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February 21, 2006

Fukuyama the Liberal?
Posted by Michael Signer

On the Francis Fukuyama New York Times Magazine piece about the crack-up of neoconservatism:  if you haven't read it, do.  It's significant equally as an analysis of the structural flaws in modern neoconservatism (which must be distinguished, as Fukuyama argues, from original neoconservatism) and as a political event in its own right -- a more-than-public (indeed, it reads more as a cry for help) manifestation of Fukuyama's own pronouncement that the "neoconservative moment seems to have passed." 

I talked with Fukuyama at a wedding a year and a half ago, and was struck then by his anguish at the Administration's failure adequately to understand and plan for the insurgency.  What I want to talk about here is whether Fukuyama has erred in devising an overly complex conceptual apparatus (as political theorists sometimes do) that diagnoses as an ideological mistake what is actually an intellectual problem.   Fukuyama makes these mistakes because, in trying to move away from neoconservatism, he cannot release himself from its most basic premise -- that history stems from ideas, and that the perfect idea will solve all problems. 

All of this is ironic because Fukuyama seems to have embraced the basic liberal notion of America's careful, thoughtful governance of a liberalizing world community.  If he could release from the neocon framework, he just might emerge (probably to his own dismay) as a progressive.

Fukuyama's essential assertion is that modern neocons erred in assuming the ineluctability of democracy in Iraq:

The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform.

The key question is where Fukuyama and the neocons he purports to have left behind stand on the basic question of how and why America should exert power in the world.  His nut grafs are as follows:

Many people have also interpreted my book "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992) as a neoconservative tract, one that argued in favor of the view that there is a universal hunger for liberty in all people that will inevitably lead them to liberal democracy, and that we are living in the midst of an accelerating, transnational movement in favor of that liberal democracy. This is a misreading of the argument. "The End of History" is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.  

"The End of History," in other words, presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.

Fukuyama goes to great pains in his piece to conceptualize why the Administration failed to anticipate the post-invasion insurgency.  His key finding is that neocons twisted their own belief in the moral ineluctability of liberal democracy into a more forcible, will-based imperative. 

As Fukuyama notes, these two contradictory principles (force vs. ineluctability) married badly in the Iraq invasion.  He says we went in on the premise of preemptive war (force), but failed to plan the post-war phase because of our naive optimism in liberal democracy's power (ineluctability).

But the contradiction in Fukuyama's own analysis -- he says the Administration essentially believed two things at once (that America should change the world by force, and that democracy will always right the world on its o wn) -- leads him to get the Administration's actions wrong. 

This is because the Administration's failure to plan for the post-invasion Iraq had less to do with its ideas of democracy than with its failure to appreciate the idea and art of governance. 

The key question exposed by the abundant failure of today's neocons is whether we will shape the world in a way that will forward America's interests (like moral progress -- but wrapped up in American strength), or not.  This is more a question of activism than realism.  It involves an a priori commitment to the active management of the world, to the idea of governance, rather than simply to acting in accordance with abstract, Hegelian positions, or moral absolutes.   

Governance is what conservatives -- neocon or not -- are distinctly not good at.  They think it's either counterproductive, impossible, or boring.  They also don't believe that America belongs to a world community, anyway, so there's really nothing to govern.  There's only ruling, and being ruled.  And that's where they're wrong.

Despite his attacks on his brethren, Fukuyama's piece reveals him still deeply invested in the neocon project of providing ideological frames for history.   This pattern leads him to analytic errors. 

Even though Fukuyama disparages the modern neocons' naive embrace of the inevitability of liberal democracy, for instance, he still can't escape ineluctability himself.  He never truly escapes the self-assumed moral heroism of the traditional Straussian-trained neocon.

One example:  Fukuyama reformulates his argument from The End of History by saying that modernization (rather than liberal democracy) will lead to international ideological stability.  But this seems just as naive as the modern neocons he mocks.  Modernization didn't work to increase either  moral progress or American security in the highly educated and modern Weimar Republic, and it shows no sign of working in the increasingly modernizing China (whose unique combination of authoritarianism, communism, and capitalism should alarm us as a competitive model in an age when we have squandered much international good will).

The premise of ineluctability -- of either the Hegelian or Kantian brands -- should alarm us wherever we see it, especially when the idea of ineluctability is seized by political opportunists, those who are interested in power for its own sake. 

This is why when Fukuyama sums his argument by endorsing the "formulation of a 'realistic Wilsonianism' that better matches means to ends," it doesn't quite work.  Realism and Wilsonianism are almost certainly incompatible intellectually.  It's a chimera -- a man-beast -- that, like a centaur, is only available in one's imagination, or in books of mythology. 

The embrace of chimeras might help explain why the neocon approach tends to yaw wildly from extreme to extreme, because of the ideological rigidity and intolerance and disinterest in complexity, pragmatism, and the material facts of the world around them. 

To wit:  in Iraq, we went in guns ablazing with a "Shock and Awe" campaign in part because of an intoxication with the sheer unilateral application of American might.  This was the worst kind of manifestation of the grandiose Straussian American self-conception.  But then the neocons defaulted to happy naivete at all -- no plan, no management -- for the endgame.

In other words, the neocons' failure might be explained by negative rather than positive reasons.  Fukuyama think the problem was what they had -- too many ideas,  and bad ones.  But the issue was instead what they didn't have:  an appreciation of the good old progressive idea of governance. 

To govern, you must accept that those whom you govern are in a community with you -- that they have relationships with you.  You must have some sort of rule of law to which everyone has committed themselves.  Most importantly, governance requires careful attendance to those around you, even the powerless (who tend to be uninteresting to conservatives).   

So the Administration's mismanagement of events like Hurricane Katrina or the Medicare plan may have  more to do with Iraq than we think.

To Fukuyama's credit, he recommends three steps at the conclusion of his piece, and they're all about governance:  (1) demilitarizing the war on terror, (2) using international institutions, (3) establishing the rule of law and institution-building as the goal of democratization (rather than just elections).

But in the end, Fukuyama never escapes his inner neocon, because he's too bound by rigid ideological constructs.  Because of this, he fails to understand that what he ultimately recommends isn't an ideology or variant of the liberal Marxist modernist teleology he now says The End of History was actually about.  What he's recommending is, essentially, just a good old-fashioned progressive idea:  governance, and governance done well. 

So maybe Fukuyama's become a liberal after all -- and that would be the biggest news of all.


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This. Is. Absolutely. Terrific.

The best analysis of the failure in Iraq as an expression of the central flaw in conservative thinking, I have seen yet. Thank you.

I am not certain this is what and how the administration and FF were actually thinking, but it is certainly the prettiest version of "good intentions but incompetence" I have seen yet.

- Michael

i'll wait until Fukuyama's book is published to fill out context and then reassess your arguement, but...

does it matter? to use Fukuyama's words, the witch is dead.

Great review. I agree that this is a both a wonderful article and sure to become a book. You can sense his disappointment in a political ideology he still wants to believe in. Re. his solutions, they are awfully liberal internationalist.
I have a post about the article here, and would be very interested in your comments. Taylor

Fukuyama's essential assertion is that modern neocons erred in assuming the ineluctability of democracy in Iraq:

The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform.

I agree that something like this view was at work in neocon thinking before the war, including that of major figures like Paul Wolfowitz. And it thus played a large contributory role in the debacle, given the high degree of influence of the neocons on US policy in 2002 and 2003. But I do seem to recall at least some of the neocon's arguing for committed state-building projects. Some of these projects were dotty and vague - re-installing the Hashemite monarchy, creating a government of Western-educated, Israel-friendly "secular Shiite" technocrats from groups or Iraqi expats, etc. But at least they possess the modest merit of being a plan of some kind - however doomed they might have been from the start. And they don't just assume a democratic state takes shape on its own.

I think it is the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika that bears the chief responsibility for the disaster. Frankly, I don't think those guys really bothered to care much what would happen to Iraq after the invasion. Of all the many motives that played a role in driving the Iraq invasion, I think the one that was uppermost in the minds of the Big Three was the desire to make a dramatic show of American military power. They chose Saddam because he was the clearest global example of impudent definace on American will and authority - and they felt the world needed a dramatic assertion of that will following 9/11. They wanted to send a message.

The message is this: "You want to pull America's beard? To defy our no-fly zones? To jerk around the UN that we run? To mock us publicly? To undermine our sanctions? To outwit our inspectors? To outlast several years of a determined effort to unseat your regime? Well know this: Eventually we will come to get you. And when we come we will destroy your government, bomb your houses, capture and torture your friends, kill your sons, and subject you to public ridicule and humiliation before hanging you at the end of the rope. Uncle Sam always gets the last laugh."

Saddam had maneuvered his way through a decade of sanctions, which were on the verge of collapse. He was nearing a global political victory, in which he would probably achieve some sort of rehabilitation back into the global community. After three successive US administrations, and ultimately the US Congress, had committed themselves to Saddam's removal, the sense of national defeat and humiliation for the US leadership class would have been crushing. And such victories, they reasoned, gives ideas to other upstarts.

Democrats probably would have done it too, although most of them tend to be smarter about the need to put a country back together again after you smash it. Madeleine Albright's main criticisms of the Iraq war were on the points of "timing" and failure to plan for the postwar environment. But she had just as much of a bee in her bonnet over Saddam. Perhaps Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld just aren't that subtle - or perhaps they really just didn't much care what would happen afterward. They wanted to send a very personal message - one that would hit home among all the world's despots. Recall also their interest in nuclear bunker busters: weapons that send a message to leaders, not whole countries - the message that you can run, but can't hide.

Yours is a much better essay than Fukuyama's.

I have been a big Fukuyama fan for years, and I would really have appreciated his input in the run up to the Iraq War. His silence on this point was deafening. Indeed, it was not until Summer of 2004 that he went public with these criticisms. This was, in my opinion, too little, far too late. He seems to me more concerned with disassociating himself from the sinking neoconservative ship than with our prospective success in Iraq. Political philosophy is useful only insofar as it can be applied to crucial policy decisions. I have a lot more respect for those who went on the record in Spring 2003, even if they were ultimately wrong.

Fukuyama does make a nice point about the vestigial Marxism that still lingers around neoconservatism. Ultimately, however, Fukuyama himself falls prey to it, viewing the failures of his fellow travellers through the lens of ideology. The problem with Marxism was never Leninism, it was Marxism itself. And the same is true of any neoconservatism that appeals to historical destiny when arguments fail.

"Governance is what conservatives -- neocon or not -- are distinctly not good at. They think it's either counterproductive, impossible, or boring. They also don't believe that America belongs to a world community, anyway, so there's really nothing to govern. "
Gee, that is an objective comment that really makes me trust your analysis.
A true small c conservative thinks none of those things about governance. Its just the opposite. He/she thinks that governance is critical to conserve what is important. Just because this doesn't entail massive government intervention funded by massive taxes and managed by massive, faceless bureaucracies doesn't mean he/she abdicates governance. Rather, it is a necessary requirement to allow the genius of the individual to have the freedom to act while constraining those actors who seek to change things to their benefit and the dtriment of everyone else. I would say a true conservative believes more strongly in governance than others (such as liberals or libertarians) as he/she tries to manage the results of interactions between people and between people and government at the least cost.

Newest Marxist

Publius at Legal Fiction hosts a discussion on FF Hegelian Idealist or Marxist Materialist? Etc.

The neo-cons are not the only ones who think 9/11 revealed an urgency to development and democratization in the rim world/ME. FF at one point talks about a lack of will to devote resources;and however incompetent and irresponsible the top of the Bush administration might have been, if they couldn't implement a coercive development/democratization in Iraq, I am not sure who would be better equipped. I certainly don't see the current Democratic party doing the coercive bit. So FF might see the the neo-con ideology simply discredited by a lack of possible resources, material and political. A MacArthur style long occupation/administration combined with Marshall Plan development might have worked in Iraq, but wasn't in the cards.

It's a bit of a mistake to include all neo-cons much less all conservatives within this rubrik. Many conservatives were against Iraq and many conservatives have a broader view of the merits of goverment- Jack Kemp anyone? A Reagan conservative would argue gov governs best that governs least and would want to get rid of the Dept Education but would keep things like air traffic controllers and meat inspectors. A libertarian would get rid of those.

It was Clinton who said the era of big goverment is over. The conservative view of goverment is closer to the mainstream than any other worldview today. Vis a vis Iraq it would have been conservative to go in with overwhelming force and use that overwhelming force to stabilize the country. Either that or to opose Iraq as many did.

Goverence "done well", or good old fashioned competence, is something we obviously could do with more of; however, this should not be seen as endorsing the more classical liberal notion of bigger goverment. Even Le Monde has stated recently that view is history.

Lane Brody

It was Clinton who said the era of big goverment is over. The conservative view of goverment is closer to the mainstream than any other worldview today.

Funny thing that. Most Americans prefer "small government" in the abstract. They like the sound of it. It has all the trappings of efficiency, discipline, lower tax burden, etc. But when you go item by item, program by program, most Americans probably favor a bigish government in practice.

For example, most Americans are not in favor of abolishing the Dept. of Education, EPA, Social Security, Medicare, and most other programs that consume the lion's share of the budget (together with defense expenditures which there isn't a clamor to cut either). In fact, most Americans favor increases in spending on education, a new national health care entitlement, and increases in other entitlements as well.

So, in abstract theory, mainstream America is in love with the concept of "small government." In practice, however, we love us some entitlements and some regulatory agencies.

(not necessarily European style in full breadth, but just pinch Social Security a little and listen to the yelps)

What we are searching for is an explanation for the Bush administration’s failure to do more to stabilize and rebuild Iraq following the invasion of Iraq, and its lack of success in managing the postwar conditions in that country. And we have two competing explanations before us: Fukuyama's hypothesis appealing to the neoconservative belief in historical inevitability, and Michael Signer's contrary hypothesis about the conservative, Katrina-like aversion to government.

Before either of these two hypotheses takes hold, I would like to raise again the possibility that neither one identifies the chief causal factor. I want to suggest that re-establishing order in Iraq was simply a very low priority for the administration, given the context in which they viewed themselves as acting. That might seem incredible to people now – how could an administration fail to recognize the need for stable government in an important Middle East country like Iraq, and fail to plan for rapid stabilization? But I think we have to look back with wild 2002 eyes rather than chastened 2006 eyes, recall some of the ideas that were floating around inside the administration at that time, and in circles closely connected with the administration, and then try to figure out what these people thought they were up to.

Since 2002 there have been a lot of interesting books published on the subject of Middle East terrorism and its sources, and the picture has emerged of a rather loosely connected and decentralized network of like-minded Islamist militants, acting with a great deal of autonomy. But it seems pretty clear that in 2001 and 2002 many in the administration viewed the main problem as a matter of state sponsorship of terror. It was held that only terrorist organizations that benefited from significant state sponsorship and collaboration possessed the “global reach” of a group like Al Qaeda, were capable of coordinating their networks of cells from a distance, and were up to the task of organizing and funding a well-planned and well-executed operation like the 9/11 attacks.

And when neoconsertative and like-minded theorists and analysts looked for significant state sponsors of terrorism, they found many. The first target after 9/11 was Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which was a very clear sponsor of Al Qaeda, and provided the latter with the territory for a base of operations and training camp.

Iraq was the next target – but it was supposed by no means to be the last. While connections between Iraq and terrorist groups were clearly exaggerated, and even made up, in order to sell the war, it is also true that very many people associated with the neoconservatives and the administration really believed in such a connection – people like Laurie Mylroie for example. But I think many other people in the administration sincerely believed in these connections, including the President and Vice President. Their willingness to lie and exaggerate was in part driven by their conviction that the terrorist threat from Iraq was real, even if it could not be demonstrated conclusively on paper.

So they really believed Iraq was a significant sponsor of terror; but there were even other more important targets: Iran for example, whose ruling mullahs Michael Ledeen had been fond of calling the “terror masters”, and to whom he has attributed the role of masterminds and directors of virtually the whole Islamic terror enterprise. Among the neocons, Syria and Saudi Arabia were seen as equally villainous. It’s not just that these regimes were seen as contributing to terror, or enabling terror, by the misguided domestic policies that placated fanattics and militants, and by their negligence. It was really believed by many neocons that they were behind terrorism. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia were seen by them as the leaders of a vast, secretive anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorist plot.

Remember the infamous Pentagon briefing by Laurent Murawiec – in which Iraq was the “tactical pivot”, Saudi Arabia the “strategic pivot” and Egypt the “prize”? I'm not saying the administration was committed to that particular project - but several similar projects were floated, and I believe that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were on board with some version of this agenda. The Bush administration had embarked after 9/11 on an epochal strategy of Middle East transformation. The strategy posited a series of wars - or rather one "long war" to use the term still in use. They meant it. They weren't just talking about the "moral equivalent of war". According to people like James Woolsey, for example, we were fighting World War IV.

Some of the neocons, it is true, did not view Iraq as a major state sponsor of terrorism. They rather saw Iraq as low-hanging fruit, and saw its invasion and occupation as an easily achievable tactical goal in the global war on terror. But either way, the invasion of Iraq was conceptualized by many neoconservatives, and I believe the administration, as just an early military step in a large, global military effort. The major point of these wars, for their most ardent backers, was to destroy regimes - because those regimes were believed to be immediately dangerous to us. By destroying and crippling the state sponsors of terror, we would eliminate the global reach of the terrorist organizations they purportedly sponsored. Destroying these enemies in succession came first; what would take their place was a matter to be addressed down the road.

Now, following any war, you may need to carry out a plan of reconstruction, or a Marshall plan. But you generally do that when the war is over. The allies didn't stop during WWII to completely rebuild Italy after Anzio, for example - they kept moving. After invading Iraq the administration meant to keep moving. They would overrun Iraq, topple its government, remove the supposed danger posed by evil WMD-hoarder and terrorism sponsor Saddam, establish a series of bases in the Arab heartland, contract out the building of these bases and their security to private firms, and then move along – to Iran, Syria and possibly beyond. What would happen to Iraq and its people after the long war was over was to be determined in the future. The immediate task was just smashing a dangerous terror-sponsoring regime and securing a foothold.

It didn’t turn out the way they planned, in part because the US was unable to achieve even minimal pacification in the tactically vital central region of Iraq near Baghdad. But plans also went awry because with the failure to find WMDs, and with the increasing availability of other sources of more accurate information on Iraq, the Middle East and terrorism, the public mood changed and long war stalled. Thus the troops were left in Iraq with nothing to do but pick up the pieces, fight an insurgency, and secure a reconstruction effort that hadn’t been planned for so early in the game.

There is an article by Jay Bookman in Monday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution that discusses the recent Foreign Affairs article by Paul Pillar, and contains the following passage:

If you're contemplating invading and occupying another country — and risking much of your own country's future on the outcome — your first step would be to request an assessment of the situation from your experts, right?

"As the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, I [Pillar] was in charge of coordinating all of the intelligence community's assessments regarding Iraq," Pillar writes. "The first request I received from any administration policy-maker for any such assessment was not until a year into the war."

A century from now, people will look at such statements in wonder. Unfortunately, for those of us who actually have to deal with the consequences, our interest is more than merely historical. The people who got us into this mess through deception, arrogance and incompetence still hold positions of authority. They still demand unilateral power over how to proceed, and still question the patriotism of those who dare question them.

Why was the administration uninterested is getting an intelligence assessment from our intelligence community? Well, surely this has something to do with the administration’s paranoid habit of setting up a sort of government apart, run out of the Oval Office, the Vice President’s office and the political offices of the Pentagon. But I suspect that it is also because understanding the facts on the ground in Iraq was relatively uninteresting to them. They didn’t plan to hang around long. They saw Iraq mainly as a base for future operations, rather than what would soon be a pressing reconstruction problem.

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