I HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF WORKING WITH ROBERT KAPLAN for a couple of years when he was a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He finished three books — The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post-Cold War Era; Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus; and Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos at our think tank.
More than any other person, Kaplan is a modern-day Machiavelli and doing his best to advise the Prince how to secure outcomes that are in the best interest of the state. Kaplan, a realist, was one of the first to meet with President Bush (in March 2001) to help tutor him on what a realist president would do in the world that was unfolding. I wrote about this encounter here.
I guess the moment when I felt most fond of Kaplan and his work — though we have some differences — is when I mentioned his name to Richard Perle in the green room at CNN, just before we debated each other on Crossfire to discuss US-China relations after the EP-3 spy plane incident. Perle exploded when I mentioned Kaplan’s name, calling him immoral and responsible for countless deaths because of his book, Balkan Ghosts.
This was the first time I came to understand what the “Wilsonian right-wing” was. Kaplan wasn’t surprised at all when I shared the substance of this encounter with him.
Today, Robert Kaplan admits that pretense out ran capability in America’s new Middle East war in an important New York Times article. In this graf, he readily admits that he supported the war but that he and others underestimated the distance from modernity that Iraq and much of the rest of the Middle East were:
Whether one views the war in Iraq as a noble effort in democratization or a brutal exercise in imperialism, there can be little doubt that it has proved the proverbial “bridge too far” for those who planned and, like myself, supported it. While much has been made of the strategic missteps the Bush administration has made since the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled, it seems likely that even the best-executed occupation would have been a daunting prospect.
Kaplan’s article is important because it signals the end of the G.W. Bush intoxication that some key realists had about this president and his foreign policy. While the neoconservatives clearly outnumber the personnel of any other intellectual bent throughout the administration, support for the neocon agenda is becoming narrower and narrower. I, for one, am quite happy that Kaplan is back to hard-core realism in his observations and prescriptions.
The one friendly point that I would debate with Bob Kaplan over his article is his view that Afghanistan and Indonesia are surprising examples of democracy. Perhaps Indonesia — but I think that the jury is still out (for a long time) on Afghanistan.
Kaplan was the one who taught me to be wary of ballot-box democracies. In comments he once gave about Mexico’s democracy, he said that it was not such — not as long as the courts and basic institutions of that society remained as thoroughly corrupt as they were. I agreed with him then that to measure a democracy, a relatively small actor needed to be able to beat or slay a large, empowered, often rich and corrupt political player.
While there are many encouraging signs in Afghanistan, sentimentalism should not taint our objectivity on whether that nation is or isn’t yet a democracy. It has a long way to go and hopefully will.
In any case, Robert Kaplan’s article gives a sober and important assessment of our Iraq circumstances.
— Steve Clemons