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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

By Francis Fukuyama
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $25
Fukuyama's mea culpa

Neocon professor calls for a demilitarized foreign policy


Francis Fukuyama is known to most readers as the author of The End of History and the Last Man, which climbed bestseller lists when it was published in 1992 and framed much of how the “post-Cold War era” was interpreted until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That interpretation has been understood, broadly, as giving final vindication to liberal democracy as a political form. Having determined the superiority of our form of government once and for all, the world had reached “the end of history” in the last decade of the 20th century and, so far as the biggest questions of political philosophy were concerned, there was nothing left to argue about.

This conviction echoes through President Bush’s rhetoric -- “the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth,” and “freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal” than tyranny. For those who were locked inside that “end of history” mindset in the run-up to the Iraq war, it seemed only natural to assume that the United States would be “greeted as liberators” by Iraqis who desired to catch up with history and join us in a free and democratic tomorrow. Many Americans accepted this interpretation when we went to war, though it seems clear today that few remain convinced. Perhaps most remarkable, Dr. Fukuyama seems less convinced, and explaining that reassessment, beyond all other aims, shapes America at the Crossroads.

Dr. Fukuyama, the Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy and director of the International Development Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, has been a proponent of neoconservatism, a political movement that became synonymous with the administration’s regime change policy in Iraq as its adherents came to staff key foreign policy positions. The neoconservative view, nurtured during the Cold War, combines faith in military power with a strong sense of American exceptionalism. During the Clinton presidency, neocons adapted their Cold War strategy to a new era, and books like The End of History provided a kind of blueprint. The result was an aggressive foreign policy, bent on regime change to hasten the “end of history” and “liberate” nations like Iraq in the interests of American security. Dr. Fukuyama acknowledges his place among neocons in and out of government who helped to shape this worldview.

Today Dr. Fukuyama tells us that The End of History was misinterpreted, that it did not suggest a “universal hunger for liberty” but instead identified a “desire to live in a modern society, with its technology, high standards of living, health standards and access to the wider world,” of which liberal democracy is a byproduct. That byproduct emerges over time, after a process of modernization, and cannot be brought about instantly. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one after the launch of the Iraq war. Whether or not that subtlety is enough to relieve Dr. Fukuyama and his 1992 book from culpability in the emergence of regime change policy in this decade is a more important question that hangs largely on the degree to which Dr. Fukuyama himself subscribed to regime change as a policy before Sept. 11, 2001.

Dr. Fukuyama was plain about the meaning of “the end of history” in a 1989 article in The National Interest. There, history’s ending meant “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” To Dr. Fukuyama’s credit, that 1989 article agrees with America at the Crossroads when it describes liberal regimes as emerging only if they are “underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy.” However, in 1998 the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) published a letter to President Clinton that called for “the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.” The letter, signed by Dr. Fukuyama, mentions the dangers and difficulties of a military solution, but says nothing about the reservations Dr. Fukuyama expresses in America at the Crossroads about installing a democratic government, even though it is difficult to imagine that he envisioned replacing Saddam with something other than a Western-style regime when he signed the PNAC letter. Dr. Fukuyama’s coming to oppose the Iraq war in 2002 leaves us wondering whether readers actually misunderstood him and the principles of neoconservatism, or whether the danger he came to see in 2002 was present in neoconservative principles all along, and Dr. Fukuyama simply had caught up with his critics (and history).

Dr. Fukuyama may be right to say that the goal of liberal democracy has been overemphasized by neoconservative boosters and that the conditions of modernization (such as institution-building) matter more than reaching political liberalism instantly. But whether that is the case or not matters far less than how neoconservatives like Dr. Fukuyama operated in the years leading to the Iraq war. The distance between claiming ideological victory, as The End of History certainly did, and actively seeking to bring about the “universalization” of Western-style regimes is not so great as Dr. Fukuyama is arguing today. For Francis Fukuyama, in the years between 1989 and 2002, “the end of history” unquestionably meant the “shap[ing of] a new century favorable to American principles and interests,” and the tools of that “shaping” included regime change in Iraq. We know this because his name is on the PNAC documents advocating that very course of action.

So the main question turns out to be whether neoconservatism as a phenomenon is the source of danger itself. A still deeper question concerns the roots of neoconservatism in the writings of the political theorist Leo Strauss, whose legacy has been sullied so badly in recent years that his daughter was drawn into the fray, defending his life and achievements in a 2003 New York Times op-ed. For this review, it bears noting only quickly that the preventive war doctrine, neoconservatism, Dr. Strauss’s followers, and Dr. Strauss represent four distinct phenomena, and Leo Strauss’s own position along that continuum is remote enough from the war in Iraq to shame the multitude of writers who have called Strauss’s reputation into question. Neither Straussians nor Dr. Strauss should be swept up in a dragnet of culpability for the actions of neocons in the administration or of the Project for the New American Century.

In a genealogy of principles that appropriately distances Dr. Strauss from preventive war, America at the Crossroads traces the neocon preoccupation with the exceptional character of American power and the American political creed to the dawn of the Iraq war. Dr. Fukuyama does not question those neoconservative principles fundamentally so much as he finds them at odds in Iraq’s case with another neoconservative principle: the “distrust of ambitious social engineering.” Since Iraq lacked the institutions to support a liberal democracy and since a neoconservative presumption against ambitious social engineering precludes building those institutions, the Iraq war was a misapplication of American power and ideas to a nation that needed modernization, not an instant change of regime. This arrangement of principles, which Dr. Fukuyama finds more consonant both with the tradition of neoconservatism and with the right interpretation of his own writings, works well. But it works well only for as long as we can will ourselves into forgetfulness of Dr. Fukuyama’s own calls for “re-shap[ing]” the world and regime change. When we cannot forget, five of the seven chapters in America at the Crossroads seem quite strange.

Those last five chapters lay out a sensible scheme for foreign policy that negotiates a narrow space between the ambitious idealism of regime-changing neocons and hardheaded political realists who can tolerate dictators so long as they support U.S. interests. Dr. Fukuyama, eschewing entirely the neocon label, identifies this path as “realistic Wilsonianism,” and calls for a “demilitarization” of American foreign policy to cultivate the new American century through modernization, institution-building and the application of “soft power.” After three years of war, there is no doubting that this moderate approach sounds attractive. What a shame that Dr. Fukuyama and PNAC did not call for it long ago.

Ultimately, Dr. Fukuyama’s book sounds much like Robert McNamara’s lament that “hindsight proves us wrong.” Dr. Fukuyama and the neocons were a kind of “best and brightest” for this administration and, like Mr. McNamara, his recriminations are unsatisfying. Hindsight is 20/20 for all of us. Maybe it is unfair to hold Mr. McNamara and Dr. Fukuyama to a higher standard, but they built careers on the claim that they had the foresight to do a little better than the rest of us. It is hard not to feel, as the body count rises, that we should have expected better than “I guess we were wrong.”

Many conservatives -- “neo” and otherwise -- embrace Richard Weaver’s notion that “ideas have consequences.” And, oh, how they do.

Steven P. Millies is assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Aiken.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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