Respond to this Article May 2006

The Neo-Neo-Conservative

In explaining how his movement went wrong, Francis Fukuyama all but embraces liberal internationalism.

By Isaac Chotiner

You could be excused for thinking that the war in Iraq was a perfect match for Francis Fukuyama's view of the world. In 1998, after all, the famed political scholar was one of many prominent intellectuals who signed the Project for a New American Century's letter urging the Clinton administration to take a harder line against Saddam Hussein (he also signed a follow-up letter shortly after 9/11). And nine years before that, as the Cold War was winding down, Fukuyama published what is still his most famous book, The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he made the argument that there is an almost universal desire for economic progress and modernization, and the higher standards of living that often correspond with such developments. A war, then, that was at least partially about creating a modern society in the Middle East (and that would, it was hoped, spark broader, positive advances in the region) seemed like a natural fit for a thinker captivated by the amazing changes the globalized, capitalist world can deliver.

America at the Crossroads
by Francis Fukuyama
Yale University Press, $25.00

Fukuyama's new book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, is his latest attempt to explain why, in fact, he thought President Bush's decision to depose Saddam Hussein was a disastrous geopolitical blunder (by the time the war finally began in March of 2003, Fukuyama had decided it was a mistake). Perhaps most surprising and significant, Fukuyama sees the Iraq war not simply as a failure of planning or imagination, but as a repudiation of the neoconservative intellectuals with whom he has for so long associated himself.

According to Fukuyama, these thinkers have miscomprehended some of neoconservatism's principles. Essentially, by ignoring the degree of difficulty inherent in any project of large-scale social engineering, today's neoconservatives have departed radically from the movement's teachings. Fed up with what the ideology has become, however, Fukuyama is not interested in rescuing it. Rather, he understands that neoconservatism is now forever associated with regime change and the like, and he wants to take certain neoconservative precepts (the need for American power, for example) and mix them with more multilateralism and a strengthened commitment to state building. The book, then, is finally both a last chapter and a convincing argument for a new beginning. Ironically, however, that new beginning looks a lot like an old stand-by: liberal internationalism.

Fukuyama's history of neoconservatism is both concise and extremely helpful. Because he is broadly sympathetic to the founding ideals of the original neocons, Fukuyama resists making Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and the rest seem like a Freemasonish Jewish cabal. In his discussion of Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago political philosopher, who is considered to be the intellectual godfather (or, rather, Godfather) of the Iraq war's planners, Fukuyama is similarly uninterested in conspiracy theories and hyperventilating. Rather, he shows the way in which Strauss's respect for classical political philosophers and their discussions of a "rational account of nature" registered with a neoconservative movement increasingly fed up with what they saw as liberal relativism.

Fukuyama wants to show that it was Strauss's students and disciples, not the man himself, who took his philosophical legacy and made it political. Nevertheless, from Fukuyama's discussion of Strauss, it is clear why his work had such an impact on this particular strand of conservatism. One of the complaints neoconservatives have been launching against Henry Kissinger and other conservative "realists" is that they see the world in relative terms and do not appreciate the objectively best form of government, liberal democracy. Strauss's belief, moreover, that human fulfillment would arrive through political and cultural participation is a direct rebuke to the more libertarian wing of conservatism. This final point is an important one because it partially explains the extent to which Straussians put an emphasis on the importance of regimes. As Fukuyama puts it, "Regimes constitute and reflect broad ways of life." A regime is not just the formal structures of government, but what might be called the cultivated national ethos of a people.

It is after this point, however, that Fukuyama thinks the neocons have gotten Strauss wrong. Paradoxically, the importance of regimes makes "regime change" not only more difficult, but also an inherently top-to-bottom, massive undertaking. "While classical political philosophy suggests that the founding of new regimes can lead to a new way of life, it does not argue that they are particularly easy to found," Fukuyama writes. "If there is any central theme to Strauss's skepticism about the modern Enlightenment project, it is the idea that reason alone is sufficient to establish a durable political order." In this reading, the problems we have faced in Iraq are precisely the type that should have been expected by Strauss's disciples. Saddam's regime, after all, had devastated civil society, exacerbated ethnic and tribal tensions, and deeply scarred the populace.

According to Fukuyama, there is an old neoconservative principle that the current generation of regime change advocates have overlooked: Social engineering, he argues, is awfully difficult. One of neoconservatism's founding journals, The Public Interest, was principally concerned with criticizing ineffective government programs and the welfare state. Fukuyama's point is that people who believe government is incapable of delivering health care or stemming the root causes of poverty should be especially skeptical about trying to implant democracy halfway around the world. This is a clever, if obvious point, and while it may make the neocons look hypocritical, it doesn't exactly make for a fair comparison. Government does some things well and other things less well, and different administrations have different governing capabilities. To say that the success or failure of The Great Society gives us insight into what we can achieve in Iraq seems like shaky reasoning.

There is one other way in which Fukuyama's critique of neoconservatism seems rather unfair. He wants to blame the neocons for Iraq because they (Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Robert Kagan) provided much of the intellectual muscle behind the case for war. But was this war really planned and implemented by neoconservatives? Fukuyama rightly notes that Cheney and Rumsfeld are "Jacksonian Nationalists," not neocons. It certainly seems like they had something to do with the war going forward. After all, it is Rumsfeld as much as anyone who is responsible for not sending enough troops, doing nothing to stop the looting, and demanding the war be undertaken with a force that turned out to be too small. Rumsfeld and Cheney did not want to go to war to implant liberal democracy. They wanted to project American power. As Rumsfeld himself put it: "The world saw the United States military go halfway around the world and in a matter of weeks throw the al Qaeda and Taliban out of Afghanistan, in a landlocked country thousands and thousands of miles away. They saw what the United States military did in Iraq, and the message from that is not that this armed force is broken, but that this armed force is enormously capable." Fukuyama's disappointment with the neocons who went along with a poorly planned and executed war is both palpable and understandable. But in this case the failure was one of convenience, not ideology.

In the end, America at the Crossroads lays out a vision for the future of American foreign policy that progressives would be smart to embrace. Correctly realizing that our struggles in Iraq may give way to increasing isolationism (there is already some early polling evidence that gives credence to this theory), Fukuyama is intent on arguing that what the United States instead needs is "realistic Wilsonianism." As he puts it, "Such a policy would take seriously the idealistic part of the old neoconservative agenda but take a fresh look at development, international institutions, and a host of issues that conservatives, neo- and paleo-, seldom took seriously."

If all of this looks a lot like what we typically call liberal internationalism, well, that's because it is. There has been something of a split in the neoconservative movement in the last couple of years, with one camp almost completely supportive of the war and its execution and the other broadly critical of troop levels and planning, but still favorable towards the decision to invade Iraq. Fukuyama is not in either camp. America at the Crossroads is both prescriptively and stylistically much more similar to the foreign policy pushed by The New Republic than to that of The Weekly Standard. And for liberals who care about America's role in the world, and long for the days when one could intone words like "freedom" and "democracy" without irony or smirking, this is a compelling vision.

Isaac Chotiner is a writer in Washington, D.C.


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