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Francis Fukuyama: The Neocon Who Isn’t

The American Prospect, October 2005

Francis Fukuyama portraitOn a Saturday in January 2003, as the Iraq War approached, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment convened a meeting in a nondescript building in Arlington, Virginia, with three dozen of Washington’s top conservative policy intellectuals. Using an information-gathering technique dating back to the Eisenhower administration, the office asked four groups to study the long-term threat the United States faced from international terrorism and to report back to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

One of the groups was led by Francis Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), best known as the author of The End of History and the Last Man, the international bestseller that led British political philosopher John Gray to dub Fukuyama “[the] court philosopher of global capitalism.â€? The relationship between Fukuyama and Wolfowitz went back 35 years, to when Fukuyama was a Cornell undergraduate and Wolfowitz, then a Yale political-science professor, was a board member of the Telluride Association, the elite group house where Fukuyama lived. Fukuyama interned for Wolfowitz while a graduate student in the mid-1970s at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and later followed his mentor to the State Department during the first Reagan administration. When Wolfowitz became dean of the SAIS, he recruited Fukuyama from George Mason.

When Fukuyama received the Pentagon’s call, he immersed himself in subjects – the politics of the Middle East, Islam, terrorism – he hadn’t thought about since he’d worked with Dennis Ross on the Palestinian autonomy talks that followed the Camp David accords.

Fukuyama had spent much of the previous summer in Europe promoting Our Posthuman Future, his most recent book at the time, and his encounters with editorial boards throughout the continent left an impression on him. “That was the point at which I started to think about the whole issue of American hegemony,â€? he says. “Until then I had accepted the neoconservative line, which is, “OK, we’re hegemons, but we’re benevolent hegemons.’ But when I was in Europe, the reality of what non-Americans thought hit me more forcefully than it had before. Even the editor of the Financial Times, which is a pretty conservative paper, was absolutely livid about the way the Bush administration was dealing with the U.K. and Europe.â€?

Fukuyama’s team prepared furiously for three months, and, of the presentations made that January day by the four groups, Fukuyama’s was the only one Wolfowitz attended. This was precisely the time when preparations to invade Iraq were in full swing. The news Fukuyama delivered was most likely not what Wolfowitz wanted to hear.

The group’s recommendations – which have never been mentioned publicly, much less released – were a photographic negative of the path the Bush administration followed. The United States, the group advised, should avoid overreacting to the events of September 11, and particularly resist military incursions that would “lead to a world in which the U.S. and its policies remain the chief focus of global concern,â€? as Fukuyama put it in The Washington Post on the first anniversary of the attacks. The group reasoned that although military action was a necessary component of the American response, it should be of secondary concern to a “hearts and mindsâ€? campaign directed at the vast majority of the Islamic world that generally admires America.

It was an analysis that departed from the “clash of civilizationsâ€? scenarios that Fukuyama’s friend and former teacher Samuel Huntington predicted some years earlier. In contrast, Fukuyama’s group portrayed the conflict between democratic capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism as so lopsided that Huntington’s formulation overstated the strength of America’s foe. “Neither Arab nationalists nor Islamic fundamentalists, or any other alternatives in that part of the world, present a really serious route to modernization,â€? he told the London Independent in April 2003.

Given this radical inequality, Fukuyama has argued in subsequent writings (which reflect the ideas that appeared in his group’s report) that the United States should avoid inflammatory rhetoric such as the “war on terror.â€? In contrast, Fukuyama argued that while Islamic terrorists are dangerous, they don’t resemble anything close to the threat once posed by communism or fascism.

Fukuyama was once a neoconservative’s neoconservative, but it would be difficult to classify him thus today. “The Neoconservative Moment,â€? his devastating 2004 National Interest article on Charles Krauthammer, opened the rupture. By November 2004, Fukuyama was alienated enough to have voted for John Kerry. And last month, Fukuyama’s new journal, The American Interest, which he helped found after breaking with the National Interest, debuted. The American Interest does not represent a wholesale repudiation of the past; the premier issue did publish the work of stalwart neocons and war supporters (The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan, Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post). But it also featured Zbigniew Brzezinski and fellow Iraq War apostate Eliot Cohen. Fukuyama’s own essay in the volume was a withering critique of Bush administration foreign policy, which, he wrote, has “squandered the overwhelming public support it had received after September 11.â€? And in April he is publishing After Neoconservatism, a book drawn from a series of lectures he gave at Yale this past spring in which he again critiqued neoconservative hubris.

It’s easy for liberals to read too much into this schism; it’s not as if Fukuyama is likely to go rushing into Hillary Clinton’s arms anytime soon, much less Russ Feingold’s. But what is fair to say is that The American Interest represents a new and fascinating sun in the expanding galaxy of opponents of Bush administration policy. In those Yale lectures, Fukuyama also outlined a strategy for rescuing neoconservatism. But it’s important to note that his strategy looks less like neoconservatism as we know it today than it resembles a synthesis of neoconservatism, realism, and even liberal internationalism. (Indeed, speaking of Clinton, he is functionally to her left on Iraq.) Is Fukuyama proposing a midcourse correction to neoconservatism, or something so at odds with neoconservatism as we understand it that it becomes another thing entirely? It’s not overstating the case to say that the future of the American foreign-policy debate may hinge, to a considerable extent, on the answer to that question.

* * *
In May, while we sit in his office at Hopkins, I press Fukuyama to specify the scope of the threat he believes the West faces. True to form, he breaks the problem down into its constituent parts. “Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan,â€? he says, “we are probably at war with no more than a few thousand people around the world who would consider martyring themselves and causing nihilistic damage to the U.S., and probably hundreds of thousands of sympathizers who provide active support, though would not commit violence themselves. Beyond that, you’ve got lots of people who are potential sympathizers or indifferent on any given day. And there are many who are actually quite sympathetic to the West and America but who just don’t like our foreign policy. This struggle is going to look more like a police and intelligence operation than a war, though the stakes could potentially be enormous.â€?

The depths of Fukuyama’s apostasy from the Bush doctrine became clear when “The Neoconservative Momentâ€? was published last summer. In it, he accused the movement of having lost its bearings, leading the country into an unnecessary war. He dismantled Bush’s Iraq policy piece by piece, condemning it as “utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world.â€? While such sentiments had become commonplace among liberals – Princeton’s John Ikenberry made a similar case in “The End of the Neo-Conservative Movementâ€? in the spring 2004 issue of Survival – the fact that someone with Fukuyama’s credentials was voicing them was new. “Four years after 9/11, our whole foreign policy seems destined to rise or fall on the outcome of a war only marginally related to the source of what befell us on that day,â€? he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed (extracted from his American Interest essay). “There was nothing inevitable about this. There is everything to be regretted about it.â€?

The fact that Fukuyama portrayed the administration as having betrayed the very neoconservative agenda it had claimed to champion must have made his critique especially painful to his erstwhile mentor Wolfowitz. In particular, Fukuyama noted three foreign-policy blunders he predicted would harm the country’s prestige for years to come. The administration had launched an ill-conceived social-engineering project (“If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, D.C., how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it?â€?); it had underestimated the importance of using international institutions to help legitimate U.S. foreign policy; and – perhaps most hurtful to the neocons – it had likened the threat of Islamic terrorism to the United States with the threat it posed to Israel, adopting “the Israeli mind-setâ€? regarding the Middle East. “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?â€? he asked.

The charges rocked the neoconservative world. Krauthammer accused Fukuyama of anti-Semitism, comparing his ideas to those of Pat Buchanan. “Frank forfeited being “one of us,’â€? says Irwin Stelzer, editor of The Neocon Reader. “It didn’t feel like a debate within the group; it felt like an attack from an outsider.â€? On the other side of the spectrum, of course, Fukuyama’s makeover has been greeted favorably. The Center for American Progress’ Lawrence Korb believes Fukuyama’s break has hurt the neoconservatives’ position. “I always quote him when I debate the neocons, and they don’t know what to do,â€? Korb says. “They can’t dismiss him so easily.â€?

Although some neoconservatives have criticized the war’s execution, its justification had remained sacrosanct. “Fukuyama has taken the lead intellectually in moving to the next step of the conservative criticism of the war,â€? says Rise of the Vulcans author James Mann. “And in doing so, he has hit a raw nerve. There are a number of internal debates concerning military strategy that have been largely kept from the public. Hawks inside the government have told me that if Iraq fails, there is going to have to be a complete re-examination of America’s international-security plans, and that everything will be up for grabs.

“Fukuyama’s criticisms,â€? concludes Mann, “only make that more likely.â€?

* * *
The most divisive aspect of Fukuyama’s argument has been his claim that Islamic terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. It is a theme that he says has been influenced by the French scholars Gilles Kepel (The War for Muslim Minds) and Olivier Roy (The Failure of Political Islam), who argue that political Islam has demonstrated itself to be a failure everywhere it has taken power, and that the Islamic terrorist movement had been largely a failure prior to 9-11. Those attacks, as well as the Iraq War, gave it a new lease on life.

The seeds of these ideas, however, are buried deep in Fukuyama’s own work. In his original 1989 National Interest article, “The End of History?â€?, he singled out Islam as the only viable theocratic alternative to liberalism and communism, although one he doubted would have “any universal significance.â€? In the preface to Our Posthuman Future, he dismissed the threat of Islamic radicalism as “a desperate rearguard action that will in time be overwhelmed by the broader tide of modernization.â€?

Critics have faulted Fukuyama for clinging to his end-of-history thesis, accusing him of systematically underestimating events that challenged it, whether it was Yugoslav nationalism in the ’90s or Islamic radicalism today. “Fukuyama’s an optimist, which blinds him to a lot,â€? says Paul Berman, the author of Liberalism and Terror. (Reviewing “The End of Historyâ€? in The New York Review of Books, Alan Ryan dubbed Fukuyama “the conservative’s Dr. Pangloss.â€? “If what we’ve got is what History with a capital H intends for us,â€? he wrote, “then we, too, live in the best of all possible worlds.â€?.

Krauthammer argues that it’s Fukuyama’s secular sensibility that blinds him to the appeal of radical Islam. “It has 1 billion potential adherents, which means that [Osama] bin Laden’s ideology has the potential to appeal to infinitely more people than the Aryan ideas of Nazism ever did,â€? he told me. “Frank has a stake in denying the obvious nature of the threat, but the fact is that history returned after 9-11 â€? . There are people running around trying to acquire anthrax with which to wipe out an entire city. If that doesn’t qualify as an existential threat, I don’t know what does.â€?

Fukuyama replies that these are the kinds of sentiments America should resist. “For the U.S. to treat every Muslim as a potential suicide bomber is precisely what fanatics like bin Laden want,â€? he says. “Iraq before the U.S. invasion was certainly not an existential threat. It posed an existential threat to Kuwait, Iran, and Israel, but it had no means of threatening the continuity of our regime. Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups aspire to be existential threats to American civilization but do not currently have anything like the capacity to actualize their vision. They are extremely dangerous totalitarians, but post threats primarily to regimes in the Middle East.â€?

Korb agrees. “The bombing in London was terrible, but it wasn’t like the Blitz,â€? he says. “Terrorists can make life unpleasant, but bin Laden isn’t going to end up running Great Britain, while Hitler very well might have.â€?

The difference between Fukuyama and his critics is as much philosophical as empirical. Whereas Krauthammer and Berman emphasize Islamic terrorism’s potential for imminent violence, Fukuyama takes the long view, reasoning that political Islam won’t win the larger ideological war regardless of how much damage it inflicts. While it might seem that Fukuyama is splitting hairs, he points out that the assumptions we make about the quality of the risk will determine how we respond to it. “In a counterinsurgency war, we are seeking to kill or neutralize a relatively small number of insurgents who are swimming in a much larger sea of less committed people,â€? he says. “This makes purely military responses to the challenge particularly inappropriate, since counterinsurgency wars are deeply political and dependent on winning hearts and minds from the beginning.â€?

* * *
With his gray suits and monogrammed shirts, Fukuyama has an understated manner that bears no trace of the missionary zeal one detects in neoconservatives like Krauthammer and William Kristol. Despite the end-of-history albatross he has worn around his neck these past 16 years, Fukuyama has always been a more complex thinker than either his critics or champions have judged him. His “big ideaâ€? romanticism about the direction of history was tempered by concerns about modernity’s shortcomings. Most forget that he faced the “endâ€? of history with resignation, not celebration, noting that the post-ideological era would be “a very sad time,â€? a world in which the absence of a battle over epic ideas would leave us spiritually impoverished, if more politically and economically secure.

The four books that followed The End of History were carefully reasoned analyses of, respectively, social capital, bioengineering, neuroscience, and state building – as sober as the first was prophetic. In Trust (1995), he limned the informal habits and values that hold societies together. In The Great Disruption (1999), he explored evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience in order to understand the degree to which human values are hardwired. In Our Posthuman Future (2002), he questioned how the ability of biotechnology to modify behavior might influence liberal democracy. In State-Building (2004), he examined why some states fail and others thrive, with the goal of discerning the quality of “statenessâ€? that makes the difference.

The truth is that Fukuyama is a social scientist at heart, an intellectual whose goal is to think through the conditions required for the good society. And it is his intellectual agenda that is the editorial force behind The American Interest. Fukuyama is the chairman of the magazine’s editorial board (the editor is former National Interest Editor Adam Garfinkel, who arrived fresh from writing speeches for Condoleezza Rice). Its stated mission is to explore the very issues – international institutions, state building, economic development, U.S.—European relations – in which Fukuyama fears neoconservatives have lost interest. “I think of the magazine as a two-way mirror between America and the world,â€? he tells me. “It is going to be a thoroughly international magazine, with as many foreign contributions as American. We’re going to analyze America’s behavior on the global stage, and the forces that shape it – not just strategic, but also economic, cultural, and historical.â€?

One reason Fukuyama’s apostasy resonated beyond neoconservative circles was that the arguments he marshaled – about terrorism, the limits of military power, and America’s relation to the world (to Islam in particular) – reinforced doubts that conservatives of varying degrees had harbored since the war began. Gary Rosen, the managing editor of Commentary and the editor of the collection The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, perceives Fukuyama’s critique of neoconservatism as a necessary stage in the creed’s development. “He understands that, in the long run, we’ll need military, political, and financial help from our allies,â€? Rosen says, “and that a unilateral foreign policy can take us only so far. Neoconservatism has always been a critical outsider’s perspective. He wants to turn it into a practical, long-term program for dealing with the world.â€?

Bob Boorstin of the Center for American Progress credits Fukuyama with making neoconservatives face the facts about Iraq. “He’s introduced reality into the equation,â€? says Boorstin. “Although a lot of these other folks put forward doctrines like democratic realism, the “real’ is always missing, which has been the problem with the administration’s Iraq policy since the beginning.â€? The University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, another conservative who jumped ship on Iraq, characterizes Fukuyama as “a prudent Wilsonianâ€? for the caution with which he advocates the spread of democracy.

Kristol brushes aside Fukuyama’s critique as a distraction from what he believes is a larger truth. The days when America was satisfied by détente with a regime like the Soviet Union are over; the Wilsonian project of spreading democracy – whether via military power or diplomacy – is now an integral part of American foreign policy, Kristol says. “It simply isn’t convincing anymore to say that we don’t have to care what happens in far off places like Afghanistan or North Korea. Or, to take the liberal internationalist side, that we are in a post—Cold War era where commerce replaces politics. The realists have lost: What goes on inside other states is important, and everybody now acknowledges that.â€?

* * *
It’s a gorgeous April afternoon in New Haven, Connecticut, but a respectable number of students resist the weather’s lure to sit in Sheffield Hall to hear the first of Fukuyama’s three Castle Lectures, which are sponsored by Yale’s Program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics.

Much of his life has been spent on university campuses, including this one, where he studied with Paul de Man for a year before decamping to Harvard’s government department for a doctorate. An only child, Fukuyama was born in 1952 at the University of Chicago, where his father was studying the sociology of religion. In the fall of 1970, he arrived at Cornell, where he was a “College Scholar,â€? an elite designation for students free to sample courses throughout the university. It was at Cornell that Fukuyama first encountered the work of Leo Strauss, the émigré thinker who is often credited with providing the philosophical underpinnings of neoconservatism. Fukuyama says he was influenced by Strauss’ ideas (he studied Plato’s Republic with Allan Bloom, himself a student of Strauss), but was never convinced by their dire pronouncements. “In my opinion, neither the crisis of the West nor the crisis of the U.S. was as grave as either Strauss or Bloom believed,â€? he says. “In the end, we had the resources to get through it. Lack of moral certainty is hardly the chief American problem today.â€?

Today, in fact, Fukuyama believes America is more threatened by another of the modern vices Strauss warned against: conformity. Fukuyama remembers reading a book while at Harvard about how groupthink had kept the architects of the Vietnam War from seeing that it was going badly. “I remember thinking, “That’s ridiculous. Nobody would be influenced by other people’s opinions to that degree.’ But after what has happened in Iraq, I see that it is possible after all,â€? he says.

After a brief introduction by Yale political philosopher Seyla Benhabib, Fukuyama opens the lectures on an uncharacteristically personal note. “I have always regarded myself as a neoconservative,â€? he says, “and have always been proud of wearing that label. I had always thought that I shared a common worldview with many other neoconservatives, including many of my friends and acquaintances who served in the administration of George W. Bush. And yet, unlike most of my fellow neoconservatives, I was never persuaded of the necessity of waging the Iraq War, and I found myself increasingly dismayed as I watched the way that American foreign policy was actually being implemented by the Bush administration.â€?

For Fukuyama, the Castle Lectures are an opportunity to think through the foundations of neoconservatism. He believes its principles are sound and wants to rehabilitate its reputation – though he acknowledges that the word “neoconservativeâ€? has become so closely identified with the Iraq debacle that it is beyond rescuing. Among those principles are that the United States should be wary of international law and institutions, that it should care about the internal character of states, that it should formulate a foreign policy that reflects the values of liberal democratic societies, and that it should sometimes use military power as a legitimate vehicle to pursue these goals. To these principles he adds one – skepticism about social engineering – that was at the very foundation of the neoconservative movement that coalesced around The Public Interest, the original neoconservative journal founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.

It is in the Bush administration’s attempt to restructure Iraqi society and government that Fukuyama perceives a dramatic break with traditional neoconservatism. Drawing on research he did for his most recent book, State-Building, Fukuyama reviews the history of America’s attempts at creating governments abroad. The fact is, he explains, that nation building seldom works, and when it succeeds, it does so at a very high price. “Of the 18 nation-building exercises the U.S. has engaged in, only three – Germany, Japan, and South Korea – have been unambiguous successes,â€? he says. “And in each of these, the U.S. had to use huge forces and left them there for decades.â€? Is this, he asks, the future of the U.S. involvement in Iraq?

But the question Fukuyama really wants to answer is how a movement founded to check the ambitious domestic agenda of the Great Society became a manifesto for such an ambitious foreign policy. The answer, he explains, has to do with the way the Cold War ended. The realist school had dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end World War II. Given the fact that the Soviet Union was going to be around forever, argued realists like Henry Kissinger, the United States had to learn how to live with it. Against this school, a minority argued that America should resist the Soviets on moral grounds. The collapse of the Soviet Union vindicated the minority to a degree they never dreamed.

Fukuyama suggests that the lesson some took from the experience was twofold. First, it convinced them that all totalitarian regimes are ultimately hollow. In After Neoconservatism, he suggests that neoconservatives have inappropriately universalized the Eastern European experience. Second, it taught them that the more your critics tell you that you are wrong (“the Soviet Union will be around forever,â€? for example), the more likely you are to be correct. “The rapid, unexpected, and largely peaceful collapse of communism validated the concept of regime change as an approach to international relations,â€? he explains. “And yet this extraordinary vindication laid the groundwork for the wrong turn taken by many neoconservatives in the decade following that would have direct consequences for their management of the post—September 11 war on terrorism and the Iraq War.â€?

* * *
The fact that Fukuyama traces the Iraq debacle to the triumphalism that followed the collapse of communism shows just how far he has come in his thinking. After all, his end-of-history thesis was as much a source for as a product of the American exceptionalism and hubris that has foundered in the streets of Baghdad. It isn’t as if he has dramatically switched allegiances in the manner of Whittaker Chambers or David Horowitz. What Fukuyama’s break (and, more importantly, his new magazine) may signify, however, is that the debate among conservatives on Iraq, on neoconservatism, and on the future direction of American foreign policy will be much more robust – and much more fought out in the open. This wouldn’t have happened if Iraq had been a success. Even someone like Fukuyama, who opposed the war from the start, would probably have maintained a discreet silence if the troops had been greeted with flowers and the country weren’t on the brink of civil war. But they weren’t, and it is. And Fukuyama is one of the few from the neoconservative camp who is openly questioning the principles that led to the war. History, apparently, is not over quite yet.