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Neo-Conservative Revisited (Again)

Francis Fukuyama’s latest polemic is a tour through past philosophies

Don't bank on Francis Fukuyama being invited to neo-conservative gatherings of the bien-pensant-at least not anytime soon. The author has adopted new stripes since the 1992 publication of his bestseller The End of History and the Last Man, which theorized that countries throughout the world were moving towards a capitalistic utopia; liberal governments were replacing dictatorships and democracy was blossoming everywhere. But now it seems that times have changed. In his latest polemic, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neo-Conservative Legacy, Fukuyama argues that the United States has overreached, and with disastrous consequences.

Some three years after the invasion of Iraq and two-and-a-half years after President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to triumphantly declare "mission accomplished," some 140,000 American troops remain mired in a low-grade civil war in Iraq. How did this come about? Fukuyama's answer to that question is a long narrative that contains little new or revelatory information and which reads like a forensic psychologist's audit of how America got to where it is. The author plumbs a history of ideas in order to trace the roots and denouement of the neo-conservative movement from its beginnings to its present.

Spawned in the late-1930s in reaction to the excesses of Stalinism, a group of liberal, anti-communist and largely Jewish intellectuals convened at City College of New York to forge a new political movement. Among the attendees were Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and sociologist Seymour Lipset. The sinews of their new political philosophy would develop into four central ideals:

  • an abiding concern with democracy, human rights and the internal politics of states;
  • the use of US power for benevolent purposes;
  • a scepticism about the effectiveness of international law and institutions to resolve problems;
  • the belief that state efforts at "social engineering" led to unexpected and often negative consequences.

The movement's initial critique took aim at Stalin and his sympathizers, but when a counter-cultural storm enveloped the country in the 1960s, the criticism turned inwards to American domestic politics. Neo-conservatives took on such issues as welfare reform and forced busing. While not averse to state intervention as such, their critique focused on "the corroding effects of welfare on the character of the poor." The sight of South Boston and other cities aflame over the issue of forced busing was a riposte, they argued, to the state's overweening efforts to re-engineer citizens' lives.

Neo-conservatives were rewarded with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. His steely determination to escalate the arms race-"the use of US power for benevolent purposes"-drove public policy. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and within two years the Cold War was over. America now stood as the world's sole hegemonic power. Reagan, long derided as a bumbling naïf to his many critics, had been vindicated. He had wedded morality and power, and triumphed. The economic pull of the West, the crumbling rot of the Soviet ideology and the fortuitous rise of Gorbachev were all given short shrift in the neo-conservative exegesis of the Soviet downfall. According to them, power-particularly military power-had brought the "evil empire" to ruin.

Faith in the primacy of the military as an instrument of foreign policy deepened with the relative ease and quick dispatch of the first Gulf War, and crystallized when Europe came to America, cup in hand, and beseeched the US to intercede in the Balkans (which it did, although under the auspices of NATO and not the UN). By the 1990s, the neo-conservative torch had passed to the likes of Robert Kagan and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and scion of the movement's founder, Kristol.

"Regime change, benevolent hegemony, unipolarity, pre-emption, and American exceptionalism came to be the hallmarks of the Bush administration's foreign policy," Fukuyama writes. The UN, riddled with torpor and ineptitude, was shunned. Despite the end of the Cold War, America had retained a heightened sense of threat. The dye was cast when Islamic terrorists hurled civilian airliners into the Twin Towers and Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The blunders and excesses in the lead-up to the war and America's utter lack of preparedness for Iraq's post-war reconstruction are by now a matter of public record. Egregious errors in intelligence led to an inflated and misdirected sense of potential threats, and apocalyptic rhetoric ramped up the march to war. Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor, warned in sepulchral tones of "the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," and, in oratory worthy of a low-grade Western, Bush declared: "You are either with us or against us." America, it was clear, would go it alone; it would seek but not be bound by the UN Security Council. This fell hard on European ears. With her shores pulled low by the undertow of globalization that was unleashed during the Reagan years, European sensibilities became further chafed when the US walked away from international protocols on Kyoto and the International Criminal Court.

The two reasons advanced for invasion-Iraq' possession of WMD and a link between it and Al-Qaeda-were proven false; only when the ship of war was set to sail did Bush advance the third and most compelling reason for invasion: regime change. By then, however, it was too late. Vis-à-vis Europe, Fukuyma writes: "The rift caused by the Iraq war was in the nature of a tectonic shift, a rift that will not easily be healed in the future."

If nothing else, America at the Crossroads serves as a reasonable summary of this history-one that links the neo-conservative past to present phenomena throughout the world. Particularly deft is the way the author charts the Islamic world and explores the fissures within it. For Fukuyama, one locus of the Jihadist threat resides "not in pious Muslims in the Middle East, but [in] alienated, uprooted young people in Hamburg, London, or Amsterdam." His solution, however-that of better integration of Islamic "people who are already in the West, and doing so in a way that does not undermine the trust and tolerance on which democratic societies are based"-strikes this reader as utopian. Given the recent hysteria over Danish caricatures of the prophet, the walls to integration would seem very high indeed.

Fukuyama's thesis is a salutary reminder of the limits of military power in the post-9/11 world. He proffers a "realistic Wilsonianism" and a return to the traditional tools of "soft" power as the new dicta of American foreign policy. Assiduous bridge-building efforts and heightened diplomacy are a must. Among other things, he recommends the beefing up of the State Department, as well as organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Yes, the charge of "American hubris" is a fair one-the US is now embroiled in the murky consequences of it in Iraq-but to those inclined to indulge in schadenfreude, let us be clear: Hussein had invaded Iran and Kuwait. He had committed genocide twice, against the Kurds in the 1980s and the Marsh Arabs in the south in the 1990s. He had consistently refused to comply with UN resolutions regarding the identification and disposal of weapons of mass destruction. There remained, moreover, unfinished business from the first Gulf War, such as the American presence on Saudi soil in order to maintain Iraqi no-fly zones (it was this that truly inflamed Bin Laden). And finally, under the corrupted UN Oil-for-Food program, Saddam and his Baathist minions had looted the treasury of funds earmarked for children.

Can there have been any doubt, then-any real doubt-that this most egregious malfaiteur would be at it again once the inspectorate had left? And to whom, pray tell, would the world have turned when Saddam embarked upon his next adventure?

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neo-Conservative legacy
Francis Fukuyama
Yale University press, 2006
216 pages
ISBN: 0300113994