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Obama Dumps Decline

For the cover story of the current issue of The New Republic, Robert Kagan has penned a rousing intellectual assault on the narrative of American decline popular among certain elements of the punditry. His nuanced and wide-ranging argument encompasses everything from economic indicators to military spending to America’s image abroad, and should be read in full. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his many points, Kagan opens up the conversation to complexity that is too often absent. An excerpt:

Success in the past does not guarantee success in the future. But one thing does seem clear from the historical evidence: the American system, for all its often stultifying qualities, has also shown a greater capacity to adapt and recover from difficulties than many other nations, including its geopolitical competitors. This undoubtedly has something to do with the relative freedom of American society, which rewards innovators, often outside the existing power structure, for producing new ways of doing things; and with the relatively open political system of America, which allows movements to gain steam and to influence the behavior of the political establishment. The American system is slow and clunky in part because the Founders designed it that way, with a federal structure, checks and balances, and a written Constitution and Bill of Rights—but the system also possesses a remarkable ability to undertake changes just when the steam kettle looks about to blow its lid.

But the essay is significant not only for its arguments against those prophesying the end of American primacy, but for its biggest fan: President Barack Obama. Reports Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

In an off-the-record meeting with leading news anchors, including ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos and NBC‘s Brian Williams, Obama drove home that argument [against American decline made in his State of the Union] using an article written in The New Republic by Kagan entitled “The Myth of American Decline.”

Obama liked Kagan’s article so much that he spent more than 10 minutes talking about it in the meeting, going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable.

Famously, candidate Obama hit the campaign trail with a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World in hand. More experienced and familiar with the way the world works, the President now seems to have shifted his ground.

The New York Times calls Robert Kagan a neoconservative and a Romney advisor and savors what it calls the “delicious irony” that his work can be taken as endorsing the idea that US power has waxed under President Obama.  It also notes that President Obama’s State of the Union speech was in some passages “Reaganesque,” sounding notes of optimism and hope.

Here at Via Meadia we’ve been noting for some time that as President, Barack Obama has spent a lot of time getting in touch with his inner George Bush.  Pretty much every thing he said about foreign policy prior to January 2009 has gone under the bus. Disregarding the advice of liberal Democrats like Vice President Biden, he’s killed Osama bin Laden, escalated the war in Afghanistan, kept Guantanamo open for business, and pretty much bombed everything and everyone he could. He’s adopted an Asian strategy based on increasing US influence rather than giving ground to China’s ‘inexorable’ rise. He’s toughened policy on Iran. He’s given up on a global warming treaty and on the idea that Europe can help reshape the world. He’s embraced the idea of overthrowing selected Arab governments by force in order to build a more democratic and, hopefully, ultimately, more stable Middle East. Give him a little more time in office and he might come to understand how the US-Israel relationship works, why it’s a bad idea to announce a surge and a retreat at the same time, why an extended US presence in Iraq would have served our interests better than a premature exit, why the Security Council can’t be given a veto over the American decision for peace or war, and even why young people who choose military service should be honored and well paid.

The irony that the Times is doing its best not to notice is that the Bush administration’s most bitter critic on the campaign trail became to a very large degree its loyal successor in office.

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  • Richard S

    It’s also true that the more worried we are about American deline, the more likely we are to make the reforms necessary to prevent it.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think everyone agrees that Obama’s State of the Union speech bombed, ratings were a new low, and he wants to tax more and spend more, what a surprise! Three years as President and he is still blaming Bush for his own failures, while not giving Bush any credit for his few successes like the killing of Osama bin Laden. If the US is growing stronger and adapting to the changes, it’s in the opposition to Obama like the TEA Party, where it is most apparent.

  • Kris

    Yesterday, a man bit a dog. In a truly delicious irony, the dog then bit the man.

  • Andy S

    I am currently reading YOUR book about American decline (Mortal Splendor) from the late 80’s. It would be great to get a post-mortem on the book with hindsight vision.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Andy S: At the time I wrote MS, it seemed to me that the blue social model was synonymous with American power and American prosperity and I could not visualize life beyond blue. That was one of if not the first books to look at the way globalization would upend the post WW2 social order in the west, and it took me some time to think through the consequences and to see that maybe the end of an era wasn’t the end of the world.

  • Bruno Behrend

    It’s nice to know that Obama doesn’t believe in American Decline, but a good number of his policies are doing a great deal to hasten us down that path.

    While foreign policy is a draw and education is a slight plus (Obama is acting Gorbachev, attempting to save an un-salvageable system), Obamacare, Corporatism (GM, Solyndra), and his attempts to expand the entitlement state, are all policies that will cause stagnation and economic malaise.

    If he gets a second term with Republicans controlling both houses, he may yet luck into being considered a good president.

    I wouldn’t bet on it though.

  • J R Yankovic

    Finally read Kagan’s piece. Really top-notch essay, quite modestly and persuasively argued on the whole. Which is to say (as I read it), refreshingly free from bombast. Kagan actually gives me reason to hope that the best may well be yet to come. Provided, of course, we don’t blow it (again).

    One paragraph towards the end was a particular favorite of mine, albeit with one qualification:

    “. . . BUT THERE IS a danger. It is that in the meantime, while the nation continues to struggle, Americans may convince themselves that decline is indeed inevitable, or that the United States can take a time-out from its global responsibilities while it gets its own house in order. To many Americans, accepting decline may provide a welcome escape from the moral and material burdens that have weighed on them since World War II. Many may unconsciously yearn to return to the way things were in 1900, when the United States was rich, powerful, and not responsible for world order.”

    Unconsciously? MAYBE. But it’s the ones who consciously yearn for it that I worry most about.

  • Mal Armstrong

    This is a critique of the Kagan article from Will Wilkinson:

    It is not clear to me if Wilkinson has a point or if he is just utopian in his assertions that the world will be hunky dory without US power. Any thoughts?

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