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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Robert Kagan

    • Brookings Institution: Senior Fellow
    • Foreign Policy Initiative: Cofounder
    • Project for the New American Century: Cofounder
    • Washington Post: Columnist

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Robert Kagan is a prominent neoconservative writer based at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He cofounded, with Wiliam Kristol and other likeminded figures, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a successor to their now defunct advocacy group, the Project for the New American Century.[1] Kagan's father, Donald, and brother, Frederick, are also well known neoconservative figures who advocate for a stronger, more interventionist U.S. military.

Despite his close association with neoconservatism and the unpopular policies promoted by that political faction—especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq—Kagan is frequently called upon to serve as an adviser to political figures, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who tapped Kagan to serve on her Foreign Affairs Policy Board.[2]

In October 2011, Republican candidate Mitt Romney included Kagan on his team of foreign policy advisers, which many observers noted was chock-a-block with neoconservatives and other like-minded foreign policy hardliners. Other advisers included Eliot Cohen, Michael Chertoff, Eric Edelman, John Lehman, Dan Senor, Vin Weber, and Paula Dobriansky.[3] When asked about Romney's slate of advisers, former Secretary of State Colin Powell told MSNBC, "Some of them are quite far to the right, and sometimes they, I think, might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought."[4]

Shortly after President Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, Kagan warned at a Brookings Institution event that Obama was facing "a very challenging second term coming up in foreign policy" before turning his attention to looming defense cuts that were set to occur in early 2013 absent congressional action—part of a process known as "sequestration." "The defense budget cuts that are called for under this deal are well beyond what any sensible American defense strategist would ask for," Kagan claimed. "That's not even a subject of debate." He added, "The signal that will be sent—in addition to the actual consequences of sequestration—could have a very jarring effect on the international situation as we look forward."

Miriam Pemberton, a defense budget analyst based at the Institute for Policy Studies, disagreed. In an October 2012 posting for Foreign Policy in Focus, she pointed out that "Sequestration, combined with the rest of the cuts in the budget deal, would bring the military budget back to where it was in 2006. That is more than enough." She concluded, "while sequestration is bad policy, the amount it prescribes for cuts to the military budget is eminently doable with no sacrifice to security."[5]


The author of several books, Kagan writes frequently on post-Cold War strategy, transatlantic relations, U.S.-China relations, military strategy, the defense budget, and U.S. diplomatic history. He writes a monthly column for the Washington Post and is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the New Republic. He's been published in other venues, includingForeign Affairs, Commentary (formerly edited by Norman Podhoretz), Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The National Interest and Policy Review.

Kagan has been affiliated with a number of neoconservative pressure groups. Besides helping found FPI and the Project for the New American Century, Kagan served as an adviser to the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, was on the board of the U.S. Committee on NATO, and has served as an "international patron" of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society.

Kagan joined Brookings in September 2010 after working for 13 years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Commenting on his move, Kagan told Politico's Laura Rozen that he hoped to use his position at Brookings to "build an open, bipartisan dialogue on foreign policy that's been missing in D.C. for a while."[6]

Speculating on why Brookings might wish to bring on Kagan, who has a track record of supporting Mideast policies in line with right-wing hawks in Israel and the United States, Steve Clemons wrote that the "move is important for Brookings as the institution has been working hard to get Haim Saban to give another large infusion of resources to his namesake unit, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at Brookings. Securing Kagan is one way that Brookings may have sweetened the pot for Saban who is according to one Brookings source 'painfully flamboyant' about using his money to try and influence the DC establishment through think tanks and other vehicles to secure Israel-first, Israel-defending policies out of Washington."[7]

At Brookings, where he is a senior fellow at the institution's Center on the United States and Europe, Kagan has written op-eds on the need to support the new START agreement and, rehashing one of his standard themes, argued at a Brookings event against cutting defense spending. Asking "what does the liberal world order cost and what is it worth to us?" Kagan asserted that saving $55-60 billion per year from defense to help cut the U.S. deficit would be too risky.[8]

Hawkish Track Record

Like other neoconservatives, Kagan has been a hawk on Middle East policies, including Iran and Iraq. In a June 2009 Washington Post column, for example, Kagan created a stir by condemning President Barack Obama's cautious stance in the aftermath of the contested Iranian election. "His strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis," Kagan wrote.[9]

In a rejoinder, Jacob Heilbrunn wrote: "As Kagan sees it, Obama is following a realist strategy that seeks to recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian regime in exchange for a deal on nuclear weapons. Obama's strategy, Kagan says, is to deflate the opposition. He doesn't want upheaval, Kagan further alleges, but a regime he can do business with. There was someone else besides Obama, however, who previously endorsed a strategy of talking to the regime. He wrote in the Washington Post on December 5, 2007: 'There's no reason the United States cannot talk to Iran while beefing up containment in the region and pressing for change within Iran. As for what's in it for Iran: If Tehran complies with its nuclear obligations; ceases its support for terrorist violence; and treats its people with justice, humanity and liberalism, it will be welcomed into the international community, with all the enormous economic, political and security benefits this brings.' The writer was Robert Kagan."[10]

During the George W. Bush presidency, Kagan was an eager booster of the Iraq war. In a January 2007 column for the Post, Kagan opined: "Those who call for an 'end to the war' don't want to talk about the fact that the war in Iraq and in the region will not end but will only grow more dangerous. ... To the extent that people think about Iraq, many seem to believe it is a problem that can be made to go away. This is a delusion, but it is by no means only a Democratic delusion. Many conservatives and Republicans, including erstwhile supporters of the war, have thrown up their hands in anger at the Iraqi people or the Iraqi government."[11]

Even after some of Kagan's fellow neocons, including Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, expressed deep skepticism about the war, Kagan continued to call for escalation. "It is precisely the illusion that a political solution is possible in the midst of rampant violence that has gotten us where we are today," he wrote in November 2006. "What's needed in Iraq are not more clever plans but more U.S. troops to provide the security to make any plan workable. Even those seeking a way out of Iraq as soon as possible should understand the need for an immediate surge in U.S. troop levels to provide the stability necessary so that eventual withdrawal will not produce chaos and an implosion of the Iraqi state."[12]

Kagan's brother Frederick led an American Enterprise Institute panel that concluded a vast troop surge is necessary. The January 2007 report, called "Choosing Victory: A Plan For Success in Iraq," reportedly served as a blueprint for the surge strategy implemented by the Bush administration.

In 2007, the Washington Post listed Robert Kagan, along with Richard Lee Armitage and William Kristol, as informal foreign policy advisors to then presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In 2008, Newsweek referred to Kagan as "McCain's foreign policy guru."[13]

In March 2009, around the same time that President Obama announced his plan to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, Kagan and Kristol launched the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), which liberal blogger Matt Duss dubbed "The Project for the Rehabilitation of Neoconservatism."[14] The group's staff and directors include Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, Dan Senor, and Ellen Bork.

FPI's first public event was a conference entitled "Afghanistan: Planning For Success," which was aimed at pushing for a "surge" in the war that many are now calling "Obama's War." At the conference, Kagan declared that Obama's decision to deploy 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan was "gutsy and correct" and "one of the most important decisions he [has made] in his presidency." He added that Obama's decision indicates that "he is definitely saying 'no' to pulling back. If anything, he has clearly deepened and strengthened America's commitment to a difficult conflict in a far-off part of the world of which the American people know little."[15]

FPI's platform "is a watered-down version of the bellicose neoconservative program that worked so well over the past decade, producing a disastrous war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Central Asia and bringing America's image around the world to new lows," wrote Harvard international relations professor Stephen M. Walt on ForeignPolicy.com. "The new group's modus operandi is likely to be similar to the old Project for a New American Century: bombard Washington with press releases and email alerts, draft open letters to be signed by assorted pundits and former policymakers, and organize conferences intended to advance the group's interventionist agenda."[16]

According to a BBC profile, "Kagan disputes that the United States' attitude was altered by the events of September 11. He says that the country 'only became more itself' in its intolerance for the enemy. ... Critics accuse him of over-simplifying the argument, overlooking the influences of economic and cultural strength as well as military, and also a certain brutalism in his acceptance that 'American power, even deployed under a double standard, may be the best means of advancing progress.'"[17]

Kagan was appointed by Elliott Abrams in 1985 to head the Office of Public Diplomacy, which was created to push for U.S. support of the Nicaraguan contras. After the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Abrams pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress. Kagan, however, failed to mention Abram's illicit activities or guilty plea in his 1996 book A Twilight Struggle, which was touted as the "definitive history" of the U.S. anti-Sandinista campaign. (Kagan does mention the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter.) The book received financial backing from the Bradley Foundation and the Carthage Foundation, two key conservative funders.[18]

In a 2002 article for Policy Review that became the basis for Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), Kagan argued, " On the all-important question of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant's 'Perpetual Peace.' The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might."[19]

Of Paradise and Power was widely criticized for its support for U.S. unilateralism. Reviewing the book, leftist historian Howard Zinn wrote that "it is part of the corruption of contemporary language that an analysis of American foreign policy by a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace should argue for the right of the United States to use military force, regardless of international law, and international opinion, whenever it unilaterally decides its 'national interest' requires it." Zinn opined that Kagan's book supplies "intellectual justification, superficial as it is, for the bullying and violence of United States foreign policy."[20]

In his 2008 book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Kagan argues that "a reliable and dominant America" can still have a "stabilizing and pacific effect." In his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century, Kagan argues that the United States is not the isolationist power that he says many conceive it to be. He coedited, with William Kristol, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign Policy (Encounter Books, 2000).

Kagan is married to Victoria Nuland, a veteran Foreign Service officer who has served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. In 2010, she was namedthe U.S. Special Envoy for Conventional Forces in Europe.[21] During 2003-2005, she served as Vice President Dick Cheney's deputy national security advisor.

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[i] Brookings, "Robert Kagan," http://www.brookings.edu/experts/k/kaganr.aspx.

[2] Josh Rogin, "Clinton starts Foreign Affairs Policy Board," The Cable, Foreign Policy, December 5, 2011,http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/12/05/clinton_starts_foreign_affairs_policy_board

[3] Philip Rucker, "Mitt Romney taps foreign policy, national security advisers," Washington Post, October 6, 2011.

[4] Felicia Sonmez, "Colin Powell criticizes Romney on foreign policy; says he has 'no problem' with gay marriage," Washington Post, May 23, 2012.

[5] Foreign Policy in Focus, "Six Global Issues The Foreign Policy Debates Won't Touch," October 16, 2012,http://www.fpif.org/articles/six_global_issues_the_debates_wont_touch.

[6] Laura Rozen, "Robert Kagan jumps to Brookings," Politico,September 8, 2010,http://www.politico.com/blogs/laurarozen/0910/Robert_Kagan_jumps_to_Brookings.html.

[7] Steve Clemons, "Brookings Loses Bid on Orszag but Takes Kagan From Carnegie," Huffington Post, July 10, 2010,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-clemons/brookings-loses-bid-on-or_b_641830.html.

[8] Kagan, " Cutting Defense for Deficit Reduction Is Risky," Brookings Event, December 2010,http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/1228_defense_budget_kagan.aspx.

[9] Robert Kagan, "Obama, Siding With the Regime," Washington Post, June 17, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/16/AR2009061601753.html

[10] Jacob Heilbrunn, "The New Neocon Assault on Obama and Iran," TPMCafe, June 17, 2009,http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/06/17/the_new_neocon_assault_on_obama_and_iran/?ref=fpblg

[11] Robert Kagan, "Grand Delusion," Washington Post, January 28, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/26/AR2007012601541.html

[12] Robert Kagan, "Send More Troops," The New Republic, November 27, 2006, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=18884

[13] Christopher Flavelle, "McCain's Foreign Policy Guru: The Realist," Newsweek, April 30, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/2008/04/29/the-realist.html

[14] Mass Duss, "Project For The Rehabilitation Of Neoconservatism," The Wonk Room, March 26, 2009, http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2009/03/26/project-for-the-rehabilitation-of-neoconservatism/

[15] Conference transcript, "Afghanistan: Planning for Success," Foreign Policy Initiative, March 31, 2009, , http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/event/afghanistan

[16] Stephen M Walt, "Would you Buy a Used Foreign Policy From These Guys?." ForeignPolicy, March 31, 2009,http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/03/31/would_you_buy_a_used_foreign_policy_from_these_guys

[17] BBC News, BBC Four, Profile: Robert Kagan, April 17, 2003, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/profile/robert-kagan.shtml

[18] Philip H. Burch, Research in Political Economy: Reagan, Bush, and Right-Wing Politics, Supplement 1, (Greenwich, CT: Jai Press, 1997), pp. 275.

[19] Robert Kagan, "The Power and Weakness," Policy Review, June/July 2002, http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/bush/kagan.htm.

[20] Howard Zinn, "Of Paradise and Power," Zmag.org, February 9, 2004. http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/9099

[xxi] U.S. State Department, Press Statement, "Victoria Nuland Named Special Envoy for Conventional Armed Forces in Europe," February 2, 2010.

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Robert Kagan Résumé


    • Mitt Romney 2012 Campaign: Foreign Policy Adviser
    • Brookings Institution: Senior Fellow
    • Foreign Policy Initiative: Cofounder and Codirector
    • Henry Jackson Society: International Patron
    • Project for the New American Century: Cofounder and Codirector
    • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Former Senior Associate
    • Center for Security Policy: Signatory to CSP Letters
    • U.S. Committee on NATO: Former Member, Board of Directors
    • Council on Foreign Relations: Member
    • Weekly Standard: Contributing Editor
    • The New Republic: Contributing Editor
    • Washington Post: Monthly Columnist
    • German Marshall Fund: Transatlantic Fellow
    • American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus: Member
    • Committee for the Liberation of Iraq: Former Member, Advisory Board
    • Public Interest: Assistant Editor, 1981


    • State Department: Deputy for Policy, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, 1985-1988
    • Office of the Secretary of State: Principal Speechwriter for Secretary George P. Schultz and Member of Policy Planning Staff, 1984-1985
    • U.S. Information Agency: Special Assistant to the Deputy Director, 1983
    • Office of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY): Foreign Policy Adviser, 1983


    • Yale University: B.A.
    • Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: M.A., Public Policy
    • American University: Ph.D., History


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