Fukuyama's Second Thoughts

Reviewed by Jonah Goldberg

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neo-Conservative Legacy
by Francis Fukuyama
Yale University Press, 2006, 226 pages.

In short, Fukuyama is saying, the neocons got cocky. Their explanation for the most important conflict of the previous half-century—the cold war—had been vindicated. And, as far as they were concerned, they were best suited to explain the post-cold-war confusion as well.

So the great irony is this: In Fukuyama’s telling, the new neo-conservatism of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan emerges as in many respects the opposite of the old neo-conservatism of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. This younger generation, which never went through a disillusionment-migration cycle from Left to Right, simply never internalized the lessons of being deeply wrong about something truly important.

In the 1990s The Weekly Standard embodied the new attitude. Its editorials rattled sabers at China and Iraq. It aggressively supported military intervention in the Balkans. And, with David Brooks taking the lead, it championed something called “National Greatness” conservatism, which turned the skepticism of the previous generation on its head; the connection to foreign policy was made clear in that the patron saint of National Greatness, according to Brooks, was Teddy Roosevelt. As Fukuyama notes, “National Greatness inevitably manifests itself through foreign policy, since foreign policy is always a public matter and involves issues of life and death.” If the old neo-conservatism was defined by skepticism and trepidation, Fukuyama argues, the new neo-conservatism flirted with hubris on a grand scale.

Whatever its faults—and there are many—this explanation provides far more analytical heft than the run-of-the-mill nonsense we so often hear about warmongers and Straussian cultists. Vice President Cheney was never a neocon. Nor was Donald Rumsfeld, or most of the senior war planners. But they were most certainly battle-scarred veterans of the Reagan years and subscribers to what Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, has called the “Reagan synthesis.” Reagan’s success had many fathers and by no stretch of the imagination were they all neocons, but with the aid of a media and academic establishment always eager to discredit traditional conservatism, the storyline that the humane and intellectual facets of Reaganism were “neo-conservative” stuck. Indeed, prior to 9/11 it was standard practice in academic writing to label all remotely legitimate conservative ideas “neo-conservative” rather than simply “conservative,” because the latter had long since been spoiled as a synonym for the racist, sexist, and vaguely fascist.

In this sense, Fukuyama’s criticism of the neo-conservatives is broader than he allows. If the folks at The Weekly Standard were guilty of hubris, so were those at National Review. While Fukuyama claims to be debunking much of the “nonsense” about neo-conservatism as an elite Zionist cowboy cabal, he is to a certain extent reinforcing it by treating neo-conservatives as a more distinct and unified group than is really the case. In other words, he is still saying it was the neocons’ fault—just not for the wacky and sometimes anti-Semitic reasons we’ve heard from the paranoid, ignorant, and hysterical.

The failures of Fukuyama’s analysis, however, extend beyond taxonomy. Much has been made of Fukuyama’s alleged hypocrisy in attacking a school of thought of which he was, until recently, an important adherent. He signed the various letters and petitions of the Project for the New American Century. He wrote op-eds affirming the “irrefutable logic” of Bush’s Axis of Evil doctrine and he supported invading Iraq until very late in the game. Former kindred spirits such as Charles Krauthammer have accused Fukuyama of being a fair-weather supporter of the war who only repudiated the effort when public opinion turned against it.

On this score, Krauthammer and others have a strong case. But this has overshadowed an even more important point: If Fukuyama’s supposedly more authentic neo-conservatism could not spot the folly in the new National Greatness “neo-conservatism” until very recently, the differences between the two outlooks cannot be that significant. Even if Fukuyama’s criticisms are entirely in good faith and his critics are completely wrong, the fact that he walked out of the movie just minutes before the credits started to roll—and that he does not admit to any kind of real revolution in his thinking—suggests that we are talking differences in degree, not in kind. This is reflected in most of the discussion about his book, as even supporters of the administration’s policies tend to find his proposals sensible. “Neither his old arguments nor his new ones,” writes a sympathetic Paul Berman, “offer much insight into this, the most important problem of all—the problem of murderous ideologies and how to combat them.”

Indeed, Fukuyama’s specific criticisms suggest that he has come up with his theory first and then selected the facts necessary to support it—precisely the criticism he levels at the Bush administration. He berates Vice President Cheney and his clique for ignoring contrary voices. But Fukuyama himself agreed that those contrary voices were wrong regarding the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs. More importantly, he claims that the war planners’ arrogance led them to ignore warnings about the war’s aftermath. But with the possible exception of General Shinseki’s admonition about the need for more troops to occupy Iraq, such warnings were almost nonexistent—and were certainly not forthcoming from Fukuyama. Indeed, as Lowry and others have argued, the real intelligence failure wasn’t the much—ballyhooed weapons of mass destruction foul-up, but the failure of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to appreciate the extent of Iraq’s social decay. Critics of the invasion essentially made the same mistake that advocates of it made in assuming that Iraq was a functioning nation, and some critics, after the fact, have gone so far as to claim that Iraq has been made even less functional by U.S. intervention. The reality was that it was, to use Kanan Makiya’s phrase, a Republic of Fear. When the United States removed the fear, the whole place imploded. But, again, this does not mean that what happened was widely foreseen: The doom-and-gloom forecasts from bureaucratic opponents of the war were, in the final analysis, at least as wrong as the “cakewalk” talk on the other side—for example, what happened to the refugee crisis the invasion was supposed to create?

Fukuyama criticizes the Standard for downplaying the importance of civil society and culture to rebuilding Iraq, which is fair to a point. But he also notes that “The Weekly Standard has turned against Donald Rumsfeld and called for his resignation, its chief criticism of him remains his failure to provide enough troops to secure Iraq, rather than the multiple other dimensions of nation-building where U.S. policy fell short.” But is it really true that the Standard’s editors would oppose the “multiple other dimensions of nation-building” if Iraq were secure? On the contrary: They call for Rumsfeld to be replaced by Senator John McCain, a bold Rooseveltian type who would, in their view, “make the Pentagon a full partner in the building of a stable, self-governing Iraq and… re-engage the American people in the importance of the pursuit.” Those who advocate more troops do so with the sensible assumption that a pacified Iraq would allow the conditions in which building everything from courts to soccer fields becomes possible.

Fukuyama writes that the new neo-conservatives learned the wrong lessons from the cold war and are hence determined to use military might in circumstances ill-suited to force. “No one was opposed in principle to the use of soft power,” he writes, “they simply hadn’t thought about it very much. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.”

But Fukuyama has this exactly backwards. The United States has a lot of tools, the military being only one of many. He claims that America “has become steadily less generous” and says that the U.S. ranks 21st out of 22 leading developed nations in foreign giving. But as John Fonte has pointed out, on this count Fukuyama is simply wrong. The U.S. ranks 11th of 22 among leading donor countries, and government foreign aid has doubled between 2000 and 2004, increasing as a percentage of gross national income as well. President Bush committed America to massive increases in spending on AIDS, for example, and has dedicated funds to a host of soft-power measures. In reality, the nations that have only a single tool in their belts are our “allies” in the “international community.” With the exception of Great Britain, the European nations have virtually no ability to project military power abroad, and combined with their tendency to be seduced and corrupted by the talky-talk of the UN and EU and intimidated by large and restive Muslim minorities, it’s no wonder that every problem they see looks like a job for diplomacy.

Fukuyama is director of the International Development Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and something of an international academic celebrity. Perhaps thanks to this experience he is better suited to make sensible suggestions about how to use the levers of diplomacy and aid instead of the hammer of military might. But his calls for a new era of “horizontal accountability” and an “agenda of multiple multilateralisms” seem to suggest that he has become deeply ensconced in the world of transnational elites endlessly talking about talking in places like Davos and Geneva.

Fukuyama is certainly correct that political and intellectual movements cannot be separated from their historical and geographic contexts. Each age makes what it will of the confusion that is the world. And it should be no surprise that what seems to explain things pretty well in one moment will fail to do so in the next. But Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History, is a man constitutionally determined to find the permanent theory of everything. It seems, however, that America at the Crossroads represents less a serious theoretical exegesis than a momentary crisis of confidence by one of the smartest observers around. It is a snapshot taken at a moment of maximum neo-conservative despair stemming from confusion over the Iraq war and the nature of the Islamist threat. In a Huntington age, he is unwilling to relinquish the vision of a Fukuyama world. As such, this book offers useful insights into the internal contradictions within and among conservative policymakers, but ultimately it creates more bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion than it dispels.

Jonah Goldberg is a Los Angeles Times columnist and editor at large of National Review Online.

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