The End of Neoconservatism and the Last Pundit

Francis Fukuyama, most famous for his wildly incorrect prediction that no ideology would ever again threaten Western democratic capitalism after the Cold War, argues in lengthy piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine that neo-conservatism is dead.

As we approach the third anniversary of the onset of the Iraq war, it seems very unlikely that history will judge either the intervention itself or the ideas animating it kindly. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at. The United States still has a chance of creating a Shiite-dominated democratic Iraq, but the new government will be very weak for years to come; the resulting power vacuum will invite outside influence from all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. There are clear benefits to the Iraqi people from the removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and perhaps some positive spillover effects in Lebanon and Syria. But it is very hard to see how these developments in themselves justify the blood and treasure that the United States has spent on the project to this point.

Most of this remains to be seen.

It is indeed true that the invasion created a magnet for jidahists, who are killing Americans and innocent Iraqis. Americans and Iraqi security forces are, however, killing jihadists in much greater numbers. The cost of the war to the American treasury is not insubstatial; it is not, however, particularly high in the context of the world’s richest economy. The cost in blood has been high in an individual sense but low by any historic sense for a war approaching its third anniversary and winding down.

How the new government will fare is an open question. It must be compared, however, to the likely non-invasion outcome–i.e., another decade or so of Saddam Hussein followed by decades more under the apparently even more cruel Hussein boys–rather than to the rosiest hopes of utopian democracy. That, the spillover effects in Lebanon and Syria–and let’s not forget Libya–and the increased credibility of U.S. invasion as serious policy option should indeed justify the costs.

The so-called Bush Doctrine that set the framework for the administration’s first term is now in shambles. The doctrine (elaborated, among other places, in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States) argued that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, America would have to launch periodic preventive wars to defend itself against rogue states and terrorists with weapons of mass destruction; that it would do this alone, if necessary; and that it would work to democratize the greater Middle East as a long-term solution to the terrorist problem. But successful pre-emption depends on the ability to predict the future accurately and on good intelligence, which was not forthcoming, while America’s perceived unilateralism has isolated it as never before. It is not surprising that in its second term, the administration has been distancing itself from these policies and is in the process of rewriting the National Security Strategy document.

But the Bush Doctrine was the codification of a truism, not a new policy invention. There is no doubt that, faced with a WMD threat by a rogue state, international indifference, and the reasonable possibility that invasion would be successful, the Bush admininstration and successors from either party would strongly consider the option.

It must be reiterated, since people continue to forget it, that the main missions–regime change and the enabling of an unfettered search for WMD–were wildly successful. The regime was changed in a matter of three weeks. The WMD search found very little but was indeed unfettered. That phase of the war was quick and cost fewer than 200 American dead. It is the post-regime change nation building exercise cum counterinsurgency that has cost so much.

But it is the idealistic effort to use American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback.

If it means use of military power solely for that purpose, good.

Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy “realists” in the tradition of Henry Kissinger. Already there is a host of books and articles decrying America’s naïve Wilsonianism and attacking the notion of trying to democratize the world. The administration’s second-term efforts to push for greater Middle Eastern democracy, introduced with the soaring rhetoric of Bush’s second Inaugural Address, have borne very problematic fruits. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in November and December. While the holding of elections in Iraq this past December was an achievement in itself, the vote led to the ascendance of a Shiite bloc with close ties to Iran (following on the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June). But the clincher was the decisive Hamas victory in the Palestinian election last month, which brought to power a movement overtly dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In his second inaugural, Bush said that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” but the charge will be made with increasing frequency that the Bush administration made a big mistake when it stirred the pot, and that the United States would have done better to stick by its traditional authoritarian friends in the Middle East.

Realism has long been the natural voice of the foreign policy establishment. Neoconservatism was derided from the beginning. That said, the idea that we are better off supporting authoritarian thugs rather than risking the election of those whose goals are different than ours is short sighted. We have learned time and again that dictators’ aims are almost always out of synch with ours and that their promises are worthless. Further, when and if popular sovereignty emerges–even in the form of a revolution that installs a new dictatorship as in Iran–a history of supporting the previous regime will work against U.S. interests.

What the Hamas victory has demonstrated, yet again, is that it is better for the U.S. not to publically take sides in democratic contests abroad. The ability to portray one’s opponents as a tool of American policy is handy even in Western Europe and Canada, let alone the Middle East. Still, Hamas’ victory has a silver lining: They are now responsible.

Much later in the piece, Fukuyama argues:

We need in the first instance to understand that promoting democracy and modernization in the Middle East is not a solution to the problem of jihadist terrorism; in all likelihood it will make the short-term problem worse, as we have seen in the case of the Palestinian election bringing Hamas to power. Radical Islamism is a byproduct of modernization itself, arising from the loss of identity that accompanies the transition to a modern, pluralist society. It is no accident that so many recent terrorists, from Sept. 11’s Mohamed Atta to the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the London subway bombers, were radicalized in democratic Europe and intimately familiar with all of democracy’s blessings. More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and — yes, unfortunately — terrorism.

But greater political participation by Islamist groups is very likely to occur whatever we do, and it will be the only way that the poison of radical Islamism can ultimately work its way through the body politic of Muslim communities around the world. The age is long since gone when friendly authoritarians could rule over passive populations and produce stability indefinitely.

Neither George Bush, Condi Rice, nor the Weekly Standard editorial board would have much quarrel with this. No one seriously argues that one man, one vote, one time is the solution to jihadist terrorism. Indeed, all have said it will be a long process. As Fukuyama concedes, however, it does seem to be a prerequisite for a solution.

Major change often means a transitional period when things were worse. One could certainly have argued in 1864 that the tremendous cost in blood and treasure was not being repaid by results; indeed, it was arguably another century before that investment truly paid off. Western Europe took decades to recover from the war that ousted the Nazis and Facists, at a cost of tens of million dead. More recently, the fall of Soviet Communism made most of its former subjects worse off for at least a decade. In some former Soviet satellites, the people still wonder if they weren’t better off before.

Islamism is the successor to Communism in the “history” that Fukuyama hoped had ended in 1989. The Islamists will likely never pose the existenstial threat the Soviets did. While they will quite likely acquire and use some nuclear devices, it is almost inconceivable that they will develop the power to destroy the world. On the other hand, Islamists pose a greater day-to-day threat, since they are killing people and sabotaging key infrastructure on a regular basis.

Winning the war against them will almost certainly, like the war on Communism, take years if not decades and be filled with many missteps. It seems obvious, though, that the end game will involve far greater democratization and distributed prosperity in the Islamic world.

I am a neo-Realist, not a neo-conservative. I think democracy and domestic institutions matter but don’t think that we should go to war simply to promote democracy. But, certainly, democratization should be an outgrowth of wars we fight for Realist national security reasons.

Update: The piece is, as one would expect, generating quite a buzz around the blogosphere.

Andrew Sullivan has a long response, saying Fukuyama “gets his analysis almost perfectly right.” Partly, however, as usually happens with bold pieces like this, it is a function of Sullivan reading his own preconceptions into the article.

Acting without a profound understanding of the dangers to the U.S. of inflaming such resentment is imprudent. This is not to say we shouldn’t act at times despite them, unilaterally if necessary. Sometimes, the right thing to do will inevitably spawn resentment. We should do it anyway. But that makes it all the more imperative that we get things right, that we bend over backwards to maintain the moral high-ground, and that we make our margin of error as small as possible.

I certainly would not disagree with any of that. That, however, is about tactics, not grand strategy. Churchill and Roosevelt made some truly boneheaded tactical moves at the beginning of World War II–costing much more than 2274 American and 101 UK KIA. Saying that we made some mistakes that have compounded our problems is not an argument against the overarching policy.

Orrin Judd observes that,

The problem for Mr. Fukuyama and others counseling a return to Realism is that the neocons aren’t the driving force behind the policy of humanitarian interventionism. It is instead a function of the Judeo-Christian remoralization of Anglo-American foreign policy that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan began and that continued unabated under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, reaching its current heights under our most openly evangelical president, George W, Bush. With Australia, India, Japan, and perhaps now Canada joining the Axis of Good, which requires that regimes be democratic in order to be considered legitimate, there’s not much chance danger of the kind of retreat he’s fretting about. And with John McCain the odds on favorite to be our next president we’re more likely to be increasingly interventionist rather than less.

I would quibble that Jimmy Carter began it for the U.S., not Ronald Reagan, but otherwise agree.

John Holbo also thinks of the domestic political implications:

What Fukuyama advocates under the heading ‘what to do’ is worse than unserviceable for the Republican party’s domestic needs. “Effective international institutions that can confer legitimacy on collective action;” “we are serious about the good governance agenda.” These are hardly phrases to conjure with, if what you are conjuring is an image of Democrats as untrustworthy on foreign policy.

That’s doubtless true. More importantly, though, there’s a reason the American electorate is not enamored with international institutions as the stronghold of our national security: History. If we were waiting for the United Nations to fix things, the Soviet Union would still be around.

Roger L. Simon fleshes out a thought that occured to me as well:

Fukuyama seems to be a man in a hurry. The Iraq War here he declares to be a failure after only three years. Nostradamus? […] In my own way, I sympathize with Fukuyama. The opinion game is ruthless. You have no time to wait for history and must make pronouncements based on thin and fleeting evidence.

One makes a name in the pundit game by making incredibly bold, sweeping prouncements rather than by meticulous weighing of the evidence.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. WHAT’S A HYPERPOWER TO DO?…

    Francis Fukuyama used to be one of the seminal neoconservative thinkers of our time.

    Now he’s just a seminal thinker, having abandoned what he terms the “militaristic” excesses and unrealistic goals of the neocons in favor of a &#8…

  2. After Neoconservatism: Must Read…

    After Neoconservatism by By FRANCIS FUKUYAMA from New York Times Magazine is the must read piece of the day. It is very long so if it takes you until Friday to finish it thats ok just make sure you do.
    Some of his points I agree with and some I do n…

  3. BWE says:

    Fukuyama was a member of the PNAC I believe. If he is coming out saying that it is defunct or becoming defunct, well he is in a position to know.

    http://www.newamericancentury.org/statementofprinciples.htm

  4. Jazz says:

    I am always disappointed when I read “experts” stating as if it were fact that a return towards isolationist leaning policies is, by definition, a bad thing. I for one certainly would favor a more isolationist policy, both in terms of global economics and the “spread of democracy” etc. Our military might would be much more wisely used here at home defending against menaces on our own borders and our own soil, while training and staying ever ready to strike abroad, and strike HARD, when a *real* threat is discovered or an attack on the US or our interests is launched.

    I’ll take isolationism any day, thank you very much. Whether various Islammic states have elections or not is of no concern to me. If they hate it there that much, they should move here, or to Europe or Canada.

    Me? A cold hearted bastard? Fine. I’ll wear that label.

  5. Anderson says:

    Wow. Where to begin?

    (1) most famous for his wildly incorrect prediction that no ideology would ever again threaten Western democratic capitalism after the Cold War

    “Wildly incorrect”? How? Al-Qaeda and other terrorists are *material* threats, but they do not pose an ideology that’s any serious competition with Western democratic capitalism. Incoherent rage is not an “ideology,” and Islamists are not an existential threat to the West (as you concede later in your post, while ignoring its implication for Fukuyama’s thesis).

    (2) That, the spillover effects in Lebanon and Syria–and let’s not forget Libya–and the increased credibility of U.S. invasion as serious policy option should indeed justify the costs.

    “Increased credibility”??? Just the opposite. It is common knowledge that we aren’t materially able to invade Syria or North Korea even if we wanted to—not without either abandoning Iraq or firing up the draft.

    (3) It must be reiterated, since people continue to forget it, that the main missions–regime change and the enabling of an unfettered search for WMD–were wildly successful.

    Wowzer. “An unfettered search for WMD” is a really nice way of putting it. Quit trying to rewrite history. We did not go over there to FIND OUT WHETHER OR NOT Saddam had WMD. We were assured that he *did*. Turns out the “unfettered search” was accomplished by Hans Blix, who was treated by Cheney et al. as virtually a Saddam puppet. Oops!

    (4) Realism has long been the natural voice of the foreign policy establishment. Neoconservatism was derided from the beginning. That said, the idea that we are better off supporting authoritarian thugs rather than risking the election of those whose goals are different than ours is short sighted.

    FF is *not* advocating realism (as Orin Judd also fails to notice): “What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world ….”

    (6) More importantly, though, there’s a reason the American electorate is not enamored with international institutions as the stronghold of our national security: History.

    Oh please. NATO? Explain to me how NATO is not an “international institution.” FF is quite candid that the UN is not a useful instrument. He also lists some “international institutions” that are more effective; more importantly, he’s calling for MORE AND BETTER institutions in place of the failed ones.

    I can only assume that FF’s article stung pretty hard, if it’s so necessary to misrepresent what he wrote and to fudge the facts.

  6. Anderson says:

    IÂ’ll take isolationism any day, thank you very much. Whether various Islammic states have elections or not is of no concern to me. If they hate it there that much, they should move here, or to Europe or Canada.

    Fine, Jazz. We can leave Israel to take care of itself. And South Korea, and Japan. Doubtless I’m omitting a dozen or so countries.

    Now, whether or not that’s a good idea is one thing. It’s just not politically acceptable. You might as well wargame whether the U.S. could’ve beaten Germany in 1940.

  7. Olrnf says:

    (1) most famous for his wildly incorrect prediction that no ideology would ever again threaten Western democratic capitalism after the Cold War

    It is clear that James either hasn’t read Fukayama or doesn’t understand the hegelian basis of his argument.

    I am not necessarily a fan of Fukie, but he was making an argument based upon a particular philosophical tradition. In fact, one could argue that his embrace of Hegel’s concept of the “struggle for recognition” is still extremely pertinent and can explain quite a bit about the rise of various fundamentalisms throughout the globe.

  8. Submitted for Your Approval…

    First off…  any spambots reading this should immediately go here, here, here,  and here.  Die spambots, die!  And now…  here are all the links submitted by members of the Watcher’s Council for this week’s vote. Council li…

  9. The Council Has Spoken!…

    First off…  any spambots reading this should immediately go here, here, here,  and here.  Die spambots, die!  And now…  the winning entries in the Watcher’s Council vote for this week are The “Happy Warrior” Is Weeping I…