Bruce Fein says Robert Kagan is convinced the U.S. has yet to metamorphose the world into paradise because of insufficient appreciation of its omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence, as outlined in Kagan’s 2006 neocon book Dangerous Nation.
By Bruce Fein
Special to Consortium News
If you love fairy tales with happy endings, you’ll swoon over Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation’s fictional portrayal of America’s foreign policy from its earliest days to the dawn of the 20th century as a chivalrous aspiration or quest to bring Camelot to every corner of the globe.
The narrative veers from truth like the geocentric theory of the universe veers from the heliocentric.
According to Kagan, the gravitational pull of America’s foreign policy has always been a selfless giving and risking that last full measure of devotion to bring foreigners enlightened self-government and prosperity.
The author posits that Americans uniquely enjoy angelic DNA. They weep like Niobe upon witnessing foreigners groaning under oppression and eagerly champion American military intervention, i.e., the legalization of first-degree murder, to alleviate or end their misery.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is put to shame. Americans, Kagan insinuates will go straight to heaven without the need of an interview with God!
The fabulist nature of Kagan’s story is underscored by the heartlessness Americans were displaying at home over lynchings, white male supremacy, subjugation of Native Americans and rampant racism while purportedly acting like fairy godmothers abroad up to 1900.
The tale is as implausible as if the anti-Christ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Simon Legree, volunteered to fight to emancipate slaves in Cuba or Brazil.
Kagan is convinced that the United States has yet to metamorphose the world into paradise because of insufficient appreciation of its omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence in exhibiting every noble instinct of the human heart. (Was someone asleep at the switch in composing the book title conveying the opposite impression?)
If Kagan sounds like a megaphone for the multi-trillion-dollar military-industrial- security complex and the alternate history of America Uber Alles, it’s because he is. The truth about the United States and its foreign policy is both more earthbound and more promising.
The United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, is the nation’s birth certificate. James Madison, father of the Constitution, is the greatest discoverer in history — greater even than Copernicus, who discovered the heliocentric theory of the universe, and greater than Isaac Newton, who discovered the theory of universal gravitation.
Madison discovered how to make Isaiah’s prophecy about turning swords into plowshares a reality to end the scourge of war and make neutrality the nation’s lodestar. He conceived of a separation of powers that entrusts the war power in Article I, section 8, clause 11, exclusively to Congress with no incentive to exercise it except in self-defense — the Hope Diamond of the Constitution. No other constitution lodges the war power exclusively with the legislative branch.
History has more than amply vindicated Madison. Congress has declared war in only five conflicts in more than 234 years and only when convinced (by presidential deceits in 1846 and 1917) that a foreign aggressor had already broken the peace.
Neutrality in foreign conflicts is constitutionally saluted because war is the greatest nemesis to liberty. As Cicero noted, in times of war, the law falls silent. Everything is subservient to national security: due process, equal protection, privacy, private property, free speech, and freedom of religion. Madison warned, “No nation can preserve its freedom in a state of continual warfare.”
The Constitution’s architects understood that the temptation to war to placate an inherent craving for power is universal. It can be arrested only by placing the war power exclusively with the legislature — a talking shop with a temperament of a Golden Retriever.
Men are not angels, James Madison underscored in Federalist 51. The cardinal sin is an insatiable ambition for power as an emblem of self-esteem or amour propre. The craving is a substitute for philosophically empty souls who dominate the species. Its prime gratifications are hormonal, not cerebral, with power at the apex. As former national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger acknowledged, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
War over straws is the great temptation of all nations for the psychological high that comes with dominating others, like a master’s over a slave. The temptation becomes irresistible when the war power is entrusted to the executive branch. It possesses an incentive to manufacture existential threats, i.e., magnify fleas into elephants, to aggrandize power. Madison elaborated:
“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department… [T]he trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”
The Constitution’s makers disputed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fantasies about the perfectibility of man. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “[I]n questions of power then, let no more be heard about confidence in man, but bind them down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”
Madison amplified, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” They were steeped in Voltaire’s Candide about cultivating your own garden and avoiding Nicholas Bottom’s desire in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play all the parts in a play.
President George Washington’s Farewell Address speaks volumes about American neutrality absent a declaration of war by Congress:
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
Washington had earlier acknowledged,
“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore, no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.”
Kagan absurdly dismisses the Farewell Address as a limited sotto voce opposition to America favoring France over the United Kingdom in a European-wide conflict instead of a general summons for neutrality. The Neutrality Act of 1794 signed by Washington two years earlier had universal application. The Farewell Address was intended to live for the ages, not to die after one news cycle.
Congress authorized the quasi-war with France under John Adams to protect American shipping from predation, not to pursue empire. A defense treaty with France was nullified by statute in 1798, and no other defense treaty was ratified until NATO in 1949.
Other Nations’ Independence
Contrary to Kagan, the United States remained faithful to the Constitution’s foreign policy of neutrality, reinforced by the Neutrality Act, while the founding fathers remained politically ascendent. As Secretary of State John Quincy Adams boasted in a July 4, 1821, address to Congress,
“She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.”
The United States did not intervene in the multiple wars of insurrection against Spain and Portugal in Central and South America from 1808-1826. When Greece clamored for military assistance in its 1821 War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, Congressman John Randolph of Virginia upbraided Senator Daniel Webster for urging United States intervention to defend liberty all over the world as transgressing “every bulwark and barrier of the Constitution.”
The Congressman preached: “Let us say to those seven millions of Greeks, ‘We defended ourselves, when we were but three millions, against a Power in comparison to which the Turk is but as a lamb. Go and do thou likewise.’”
The United States grew and prospered while forging policy of neutrality and in engaging in war only when declared by Congress in self-defense — as with the War of 1812 to end Great Britain’s industrial scale kidnappings of American seaman and flagrant violations of neutral rights to trade in non-contraband goods with belligerents.
Manifest Destiny was summoned into being in the 1840s to give birth to the deceit that Americans were God’s new chosen people. The intellectually vacuous slogan begot the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War fueled by a presidential lie about an American soldier killed on American soil.
Then Congressmen John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln voted against the war. In January 1847, a Whig-controlled House voted 85-81 to censure President James K. Polk for having “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” initiated the war.
Union General and later President U.S. Grant who had served as quartermaster in the conflict wrote: “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
Manifest Destiny marked the beginning of a counter-revolution on the installment plan against the Constitution’s foreign policy of neutrality. The war power has been unconstitutionally transferred to the president through a combination of congressional abdication and executive usurpation, a development celebrated by Kagan.
The results have yielded more dystopia than utopia. But that is a topic for another day. .
Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan and research director for the Joint Congressional Committee on Covert Arms Sales to Iran. His twitter feed is @brucefeinesq. His Substack feed is brucefein.substack.com. His website is www.lawofficesofbrucefein.com
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.