America at the crossroads
[ bookreviews ]
"My central argument about America's role in the world is simple: America's power, asserting in a dominant fashion the nation's sovereignty, is today the ultimate guarantor of global stability, yet American society stimulates global social trends that dilute traditional national sovereignty. American power and American social dynamics, working together, could promote the gradual emergence of a global community of shared interest. Misused and in collision, they could push the world into chaos while leaving America beleaguered."
- Zbigniew Brzenzinski, The Choice: Global Dominion or Global Leadership 
As the Bush Administration ratchets up for mid-term elections confronting the single most important campaign issue head on with a new communications strategy to reframe the war in Iraq as "the war against Islamic totalitarianism", influential American neoconservative Francis Fukuyama has broken ranks with his friends and mentors in a book which explores the vague, often contradictory tenets of neoconservativism - an 'agenda' more than a philosophy - which many say significantly influences administration war policy.
For several weeks now in a series of speeches commemorating September 11, President Bush has been skillfully repositioning his enemy in Iraq as "The successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century, and history shows what the outcome will be. This war will be difficult, this war will be long, and this war will end in the defeat of the terrorists of - totalitarians, and a victory for the cause of freedom and liberty." 
Fukuyama cautions against this rhetoric, however, noting in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, a collection of his Yale lectures recently published in book form:
"The rhetoric about World War IV and the global war on terrorism should cease. We are fighting hot counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against the international jihadist movement, that we need to win. But conceiving the larger struggle as a global war comparable to the world wars or the Cold War vastly overstates the scope of the problem, suggesting that we are taking on a large part of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Before the Iraq war, we were probably at war with no more than a few thousand people... The scale of the problem has grown because we have unleashed a maelstrom..."
Once a supporter of administration foreign policy and its neoconservative underpinnings, Fukuyama now concludes the administration has "failed in its stewardship of American foreign policy", in part, because the administration doesn't grasp that there is no such thing as "Islamic totalitarianism". He notes that when discussing the Muslim world, terminology is sensitive and important because it defines parameters and categories, such as 'enemy', and sets in motion expectations and 'moral judgments':
"There are significant distinctions between Islamic fundamentalists, Islamists, radical Islamists and ordinary Muslims, distinctions that became particularly important in the wake of September 11... We are not fighting the religion of Islam or its adherents but a radical ideology that appeals to a distinct minority of Muslims."
Fukuyama adds that jihadism largely failed to gain support across the Islamic world until the American invasion of Iraq gave the movement new life - "but the jihadists ability to seize political power anywhere is low," he says, "and it has been consistently overestimated by many in the West." In fact, as Pew and other polling have repeatedly shown , the overwhelming majority of the Arab world rejects jihadists and particularly al-Qaida and its violent, sociopathic goals. To misstate this reality, Fukuyama says, only fuels further marginal support for terror against America, while generating confusion and anti-Arabism everywhere. As Fukuyama notes:
"It seems doubtful at this juncture that history will judge the Iraq war kindly. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, training ground, and operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at."
America at the Crossroads is a critique of neoconservatism which many critics now view (perhaps incorrectly) as the ideological root of the administration's foreign policy strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many also fault neoconseratives and their influence for the failure to adequately prepare for the invasion and subsequent planning for the "democratization" of Iraq. If this is so, how is it that these thoughtful neoconservatives (like Fukuyama) could have gotten it so completely wrong?
In the process of reconsidering his personal objections to the invasion, as well as clarifying the role neoconservatism might play in the administration's broader planning, Fukuyama expanded his research: "Now that the very word neoconservative has become a term of abuse, we need to look at the neoconservative legacy, not of the past five years, but of the past fifty."
While he demonstrates there is nothing approaching a 'neocon party line', or even cogent 'philosophy' that could be called 'neocon', Fukuyama has identified what he says are four basic principles of neoconservatism, which appear (at least in my read) as contradictory, self defeating, and ultimately damaging to American foreign policy:
"1. A belief in that the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies...
2. A belief that American power has been and could be used for moral purposes, and that the US needs to remain engaged in international affairs...
3. A distrust of ambitious social engineering projects...
4. A skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of international law and institutions to achieve either security or justice..."
Given US hegemony following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these appear reasonable guidelines at first glance, but closer review reveals not only the absurdity buried within each statement, but a resulting contradictory and self-destructive dysfunction if the four are integrally applied.
For example the active phrases in Fukuyama's first principle of neoconservatism - "internal character of regimes", and, "the deepest values" of liberal democratic societies, are vague terms at best, loaded with implications for external moral generalization and rationalization, as opposed to a standard like "ethical behavior" or "human rights violations", international standards which can be applied relative to each cultural context.
For example, does the "internal character" of a nation mean its religious belief system(s); its love of acoustic music, or the mores of its oil corporate shareholder class? Similarly, what might constitute "the deepest values" of liberal democratic societies? Their governing legal constitutions, their respect for human rights, their bourgeois attraction to profit and private gated communities, or their Bible(s)? It's the wiggle room around these vague generalities that becomes the devil in foreign policy details, particularly when justifying war with unfamiliar cultures.
Fukuyama's second characteristic - that American power should be used for "moral purposes" - gets more directly to the justification of power. Which moral purposes justify which responses? And according to whom? Is there, for example, some moral imperative that guarantees Israeli security, but denies a similar level of security to the Palestinian people? What moral imperative justifies Israeli nuclear capability, but not Iranian nuclear capability? Do we intercede when morally reprehensible genocide or mass starvation erupts in Sudan's Darfur region; or do moral evaluations apply only when there is a direct return on investment to American interests (for example, oil) in any given situation? "Moral purpose" is so vague in this context as to be meaningless to a democracy where citizen support as well as international support is fundamental to foreign policy success. According to Fukuyama, this is precisely the position the administration finds itself facing in the coming November elections:
"The problem for Bush's second term is that the policies undertaken during his first term generated so much hostility to his administration that he managed to discredit the perfectly fine agenda of democracy promotion even as he himself was coming to it. His ex-post effort to justify a preventive war in idealistic terms has led many critics to simply desire the opposite of whatever he wants."
The third characteristic of neoconservatism simply contradicts the first two principals: If foreign internal regime character matters, and the US is to actively pursue "moral imperatives" within that regime, how is the regime policy to be effectuated if not through some form of "social engineering"? Are we simply to disrupt (or destroy) offending cultures based on our moral prerogatives and then exit without attempting to modify social or political behaviors? This is a foreign policy argument for Attila the Hun (or Saddam Hussein), isn't it?
In fact, isn't "social engineering" critically important to any American initiatives to propagate global liberal democracy? Elections were held in Iraq, and twelve million Iraqis voted, but, as we've seen, extensive social engineering is required before that election can ever produce peace (let alone liberal democratic rights) given current levels of social insecurity. This failure to understand the impact of "social engineering" on changing culture limits US foreign policy to military and economic interventions, and assures failure.
But (in my reading)it's Fukuyama's fourth element of neoconservatism - "skepticism about the legitimacy and effectiveness of international law" - that integrates the other three and clarifies the complete failure of neoconservatism as a plausible foreign policy strategy.
Pragmatically applied, neoconservative policy adds up to this: the US government will determine the legality of any action it chooses to take, against or within any regime judged a threat to America's "moral interests", without regard to resulting outcome. Neoconservatism in action is nothing more than a rationalization, the moral equivalent of saying: "might makes right" - a "preventive, preemptive war" policy the post-Cold War world is all too familiar with, not likely acceptable coming from the US anymore than the US would accept it from any other nation on the planet.
The US is the world power on the planet today and this implies certain prerogatives of power; but the US is also responsible to define and limit its prerogatives and actions carefully, or suffer terrible consequences and repercussions for years to come.
Fukuyama's discussion is interesting and useful as abstract analysis, but how successful might neoconservative policy be in the world today? One need look no farther than the US war in Iraq for a case study: The fascist Hussein regime, judged morally offensive, is taken down by a high-tech military, with little regard for the consequences to "regime", infrastructure, population, or even the cost of a protracted US military involvement. Only passing concern is given for the legality of these actions (a plea of weapons of mass destruction, etc., before the UN); and no post-invasion plan, no "social engineering" strategy to affect any expected regime change toward democracy.
Has any greater "moral purpose" come from this foreign policy strategy? That appears doubtful (well into the foreseeable future) which is perhaps why Fukuyama felt compelled to write America at the Crossroads in the first place. Neoconservatism, as Fukuyama has explicated it, is simply incoherent, failed foreign policy and the proof of its demise are reported daily on TV screens, web reports, and front pages of newspapers.
Fukuyama traces the intellectual history of neoconservatism from the late 1930s on, but it frankly doesn't matter what Leo Strauss taught Alan Bloom or Albert Wohlstetter; or if they were all Jewish, or what any of them thought about Nietzsche or Aristotle - because their work doesn't rise to a level of significance beyond their own cult:
"Neoconservatism's contemporary enemies vastly overstate the uniformity of views that has existed with the group of self-identified neoconservatives since the 1980s. Their lack of uniformity became particularly prevalent after the unexpected demise of communism in 1989-91..."
Fukuyama is clear that the president, vice-president or secretary of defense cannot be labelled "neoconservatives" even if some of their key advisers - Wolfowitz, Feith, Liddy, etc. - are. Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are skilled politicians with honed pragmatic agendas within which any tenet of any philosophy may or may not serve useful purpose. President Bush (for example) has stated publicly that his philosopher of choice is Jesus Christ, which makes it doubtful any leading neoconservative in the last half century would have agreed with him.
The US is the default power on the planet today, and the Bush administration has risen to challenges and pressures exerted on American hegemony at the turn of one violent century into another; but given America's economic, military and cultural position, it's increasingly important for Americans to understand that the world has become smaller and more interconnected in the process. To quote Zbigniew Brzenzinski from his discussion of this subject:
"The quest for a wise foreign policy must begin with the realization that "globalization" in its essence means global interdependence. Such interdependence does not ensure equality of status or even equality of security for all nations. But it means no nation has total immunity from the consequences of technological revolution that has so vastly increased the human capability to inflict violence and yet tightened the bonds that increasingly tie humanity together." [Brzenzinski, 2004]
America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, by Francis Fukuyama, is an excellent and informative read.