Book Review by Tom Nelson — The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World (Robert Kagan)

Tom Nelson for Wisconsin
4 min readFeb 16, 2022
Tom’s Tomes: A book review series where Tom Nelson talks about his latest favorite books.

When I read the famed neo-conservative “thinker” Robert Kagan, I hear a voice in my head: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” History has shown that neo-conservative foreign policy has been an abysmal failure and its docents like Kagan — along with President George W. Bush administration stars Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney — have blood on their hands. You’d think they would have learned their lesson by now. They haven’t.

In his long essay, The Jungle Grows Back, (his expression that we ultimately regress to our natural state of chaos) Kagan laments how the US lost control of the world order it built in the aftermath of World War II, and more recently the new world order that the other President Bush declared after the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Kagan pines for a “new, new world order” if you will where we strive for deep engagement with Europe and take a hard look at re-engaging in the Middle East with an eye toward building democratic societies. I kid you not.

Kagan writes, “One wonders what the Islamic world would look like if a fraction of that time, effort, and resources had been devoted to nurturing democratic government [in the Middle East] rather than to supporting a succession of dictatorships [in Europe and Asia].”

Has he been asleep the last twenty years? Has he heard of Iraq or Afghanistan? How can any serious publishing house even consider printing such ignorance?

Kagan notes that we became the leader of the free world after World War II when both Europe and Japan were decimated. The Bretton Woods Agreement and Marshall Plan established the blueprint that would rebuild both parts of the world. The plans succeeded (at the expense of U.S. manufacturing and our middle class) and in time the Soviet Union and eastern Europe faltered and collapsed.

Kagan believes that because of the decisions made 75 years and 13 presidential administrations ago we are tethered to this foreign policy. Thus we must involve ourselves… everywhere. Syria, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Iran, Yemen. You name it, lest the jungle grows back.

It sounds a lot like former President Bill Clinton strategist and neo-liberal Paul Begala who recently and famously said the problem with the Democratic Party is not its leaders but its “followers”. He was frustrated because we weren’t celebrating the accomplishments of the Biden Administration and of course he knows better. To be sure, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure bill have been hugely successful. My county alone received $36 million from ARPA that will empower us to begin the long-road to recovery from COVID. However, despite this success, a roaring stock market and strong economic indicators, the issue of jobs and the economy remain a top concern among the “followers”.

Why? The system is broken.

And the system is broken because both Democratic and Republican administrations embraced a neo-liberalism domestic policy and a neo-conservative foreign policy. Instead of developing a national industrial strategy that builds an economy from the perspective of the American worker, we focused on supply-side economics, tax cuts, free trade deals and building up other countries in our image. Every other developed country has an overarching national policy that strengthens industry, keeps a check on foreign imported goods, makes the rich pay their fair share and invests billions into basic science research. But not us. (The Chinese economy did not become the largest in the world by relying on free market forces like wide-open trade deals with minimal government involvement.)

And we got sucked into almost every conflict because we thought it would foster a “new, new world order”. Instead, we found ourselves chasing our tails or playing a game of whack-a-mole in which the next military flare-up popped up before the previous one was extinguished.

Hate to break it to you, neither Begala and Kagan could care less.

I bet you dollars to donuts neither Begala or Kagan can count many family members who’ve served the military. My family counts seven veterans. Dozens of veterans populate my workforce.

I’m tired of losing blood and treasure to these black hole military conflicts while diverting precious resources away from building up our local economies and strengthening our communities. We make your food and fight your wars, Begala and Kagan. No more! Time to toss neo-conservatism into the ash bin of history, retire Kagan and fire the editors at Knopf Publishing House.



Tom Nelson for Wisconsin

Husband, father of 2, former candidate for U.S. Senate, Outagamie County Executive