The Neoconservative Moment

Matthew Yglesias recommends and excerpts an article by Francis Fukuyama (of “End of History” fame) in the current National Interest. Only an except is online and Matt does not wish to incur the wrath of the copyright gods by cutting-and-pasting the entire piece into his blog. Commenter Garb Dnoled feels no such constraint and the entirety appears, with copyright statement and all, for the nonce.

Fukuyama critiques in the piece a speech made by Krauthammer at a gathering of the American Enterprise Institution and, by extension, some of the thinking of the part of the neo-con movement that has gained sway within the Bush administration. While I’m generally more sympathetic to Krauthammer than Fukuyama–certainly, the “Unipolar Moment” has stood the test of time longer than “The End of History”–both are men are well worth paying attention to. Taken together, they demonstrate that the neo-cons are hardly a monolith, even on the issue of Iraq.

Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy, and go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East. It struck me as strange precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning-in The National Interest’s former sister publication, The Public Interest, for example-about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences. If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, dc, how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?

Krauthammer picks up this theme in his speech. Noting how wrong people were after World War II in asserting that Japan could not democratize, he asks, “Where is it written that Arabs are incapable of democracy?” He is echoing an argument made most forthrightly by the eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who has at several junctures suggested that pessimism about the prospects for a democratic Iraq betrays lack of respect for Arabs. It is, of course, nowhere written that Arabs are incapable of democracy, and it is certainly foolish for cynical Europeans to assert with great confidence that democracy is impossible in the Middle East. We have, indeed, been fooled before, not just in Japan but in Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of communism.

But possibility is not likelihood, and good policy is not made by staking everything on a throw of the dice. Culture is not destiny, but culture plays an important role in making possible certain kinds of institutions-something that is usually taken to be a conservative insight. Though I, more than most people, am associated with the idea that history’s arrow points to democracy, I have never believed that democracies can be created anywhere and everywhere through sheer political will. Prior to the Iraq War, there were many reasons for thinking that building a democratic Iraq was a task of a complexity that would be nearly unmanageable. Some reasons had to do with the nature of Iraqi society: the fact that it would be decompressing rapidly from totalitarianism, its ethnic divisions, the role of politicized religion, the society’s propensity for violence, its tribal structure and the dominance of extended kin and patronage networks, and its susceptibility to influence from other parts of the Middle East that were passionately anti-American.

This critique is fair enough. It is the element of our Iraq policy that I was always most skeptical of and, certainly, the part that has given us the most trouble. Toppling Saddam’s regime cost us roughly 200 soldiers; the aftermath has cost us 800 and counting. The goal is absolutely worthwhile. Whether it will be achieved is an open question.

Fukuyama echoes the sentiments of Michael Scheur, author of Imperial Hubris:

Towards the end of his AEI speech, Krauthammer speaks of the United States as being in the midst of a bitter and remorseless war with an implacable enemy that is out to destroy Western civilization. This kind of language is appropriate as a description of Israel’s strategic situation since the outbreak of the second intifada. The question is whether this accurately describes the position of the United States as well. Are we like Israel, locked in a remorseless struggle with a large part of the Arab and Muslim world, with few avenues open to us for dealing with them other than an iron fist? And in general, does a strategic doctrine developed by a small, vulnerable country surrounded by implacable enemies make sense when applied to the situation of the world’s sole superpower, a country that spends as much on defense as the next 16 most powerful countries put together? I believe that there are real problems in transposing one situation to the other. While Israel’s most immediate Arab interlocutors are indeed implacable enemies, the United States faces a much more complex situation. In Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, we do in fact confront an enemy that hates us for what we are rather than for what we do. For the reasons given above, I do not believe they are an existential threat to us, but they certainly would like to be, and it is hard to see how we can deal with them other than by killing, capturing or otherwise militarily neutralizing them.

But the radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims-1.2 billion of them, more or less-who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States. If one has any doubts about this, one has only to look at the first of the United Nations Development Program’s two Arab Human Development reports, which contained a poll asking whether respondents would like to emigrate to the United States if they had the opportunity. In virtually every Arab country, a majority of respondents said yes. On the other hand, recent Pew surveys of global public opinion show that positive feelings about the United States in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other supposedly friendly Muslim countries has sunk to disastrously low levels. What these data taken as a whole suggest is that for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards. As we are seeing vividly in Iraqi cities like Fallujah and Najaf, counter-insurgency wars are incredibly difficult to fight, because we must somehow destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population and making things worse. Counter-insurgency requires a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks.

The problem with this argument, though, is that there is no way to destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population! That is simply the nature of counter-insurgency. Indeed, it’s the very rationale behind insurgency in the first place: An inferior force can defeat a superior one, especially an outside occupier, if the latter is unwilling to use all the tools at its disposal because of political obstacles.

It may well be that the enemy hates us “for what we do” rather than “for who we are.” The distinction is moot, however, in that “what we do” is very much tied to “who we are.” Our support of Israeli, our dependency on oil, and our desire to protect our national interest are fundamental to our political, social, and economic structures. They’re not changing any time soon.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The Fukuyama article as well as this Imperial Hubris clip point to the intellectual bankruptcy of the neo-con ideology. Fostering global democracy and a new world order are not realistic policy goals for the US.

    The irony is that the Iraq war, framed in neo-con terms, is a bit of a failure thus far. However, framed in realist terms, it’s an unmitigated success.

    Finally, as for destroying the enemy without alienating the broader population, it seems to me that we don’t need to immediately win the hearts and minds of the Arab street, but instead convince them that our war against this global islamic jihad is their war too — at that point, they may not love us, but they’ll let us do what needs to be done.

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    “Our support of Israeli, our dependency on oil, and our desire to protect our national interest are fundamental to our political, social, and economic structures.”

    No they are not.

    They are all choices our leaders have made for us and could work to unmake. The illusion that these choices are inevitable stem from the bad habit we have here of making choices in foreign policy without involvement of the voting public and then wrapping those choices in the American Flag to sanctify them before burial.

    The real meaning of the sequence of events in Iraq is that, for once, the completely voluntary nature of our foriegn policy choices was revealed in all its nakedness.

    This was the war we didn’t have to fight. This was the war that the devil didn’t make us do. This was the war that contributed absolutely nothing to any sane and reasonable conception of our “national interest”. This was the war that has created an unthinkable mountain of debt for the sake of toppling and capturing one tin-horn dictator and nothing else.

    But at least we succeeded in toppling and capturing him.

  3. Bithead says:

    So, we should let Israel be killed off by the Islamofacists, say you? we should knuckle under to the demands of those out to destroy us?

    Sorry, I won’t be marching in your parade, thank you.

  4. Joseph Marshall says:

    Stop foaming. No politician in their right mind here is going to withdraw support for Isreal no matter what the Isrealis do. To do so would be political suicide. But that fact has little to do with any “structural” component of America, other than the awesome power of a specific political lobby.

    My point is that these free choices and are not made under constraint of the “hidden forces of History” or any such Buncombe.

    And they should be made with rational consideration of results. It is my considered opinion that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken without such rational evaluation and has produced no serious change in the region that benefits either Israel or us.

    Not only that, it severely limits further military choices which might benefit Israel or us. About one-half of our ground combat forces are tied up between Iraq and Afghanistan–not surprising since we have built our military to take on only two wars at once.

    So where does that leave either Israel or the US in relation to Iranian nuclear ambitions?

    Nobody should even entertain the notion that one “surgical strike” by the Israelis is going to put Iranian nukes completely out of business like it did the Iraqis long ago. They have clearly learned from experience and dispersed the assets.

    There is more to war than merely talking tough and dropping ordinance. And there is more to foreign policy than merely making thoughtless war.

    You could wrap your bit of constructive conciousness around these ideas with great profit.

  5. Bithead says:

    Hardly foaming. Or do you have another way to read your suggestion of discussing the removal of support for Israel as an option even worth discusion?

    My point is that these free choices and are not made under constraint of the “hidden forces of History” or any such Buncombe.


    Unless, that is, you consider it not in our self-interest to pursue ustice in the world.

    Nobody should even entertain the notion that one “surgical strike” by the Israelis is going to put Iranian nukes completely out of business like it did the Iraqis long ago. They have clearly learned from experience and dispersed the assets.

    Again, incorrect. Dispersal as a tactic assumes there’s enough material to disperse, and yet maintain weapons status should one of these sites of dispersal be taken out by bombing or whetever means are to hand.

    Based on what we know it seems a safe bet that they don’t have enough, either material or expertise to rebuild with any kind of speed once such a facility is taken out. I agree that all this does, mostly, is buy time, but isn’t that the idea?

  6. Joseph Marshall says:

    I won’t quibble with you over the freedom of our choices: my statement that they are “free” is a matter of logic, not of ethics.

    But I would point out that the Iranians have multiple facilities, not all of them obvious targets. Where, for example, are they storing the uranium they’ve already enriched? Surely not in the same place as the reactors or their centrifuges, and these are widely distributed across the country. Do we know where? Maybe. Do we know how much? Maybe. It just depends on how good the secret intelligence is, just like in Iraq, right?

    My point is that any successful military intervention from this point forward will be such a massive committment that it will either need to be a joint Israeli/US venture (at the very least, I should guess, US refueling for Israeli warplanes, given the distance involved) or a US venture alone.

    And that such a venture must be backed by the capacity, at least, to invade the country with ground troops. That is the current fly in the ointment.

    The Iranians realize this full well, which is why they have openly announced that they will continue to enrich uranium for “peaceful purposes”. And why, I suspect, our President and his advisors are not saying that much about the Bush Doctrine at the moment.