issue such as Egypt and the broader question of supporting dictators in the Middle East, for instance, Israel always, and mistakenly, urges Congress and the administration to support autocrats who see that part of the world the way Israel does. In the case of Iran, Israel is uniquely threatened and, as a U.S. ally, it deserves a serious and appropriate hearing here. But it is a mistake for Congress to treat Israel as if it were fundamentally different from all other U.S. allies, some of whom also face dire threats.[Emphasis added.]

A passage like that amounts almost to a double heresy. Not only is Kagan arguing that U.S. and Israeli interests are “never identical,” but that Israel should not necessarily be treated any different from “other U.S. allies” (presumably including, Britain, France, and Germany, all of which support the ongoing negotiations with Iran). This is essentially a denial of, for lack of a better phrase, “Israeli exceptionalism,” which has been central to neoconservative foreign policy thinking since at least the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.

How different this is from Kristol’s persistent efforts to depict Bibi as a 21st-century Winston Churchill fending off the forces of barbarism and extremism on behalf of “civilization” and the entire Western world, or, more spectacularly, his 2012 Thanksgiving meditation, in which he made abundantly clear how he believes Americans should perceive their relationship with Israel:

[S]o these two very different nations—Christian and Jewish, large and small, new world and old (though the new world nation is older than its newly reborn old world counterpart)—find themselves allied. More than allied: They find themselves joined at the hip in a brotherhood that is more than a diplomatic or political or military alliance. Everyone senses that the ties are deeper than those of mere allies. Israelis know that if the United States fails, so shall Israel. Americans sense, in the words of Eric Hoffer, “as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us.”[Emphasis added.]

It seems that Kagan does not agree.

Kagan’s Current Trajectory

Why am I writing this now? In part I’m genuinely curious what Kagan will have to say about the Iran deal, but also because I was struck once again by his latest column published last weekend in the Post (“Obama Repeats an Old U.S. Mistake in Egypt”) co-authored with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment. The op-ed reaffirms Kagan’s disgust over U.S. (and implicitly Israel’s) support for the al-Sisi regime—the column was provoked by Obama’s decision to release suspended aid to the Egyptian military. It also constitutes an eloquent defense of the long-term advantages of maintaining a strong human-rights policy and, as such, a remarkable repudiation of the late neocon goddess Jeane Kirkpatrick’s defense of “friendly authoritarian” regimes that dominated the Reagan administration in which Kagan served.

But I was especially struck by the rather pointed rebuke Kagan delivered to Bret Stephens, the Global View columnist at the Wall Street Journal and former editor of the Jerusalem Post who, next to Kristol and maybe Charles Krauthammer, has emerged as probably the most forceful and articulate proponent of hard-line foreign policy neoconservatism in the last few years. Indeed, the Kagan-Dunne op-ed begins with noting that Stephens in a recent column called Sisi a “geopolitical godsend”—a perfect reflection of Netanyahu’s and Kristol’s own assessments. (After a two-hour interview with Sisi, Stephen also penned a glowing review of the man entitled “Islam’s Improbable Reformer.”) Kagan seemed frankly infuriated by Stephens’s description and its approval of the Egyptian general’s performance.

We are back on the same old course in Egypt. It’s the Nixon Doctrine all over again, and we are falling prey to the same illusions that dictatorship equals stability, that brutal repression is the answer to radicalism. We lionize Sissi just as we lionized the shah, Mubarak and the other Middle East dictators before him. He is our guy, right up until the day his regime collapses. Geopolitical godsend? Try geopolitical time bomb.

There’s no doubt that Kagan still believes in the importance of maintaining the post-World War II, Western-dominated international order underpinned by Washington’s military primacy that remains sufficiently overwhelming to dissuade any potential peer rival from challenging it. This is and has always been an essential element of neoconservatism. There isn’t much question that he also believes in an American moral exceptionalism that presumably gives it the right to militarily preempt potential threats or mass atrocities with military force. But in his consistent and principled advocacy of democratic governance and human rights, as well as his refusal to privilege Israel’s interests over that of other allies, he seems to have parted ways with his erstwhile comrades, notably Kristol. Which is why, along with informed speculation that he has become an important advisor to Hillary Clinton, I’m so interested to find out what he’s going to write about Obama’s deal with Iran.

So far, very little. But, at the outset of Obama’s second term, he co-authored with his new boss at Brookings, Martin Indyk, a New York Times op-ed in which predicted that Iran’s nuclear program posed the president’s most important security challenge.

In the security realm, Obama’s primary “big bet” must be to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. The collapse of the nonproliferation regime that would follow Iran’s successful acquisition of nuclear weapons would strike a devastating blow to the international security order. Conversely, if Obama can succeed in achieving meaningful curbs on Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations, he will do much to strengthen nonproliferation as a fundamental pillar of the new liberal global order.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Is Robert Kagan married to Victoria Nuland, the architect of the regime change in Ukraine? No?

    Little birds are whisphering that Nuland is in line to become the next Secretary of State should the Empress Hilary Clinton ascend to the White House throne.

    Could it be that Kagan is flying the flag for the home side by keeping his big yap shut? For now. There will be plenty of time for bombing Iran after the next election so hold your horses.

    In fact, some pundits are saying the real choice facing American voters in 2016 will be having Iran bombed by Hilary Clinton or Jeb Bush.

  2. ronmac: good points, excellent points, points worth making. And is this not the self-same Victoria Nuland who was a principal aide and advisor to the Vice President during the administration of Mr. Geo. Bush the Younger? I’m surprised that Mr. Lobe didn’t mention these matters. Perhaps he assumed that they were obvious? Or politically incorrect?

  3. Those are incredibly interesting and enlightened passages Mr. Lobe has quoted here. I’m wondering though, are those typical of Kagan’s articles or has Mr. Lobe picked the oddest parts Kagan’s published material? Frankly I’m stunned those statements would come out of any of the neocons so something doesn’t compute. Ronmac’s pointing out the Nuland connection could certainly shed some light on this though not sufficiently by itself. If Nuland lands a high profile job in the Hillary administration should she win then Ronmac would be correct in his suspicion of Kagan’s motivations.

  4. Good post. It may seem that there is a gap in the NeoCon universe showing? I wonder, could it have anything to do with the possible decline of the U.S. as the Worlds Benevolent Super Cop? Perhaps the thinkers have finely gotten the message about cleaning house while the opportunity is available, or at least some of them have. After all, in politics, nothing is for sure beyond the moment at hand. There are the unknowns, then the unknown unknowns, which no one knows.

    Goodness, we may be witnessing the end or the beginning of the end, which ever your brand, but in today’s fast paste world of the 21st century, nothing is set in concrete, subject to change at a moments notice/blink of the eye, as those on top today, are tomorrows bottom feeders.

    Considering how long the present thinking has been in place, along with the results of that thinking on the performance stage, someone better come up with a Tsunami change, or like the premise based on “climate change, i.e. the oceans will rise and the present coastal areas of the world will be under water, so too will the present way of political being, regardless of military advantage.

    The corruption that has led to the rot of believing that the U.S. is all powerful, is based on the fact that the U.S. is the only nation who used the Atom Bomb against its foes. Would they do it again, or perhaps the so-call allies? Food for thought, not for the squeamish at heart.

  5. Kristol in 2017 would say” even Kagan who was against Sisis Egypt,and against Israel’s excessive focus on threat from Shia crescent has now changedo position on Iran. Kagan has realized the threat from Iran.Even an idealist a peacenik,and almost to the left of Obama as he has been for over a decade , has now repositioned himself after realizing the grave threats Iran poses to US”
    Fox will massage its war message ” even the diehard people with religious faith in nonintervention have come to see the danger from Iran”
    It is like the effort to add shoe shine to the character of Wolfowitz by using his lame duck rebuke to Suharto at a time when it didn’t and couldn’t produce any effects.

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