Just how much of a role did the neocons in the White House play in the decision to invade Iraq? According to Robert Kagan, not much. For him, the idealistic vision of America playing a leading role in world affairs by exporting democracy is an ideological mantra that has been with the country since its inception. By generalizing just about every war in American history within this context, Kagan disingenuously shifts the blame from the specific policies of the Bush administration and toward a more nebulous idea of a national ‘spirit,’ if you will: “The expansive, moralistic, militaristic tradition in American foreign policy is the hearty offspring of this marriage between Americans’ driving ambitions and their overpowering sense of righteousness.”
I think Kagan does touch upon an important historical point about how often the U.S. has involved itself in a conflict with another country, even during the ‘isolationist’ years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As he points out, the rationalization for these wars almost always involved a theme of spreading liberty against despotism. But does this alone mean that neoconservatism is just a typical offshoot of a far greater ideological movement? Perhaps there is a connection indeed. But attempting to explain 230+ years of foreign policy maneuvering by alluding to a strong national idealism risks blurring the lines between the specific reasons for why each conflict happened. That leads to claims that “a doctrine that precluded war with Iraq would also likely preclude going to war over Kosovo,” overlooking that the two wars might have been justified in a similar manner but had very different strategic and geopolitical implications.