The War Among the Conservatives

Former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz advises President Bush on Sept. 17, 2001
Former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz advises President Bush on Sept. 17, 2001 (Paul J. Richards/afp/getty Images)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Reviewed by Gary Rosen
Sunday, March 26, 2006

AMERICA AT THE CROSSROADS

Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy

By Francis Fukuyama

Yale Univ. 226 pp. $25

Denouncing neoconservatives isn't exactly a novelty act in American politics. Howard Dean, Brent Scowcroft and the foreign policy mavens of the op-ed set have been at it for years, to say nothing of the LaRouchies and other outliers. But these are familiar antagonists, straight from central casting. Francis Fukuyama comes from within the fold: a chum of Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol, a contributor to all the right magazines (my own included) and the celebrated herald of liberal democracy's triumph at "the end of history," as he dubbed the final days of the Cold War. Though never a neocon pugilist, Fukuyama was a quiet loyalist -- until the war in Iraq. As he writes in his much anticipated new book, "I have concluded that neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something that I can no longer support." His apostasy, needless to say, has not gone unnoticed.

But don't be deceived by the hoopla. America at the Crossroads is no screed. Like its author, it is sober, fair-minded, even a bit dry. Its chief interest as a manifesto lies not only in the points it scores against neoconservatism but also in Fukuyama's curious departures from the arc of his own thinking. It arrives, moreover, at a moment of high tension in the foreign policy debate on the right, especially for advocates of the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on preemptive war and aggressive democracy promotion. Already burdened with a fragile nation-building project in Iraq, the United States now faces, among other troubles in the Middle East, a regnant Hamas in the Palestinian Authority and a rising Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Fukuyama is hardly alone in wondering if this is what the post-9/11 world was supposed to look like.

In trying to understand how we reached this pass, Fukuyama is quick to dismiss the ignorant broadsides often leveled against his old comrades. American soldiers are not patrolling Mesopotamia because the Bush administration was infiltrated by devotees of Leo Strauss, Leon Trotsky or Greater Israel. Neoconservatism, he insists, is not some kind of "alien spore" but rather an American original, an amalgam of views that long ago transcended its origins in the left-wing anticommunism of the City College of New York circa 1940. In foreign policy, as Fukuyama sums up, this legacy has yielded four broad principles: Neocons consider the internal character of a regime the key to its external behavior, see American power as a tool for moral ends, distrust international law and institutions, and doubt the efficacy of ambitious social engineering.

Fukuyama's complaint isn't that these principles are necessarily wrong but that, in practice, they have collided disastrously since 9/11. As he charges (and as others have amply documented), the architects of the war in Iraq were too keen on the prospect of toppling a nasty regime to pay much attention to the formidable task of "social engineering" that lay ahead. They seemed to assume that, once the hated dictator was gone, democracy would emerge as Iraq's "default condition." With little grasp of what it would mean to inherit the traumatized remains of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, they badly underestimated the cost and the difficulty of reconstruction, with consequences glaringly visible today.

Why the Bush people (and some of their supporters) were so blinkered is a story in itself -- a speculative one, at least for now, but Fukuyama gives a plausible account. A leading culprit, he suggests, was Ronald Reagan -- or, rather, the conclusion that Reaganites drew from the astonishingly swift end of the Cold War. Virtually overnight, the Soviet Union and its East European satellites had vanished, replaced by at least quasi-free governments. Advocates of American power, Fukuyama argues, drew too broad a lesson from the relative ease of regime change in the former "evil empire." As they would learn in Iraq, not every totalitarian menace melts away so obligingly in the face of American resolve.

Fukuyama himself remains committed to the promotion of democracy, but not through the policies of the Bush administration, which have "overemphasized the use of force." His own tool of choice is what foreign policy types call "soft power" -- the less coercive means at America's disposal, from foreign aid and election monitoring to the sort of civil affairs know-how that was so conspicuously lacking when U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad. Indeed, so important is this aspect of Fukuyama's newfound "realistic Wilsonianism" that he devotes a third of his slender book to it. We learn about the "huge" body of technical literature on democratic transitions, state-building and economic development. And we receive a long tutorial on how the United States might better use "overlapping and sometimes competitive international institutions," practicing what Fukuyama calls "multi-multilateralism." It's all very instructive in its scholarly, wonkish way -- a kind of primer for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But can such "soft power" succeed without sterner stuff behind it? Is it an answer to the multiple pathologies of the modern Middle East? Short of military intervention, it is difficult to see how any sort of democratic spark could have penetrated Iraq's police state. For that matter, in a region flush with petrodollars, dominated by strongmen and sheikhs, and threatened by Islamist insurgency, reform-minded leaders are unlikely to emerge anywhere without considerable pressure from the outside -- at the very least, of the economic and diplomatic variety. Fukuyama prefers carrots -- "our ability to set an example, to train and educate, to support with advice and often money" -- but the job plainly demands sticks as well if we hope to see results in our own lifetime.

And that may be the point. Fukuyama is in no hurry to confront the chronic problems of the Middle East. It isn't just that he doubts the feasibility of the neocons' nation-building schemes or their claims that democracy is the best antidote to Islamism. For Fukuyama, the challenge posed by Osama bin Laden's brand of radicalism is simply not that serious -- not, in his carefully chosen word, the sort of "existential" threat that should trouble our sleep. There's something to this view, of course, after more than four years of peace on the home front. But it depends too much on the good fortune we've enjoyed -- and underestimates an enemy whom we've underestimated before. A spectacular American encore by al-Qaeda would not literally destroy the country, but it could well cripple it for a time, with far-reaching effects on our way of life. Neocons have refused to discount such dire prospects.

More surprising is Fukuyama's rejection of the very idea that liberalization in the Middle East would make us safer. His point is not merely the obvious one that the short-term beneficiaries of any political opening are likely to be extremists like Hamas. Rather, as he sees it, jihadism itself is "a by-product of modernization and globalization," not a return to tradition but a thoroughly 21st-century balm for alienated young people whose communal identities have been shattered by the West's aggressive, often vulgar materialism. The Islamist wave is emphatically not, in his view, the result of any lack of freedom or democracy in the countries across which it has swept in recent decades.

Here Fukuyama commits apostasy of a different kind: against the thesis that made him famous. His new rendering of "the end of history" -- of liberal democracy as the culmination of humankind's ideological development -- verges on economic determinism; it is, as he recently put it, "a kind of Marxist argument." Just as he finds the roots of jihadism in the confounding material bounty of the West, so too does he define modernization itself as little more than the longing for "technology, high standards of living, health standards, and access to the wider world." Politics is an afterthought, the icing on the economic cake.

What's missing from this, as a reader of the old Fukuyama would know, is the Hegelian twist that gave his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man its peculiar intensity and breadth. Liberal democracy, in that telling, was not only about the desire for pleasure and physical well-being but also about a second, more elevated drive: the individual's "struggle for recognition," the spirited -- and often political -- assertion of personal dignity and worth. About this deeply felt human need, Fukuyama is now silent. Yet in today's Middle East, nothing is so striking as the dearth of channels for its expression.

That the Islamists exploit this deficiency, looking for recruits to their own "struggle for recognition," is no secret; they will continue to do so until a more dynamic, civilized alternative pushes them aside. Fukuyama himself might once have made this point, but in his new incarnation he has grown passive and grim; the redemptive possibilities of human freedom have faded from his philosophy. Fixated on the blunders and overzealousness of his ex-friends, he is unable to see the progressive role they have played in the world's most dangerously retrograde region -- their contribution, perhaps, to what Hegel called "the cunning of history." ยท

Gary Rosen is the managing editor of Commentary.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity