I’d heard frightening rumors that Robert Kagan had written a column praising Barack Obama that should send shivers down my spine. Mostly, I found Kagan to be accurate but unthreatening. It’s true that Obama is not proposing to dismantle the American national security apparatus, and that some (though not me) will be disappointed by this. On one key issue, though, Kagan really does ascribe to Obama a view I find objectionable:
Obama never once says that military force should be used only as a last resort. Rather, he insists that “no president should ever hesitate to use force — unilaterally if necessary,” not only “to protect ourselves . . . when we are attacked,” but also to protect “our vital interests” when they are “imminently threatened.” That’s known as preemptive military action.
Perhaps using unilateral force to protect imminently threatened vital interests is known as “preemptive military action.” The Bush administration, meanwhile, with the support of people like Robert Kagan, has put forward a doctine of unilateral preventive military action to counter non-imminent threats. Then they decided to call this doctrine “preemption.” Thus, through sleight-of-hand Obama comes to agree with Bush. In the real world, though, as Martin Peretz correctly notes Obama’s views seem closer to Al Gore’s than to Bush’s or Kagan’s — supportive of a very robust American military capability, willing to use that capacity in a variety of circumstances, but not interested in making unilateral military strikes (or threats of strikes) the centerpiece of America’s non-proliferation efforts. At least that would be my guess.
Admittedly, we’re all conjecturing based on rather limited textual evidence. But it seems significant that in the case of Iraq, Gore and Obama came down on one side of the issue, while Kagan and Bush came down on another. Neither Gore nor Obama are “doves” in the sense of wanting to curtaul US military capabilities, but unless their views different in some important ways from the Bush/Kagan view it’s hard to see why they would reach different conclusions about a significant concrete issue.