Fukuyama's moment: a neocon schism opens

About the author
Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading "Legitimation Crisis" in Tehran and co-editor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria DilemmaFormerly senior editor of openDemocracy, he is a Contributing Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture and a blogger for forCritical InquiryTruthout, and the Huffington Post. His website is here. On Twitter: @dannypostel

The Iraq war opened a fratricidal split among United States neo–conservatives. Danny Postel examines the bitter dispute between two leading neocons, Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer, and suggests that Fukuyama’s critique of the Iraq war and decision not to vote for George W Bush is a significant political as well as intellectual moment.

Over the last two years, the term “neo–conservative” has come into sharper focus than at any other point in its roughly thirty–year history. The neo–conservative movement has exerted greater influence on United States foreign policy since 9/11 than it was ever previously able to do, the Iraq war being its crowning achievement.

Coinciding with this ascendancy has been an unrelenting stream of criticism directed at neo–conservatism, from virtually every square on the ideological chessboard. Such sorties have become something of a rallying–cry among much of the left. Neo–conservatives either ignore left–wing criticism (a luxury they can well afford) or else chew it up and spit it out: the more vitriolic it is, the more emboldened it makes them.

Some of the most savage reprisals against the neocons, however, have come from the right. I have written elsewhere of the ensemble of realists, libertarians, and “paleoconservatives” who opposed the Iraq adventure and the doctrines that justified it, and of other conservatives who fear that the neocons and their war will sink Bush’s presidency.

Neo–conservatives are no less sanguine about attacks from this political direction: as if to say “bring it on”, neocons are armed with counterattacks about the variously amoral, isolationist, nativist, unpatriotic, even anti–Semitic nature of the conservative cases against them.

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But the latest salvo against the war and its neocon architects has stung its targets like none other has done. That’s because the critique Francis Fukuyama has advanced is an inside job: not only is its author among the most celebrated members of the neo–conservative intelligentsia, but his dissection of the conceptual problems at the core of the Iraq undertaking appeared on the neocons’ home ground. “The Neoconservative Moment,” his twelve–page intervention into the Iraq debate, was published in the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest, a flagship conservative foreign–policy journal.

This, in short, is different. Fukuyama is – to use a phrase patented by Margaret Thatcher – one of us. He’s part of the club. Indeed, he’s played as prominent a role as any of his co–thinkers in fostering the life of the neo-conservative mind since helping define the post–cold war moment fifteen years ago with his famous “end of history” thesis.

That’s why the neocon world is abuzz about Fukuyama’s jab, and about his decision not to support Bush for re–election. “I just think that if you’re responsible for this kind of a big policy failure,” he tells openDemocracy, “you ought to be held accountable for it.”

Breaking ranks

In “The Neoconservative Moment,” Fukuyama turns a heat lamp on the cogitations of one thinker in particular, Charles Krauthammer, whose “strategic thinking has become emblematic” of the neo-conservative camp that envisaged the Iraq invasion. Krauthammer, one of the war’s most vociferous advocates, had somewhat famously fancied the end of the cold war as a “unipolar moment” in geopolitics – which, by 2002, he was calling a “unipolar era.” In February 2004 Krauthammer delivered an address at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington in which he offered a strident defense of the Iraq war in terms of his concept of unipolarity, or what he now calls “democratic realism.”

Fukuyama was in the audience that evening and did not like what he heard.

Krauthammer’s speech was “strangely disconnected from reality,” Fukuyama wrote in “The Neoconservative Moment.” “Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War – the archetypical application of American unipolarity – had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated.” “There is not the slightest nod” in Krauthammer’s exposition “towards the new empirical facts” that have come to light over the course of the occupation.

Fukuyama’s case against Krauthammer’s – and thus the dominant neo–conservative – position on Iraq is manifold.

Social engineering

Krauthammer’s logic, Fukuyama argues, is “utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world.” “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,” he wrote, “and to go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East.”

This struck Fukuyama as strange, he explained, “precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning...about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences.” If the US can’t eradicate poverty at home or improve its own education system, he asked, “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?”

He didn’t rule out the possibility of the endeavour succeeding, but saw its chances of doing so as weak. Wise policy, he wrote, “is not made by staking everything on a throw of the dice.” “Culture is not destiny,” but, he argued in tones echoing his former professor Samuel Huntington, it “plays an important role in making possible certain kinds of institutions – something that is usually taken to be a conservative insight.”

Nation–building

The only way for such an “unbelievably ambitious effort to politically transform one of the world’s most troubled and hostile regions” to have an outside chance of working, Fukuyama maintained, was a huge, long–term commitment to postwar reconstruction. “America has been involved in approximately 18 nation–building projects between its conquest of the Philippines in 1899 and the current occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq,” he wrote, “and the overall record is not a pretty one.”

The signs thus far in Iraq? “Lurking like an unbidden guest at a dinner party is the reality of what has happened in Iraq since the U.S. invasion: We have been our usual inept and disorganized selves in planning for and carrying out the reconstruction, something that was predictable in advance and should not have surprised anyone familiar with American history.” (There are, it should be noted, serious doubts about whether democratisation is the real agenda of the regime–changers. Click here and here for two skeptical views.)

But unlike many conservative critics of nation–building – the aforementioned realists, libertarians, and paleocons, for example – Fukuyama believes there are cases when it is necessary, indeed vital. While he argues that America “needs to be more realistic about its nation–building abilities, and cautious in taking on large social–engineering projects in parts of the world it does not understand very well,” he sees it as inevitable that the US will get “sucked into similar projects in the future,” and America must be “much better prepared,” he warns, for a scenario such as the “sudden collapse of the North Korean regime.”

Legitimacy

Krauthammer and other neocon advocates of the war – Robert Kagan most famously – have turned anti–Europeanism into a sport, arguing that Europe’s doubts about Iraq reflect a plate–tectonic shift in consciousness and signal a cleft in transatlantic relations of epochal significance.

Fukuyama doesn’t dismiss this argument entirely, but sees a sleight of hand at work in its rhetorical deployment in the Iraq debate. If Krauthammer, rather than summarily spurning continental arguments as just so much bad faith and responsibility–shirking, had instead “listened carefully to what many Europeans were actually saying (something that Americans are not very good at doing these days), he would have discovered that much of their objection to the war was not a normative one having to do with procedural issues and the UN, but rather a prudential one having to do with the overall wisdom of attacking Iraq.”

Krauthammer’s almost principled disdain for European sensibilities is particularly problematic, Fukuyama argued, when one considers that “the European bottom line proved to be closer to the truth than the administration’s far more alarmist position” vis–à–vis weapons of mass destruction (WMD). “On the question of the manageability of postwar Iraq, the more skeptical European position was almost certainly right.” Despite this, Krauthammer proceeds “as if the Bush administration’s judgment had been vindicated at every turn, and that any questioning of it can only be the result of base or dishonest motives.”

Fukuyama, in contrast, exhorts the US to confront these errors head–on, realising that they have “created an enormous legitimacy problem for us,” one that will damage American interests “for a long time to come.” “This should matter to us,” he inveighs, “not just for realist reasons of state (our ability to attract allies to share the burden), but for idealist ones as well (our ability to lead and inspire based on the attractiveness of who we are).” The US must “spend much more time and energy” cultivating “like–minded allies” to accomplish “both the realist and idealist portions” of its agenda.

Israelpolitik

Finally, Fukuyama argues, Krauthammer and other neo–conservatives misconstrue the nature of the threat facing the US today, in part because they view American foreign policy through the prism of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Krauthammer’s hard line, Likudnik position on Israel “colors his views on how the United States should deal with the Arabs more broadly.” Krauthammer once quipped in a radio interview that the only way to earn respect in the Arab world is to reach down and squeeze between the legs. (His exact wording was slightly less delicate.)

Fukuyama questions the logic of transposing this Ariel Sharon style of thought to US strategy: “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?” In an argument echoed by Anatol Lieven in his book America Right or Wrong, Fukuyama asks: “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…?”

Calling for a “more complex strategy” that “recalibrates the proportion of sticks and carrots,” Fukuyama argues that “an American policy toward the Muslim world that, like Sharon’s, is largely stick will be a disaster: we do not have enough sticks in our closet to ‘make them respect us’. The Islamists for sure hated us from the beginning, but Krauthammerian unipolarity has increased hatred for the United States in the broader fight for hearts and minds.”

In his response to Fukuyama, published in the current (Fall 2004) issue of The National Interest, Krauthammer polemically dismisses Fukuyama’s arguments with words like “bizarre,” “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “silly,” and “odd in the extreme.” Fukuyama, he writes, has “enthusiastically joined the crowd seizing upon the difficulties in Iraq as a refutation of any forward–looking policy that might have gotten us there…” As for Fukuyama’s claim that the fecklessness of the reconstruction effort was “predictable in advance,” Krauthammer writes: “Curiously, however, Fukuyama never predicted it in advance. He waited a year to ascertain wind direction, then predicted what had already occurred.”

On Fukuyama’s argument about the role of Israel, Krauthammer accuses his interlocutor of “Judaizing” neo–conservatism. “His is not the crude kind, advanced by Pat Buchanan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, among others, that American neoconservatives (read: Jews) are simply doing Israel’s bidding, hijacking American foreign policy in the service of Israel and the greater Jewish conspiracy.” “Fukuyama’s take,” he writes, “is more subtle and implicit.”

What makes Fukuyama’s argument “quite ridiculous,” Krauthammer contends, is that at the vanguard of the policies in question are Bush, Blair, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. “How,” he asks, “did they come to their delusional identification with Israel?” “Are they Marranos, or have they been hypnotized by ‘neoconservatives’ into sharing the tribal bond?”

Inside or out?

Just how deep into the body of neo-conservatism did Fukuyama’s knife go? Is he himself still a neocon? Fukuyama is ambiguous on this point. Others are less so.

On the one hand, Fukuyama claims he’s starting from faithful neo–conservative axioms and simply drawing different conclusions about their application in the specific case of the Iraq war. “One can start with premises identical to Krauthammer’s…and yet come up with a foreign policy that is very different from the one he lays out,” he writes.

“I still consider myself to be a dyed–in–the–wool neoconservative,” he told an audience in August.

In the same stroke of the pen, however, he writes (in “The Neoconservative Moment”) that “it is probably too late to reclaim the label ‘neoconservative’ for any but the policies undertaken by the Bush administration” and doubts whether the vision he proposes as an alternative to Krauthammer’s “will ever be seen as neoconservative.” Then again, he concludes, “there is no reason why it should not have this title.”

In his National Interest response, Krauthammer (who declined openDemocracy’s request for an interview) writes that Fukuyama’s “intent is to take down the entire neoconservative edifice.” Indeed, Krauthammer’s counterpunch is shot through with the conviction that, notwithstanding his interlocutor’s pronouncements to the contrary, this is anything but a family quarrel: Fukuyama’s train, he believes, has pulled out of the neoconservative station.

Why Fukuyama Matters

John Mearsheimer thinks Krauthammer is on to something.

“Fukuyama understands, quite correctly, that the Bush doctrine has washed up on the rocks,” the University of Chicago political scientist and author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics tells openDemocracy. Fukuyama’s essay provides a “great service,” he says, in making plain that the neo-conservative strategy for dealing with Iraq has “crashed and burned.” Fukuyama is “to be admired for his honesty here. He is confronting reality.”

The significance of Fukuyama’s intervention, says Mearsheimer, goes beyond its being the first in–house, intra–neocon dispute over Iraq. “It’s not only that he’s a member of the [neoconservative] tribe going after another member of the tribe; [Fukuyama] is one of the tribe’s most important members.” Indeed, he says, Fukuyama and Krauthammer are without a doubt “the two heavyweights” of the neoconservative intelligentsia, and their debate is about “terribly important issues, issues of central importance to American foreign policy.”

Mearsheimer agrees with Krauthammer that Fukuyama’s critique threatens to dismantle the neo-conservative project. First, he says, Fukuyama is challenging “the unilateralist impulse that’s hard wired into the neoconservative worldview.” Second, Fukuyama disputes the argument that the Iraq war would create a democratic domino effect in the Arab–Islamic world. These, says Mearsheimer, are “two of the most important planks” in the Bush doctrine and in the neo-conservative Weltanschauung.

Fukuyama also possesses what Mearsheimer calls a “very healthy respect for the limits of military force.” “I think you cannot bring about democracy through the use of military force,” he told the Cairo–based weekly Al–Ahram. Then there is Fukuyama’s point about the limits of social engineering and his argument regarding the neocon tendency to conflate Israel’s security threats with those of the United States.

Taken together, says Mearsheimer, this band of criticisms makes Fukuyama’s case nothing less than devastating. “This is not just a minor spat within the camp. This is consequential.”

High stakes, hard words

The Fukuyama–Krauthammer exchange has generated considerable buzz within Washington. “The foreign policy establishment are paying attention,” National Interest editor John O’Sullivan tells openDemocracy. The exchange, he says, is “generating debate and discussion more generally” as well.

“It was about time somebody out of this circle broke out and dealt with reality,” says Gary Dorrien, author of The Neoconservative Mind and Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana, of this “first crack in the dyke.” “I’m not surprised that he’s the one who did,” Dorrien tells openDemocracy. “He was never the hard–line ideologue that most of them are.”

David Frum, a daily National Review Online columnist for and former Bush speechwriter currently at work on a history of foreign–policy decision–making in the Bush administration, thinks l’affaire Fukuyama will take on greater significance in the event of a Bush defeat. “If Bush loses and Republicans turn against the war and decide to blame somebody for [it],” he tells openDemocracy, “then intellectually they’re going to end up unraveling the chain of reasoning that led them to Iraq. At that point, they’re going to start looking for some kind of alternative. I don’t think right now you can point to Fukuyama and say, ‘it’ll take them here’,” but Fukuyama’s arguments “may become more attractive,” he says.

Frum, who continues to support the war and thinks Krauthammer makes “intellectual mincemeat” of Fukuyama in their exchange, says he “would find it hard to believe” if the two men were still friends. (Fukuyama tells openDemocracy that he and Krauthammer have not spoken since the shootout began.) Frum attributes the rather rancorous tone of the debate – particularly, one must say, in Krauthammer’s reply – to the magnitude of the issues. “We’re fighting right now over who’s going to control the fate of the [Republican] party. There are large stakes.”

Fallout

Fukuyama does plan to respond to Krauthammer’s essay, in a forthcoming issue of The National Interest. “There’s a little bit of an implication that I’m being anti–Semitic and I really do think I need to talk about that,” he tells openDemocracy.

He admits to being “a little bit disappointed” that Krauthammer didn’t employ “a more neutral tone,” he says of his old friend. “On the other hand,” he says, “that’s his style. He does this to everybody. I don’t know why I would be exempted.”

What does Fukuyama make of Krauthammer’s claim that “The Neoconservative Moment” amounts to an attempt to raze the Neocon Palace? “The zealousness of many people who wear the neoconservative label for the war in Iraq has done more to undermine neoconservatism than anything I possibly could have said,” he rejoins, adding that a dose of introspection might do them well.

“That’s the thing that strikes me – it’s the same thing that strikes me about President Bush, as well,” he says. “I would forgive a lot if any of these people who were very strong advocates of the war showed any reflectiveness about what’s happened or any acknowledgement that maybe there was something problematic in what they were recommending. Krauthammer doesn’t do that, and President Bush doesn’t do that. I take that as a big flaw. It seems to me it’s not going to help their case to keep insisting that they were right about everything.”

Absent from Krauthammer’s reply, says Fukuyama, “was any acknowledgement that any of my points had any validity, or that the way the war developed led to any rethinking of anything.”

Neo–conservatism faces a test, says Fukuyama. Either it will adapt in the face of changing realities on the ground or “stick to a rigid set of principles.” The outcome, he says, will “mean either the death or the survival of this movement.”

A paradigm shift?

Why didn’t Fukuyama voice the doubts he says he had about the war in the months leading up to it, when the debate was in full stride? “I didn’t think it would do any good for me to come out against it because everybody was so determined to do it,” he says. And so I thought, ‘well, let them have their chance.’ I was not certain about the outcome. I thought the probabilities of it working out were not sufficient to justify taking that kind of a risk.”

For Fukuyama, the prospects of a Bush victory in the presidential election are troubling. In the Financial Times (14 September 2004) he wrote: “The Republican convention outrageously lumped the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war into a single, seamless war on terrorism – as if the soldiers fighting [militant Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al–Sadr] were avenging the destroyers of the twin towers. This has, in fact, become true, but only because mismanagement of the war has created a new Afghanistan inside Iraq.” He concluded: “if Mr Bush is returned with a large mandate in November, the administration will have got away with a Big Lie about the war on terrorism and will have little incentive to engage in serious review.”

Though Fukuyama says he will not be voting for Bush, he refuses to affirm whether he’ll cast his ballot for Kerry. “There are things I really don’t like about Kerry, either,” he says. While the Bush people “have been much too willing to use force and to use it recklessly,” the Democrats, he says, “still have this big problem about using it at all. I wish there were someone who had a better balance between the two positions. ”

And yet, Fukuyama told the Jerusalem Post in March 2004 that electing a Democrat to the White House “will make a difference.” “[S]ince it is not the Democrats’ war,” he said, “if they have to face a really stressful situation a few years from now, it would be easier for them to walk away than it would be for a second Bush administration.”

In April 2005, Fukuyama will give a series of lectures in which he intends to address “more systematically” his criticisms of the Iraq adventure and its neo–conservative architects.

Does Fukuyama regard the recent turn of events – his critique of the war, his debate with Krauthammer, his opposition to Bush’s reelection – as signaling something of a paradigm shift in his self–understanding? “I don’t know whether it’s going to prompt the shift so much as reflect the shift,” he explains. “I’ve been moving towards an interest in development questions over the last few years,” he says.

Indeed, he explores the politics and economics of international institutions at some length in his recent State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century and will continue to do so in 2005 when he takes over as head of the International Development Program at SAIS (Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies), where he is currently a professor of international political economy.

“I think one of the big divides in the world is between people who primarily do security studies and people who do development. And I think one of the reasons the Bush people got into so much trouble is they put people who knew security in charge of what was really a big development project. These are people who had not spent a lot of time in East Timor or Somalia or Bosnia, watching how these things are done,” he says. “I think that was one of the big problems.”

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