February 19, 2006


After Neoconservatism (FRANCIS FUKUYAMA, 2/19/06, NY Times Magazine)

[I]t is the idealistic effort to use American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback. Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy "realists" in the tradition of Henry Kissinger. Already there is a host of books and articles decrying America's naïve Wilsonianism and attacking the notion of trying to democratize the world. The administration's second-term efforts to push for greater Middle Eastern democracy, introduced with the soaring rhetoric of Bush's second Inaugural Address, have borne very problematic fruits. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in Egypt's parliamentary elections in November and December. While the holding of elections in Iraq this past December was an achievement in itself, the vote led to the ascendance of a Shiite bloc with close ties to Iran (following on the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June). But the clincher was the decisive Hamas victory in the Palestinian election last month, which brought to power a movement overtly dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In his second inaugural, Bush said that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," but the charge will be made with increasing frequency that the Bush administration made a big mistake when it stirred the pot, and that the United States would have done better to stick by its traditional authoritarian friends in the Middle East. Indeed, the effort to promote democracy around the world has been attacked as an illegitimate activity both by people on the left like Jeffrey Sachs and by traditional conservatives like Pat Buchanan.

The reaction against democracy promotion and an activist foreign policy may not end there. Those whom Walter Russell Mead labels Jacksonian conservatives — red-state Americans whose sons and daughters are fighting and dying in the Middle East — supported the Iraq war because they believed that their children were fighting to defend the United States against nuclear terrorism, not to promote democracy. They don't want to abandon the president in the middle of a vicious war, but down the road the perceived failure of the Iraq intervention may push them to favor a more isolationist foreign policy, which is a more natural political position for them. A recent Pew poll indicates a swing in public opinion toward isolationism; the percentage of Americans saying that the United States "should mind its own business" has never been higher since the end of the Vietnam War.

More than any other group, it was the neoconservatives both inside and outside the Bush administration who pushed for democratizing Iraq and the broader Middle East. They are widely credited (or blamed) for being the decisive voices promoting regime change in Iraq, and yet it is their idealistic agenda that in the coming months and years will be the most directly threatened. Were the United States to retreat from the world stage, following a drawdown in Iraq, it would in my view be a huge tragedy, because American power and influence have been critical to the maintenance of an open and increasingly democratic order around the world. The problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them. What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a "realistic Wilsonianism" that better matches means to ends.

The problem for Mr. Fukuyama and others counseling a return to Realism is that the neocons aren't the driving force behind the policy of humanitarian interventionism. It is instead a function of the Judeo-Christian remoralization of Anglo-American foreign policy that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan began and that continued unabated under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, reaching its current heights under our most openly evangelical president, George W, Bush. With Australia, India, Japan, and perhaps now Canada joining the Axis of Good, which requires that regimes be democratic in order to be considered legitimate, there's not much chance danger of the kind of retreat he's fretting about. And with John McCain the odds on favorite to be our next president we're more likely to be increasingly interventionist rather than less.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2006 6:36 PM

Continuing failure in Iraq combined with the legitimately frightening rise of Islamic theocracy by democratic means: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in The Palestinian Authority, the Sadrists in Iraq, Iran's rule by Ayatollahs, Afghanistan's stubborn primitiveness despite our best efforts, the alarming reaction of the ummah to the most timid exercise of freedom of the press (the Danish cartoons); all of these things will force a return to the sane and moral priniciple of respect for the soverignty of other nations (what you call "realism"), even autocracies, no matter who sits in the White House.
Blair doesn't amount to a goosepimple on Ms. Thatcher's pasty British bum, and G.W. Bush couldn't have got a job fetching coffee in the Reagan White House (well, maybe, if his dad pulled some strings).

Posted by: Dennis at February 19, 2006 7:08 PM


To the contrary, the President was one of the few sane heads when Hamas won, recognizing that it's a good thing in the long run. His press conference featured the only intelligent words thus far spoken on the topic.

Ronald Reagan wouldn't have been afraid of Arabs governing themselves. In his day the Realists said Slavs couldn't and didn't want democracy. He recognized it for guff.

Posted by: oj at February 19, 2006 7:14 PM

I'm so confused...

It's the United State's fault because we prop up unpopular dictators and it's the United State's fault because we promote the election of extremists.

It's the United State's fault because we pay billions for middle eastern oil and it's the United State's fault because Arabs are mired in poverty.

It's the United State's fault because we insist on spreading our materialistic culture and it's the United State's fault because after four years we haven't remade Afghanistan in our image.

It's the United State's fault because we invaded Iraq and it's the United State's fault because we haven't invaded Iran.

It's the United State's fault because we support Israel and it's the United State's fault because we support Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It's the United State's fault because we've lost in Iraq and it's the United State's fault because we've destabilized the middle East.

It's the United State's fault because we haven't been concerned with Arab civil rights and it's the United State's fault because Arabs can't handle the civil rights we've pushed on them.

It's the United State's fault because we don't respect Arab sovereignty to run their countries as they wish and it's the United State's fault because we haven't forced them to reform.

It's the United State's fault because ....

Oh, wait, I'm not confused anymore.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 19, 2006 7:51 PM

It all boils down to one legitimate point though: it's our fault we've let them all depend on us. Democratization is like global welfare reform--get on with your own lives.

Posted by: oj at February 19, 2006 7:56 PM

Let's not forget that Milosevic was democratically elected; the ensuing nightmare of three-way ethnic warfare was only halted by the overwhelming deployment of U.S. air power. The U.N. imposed peace is fragile and Dayton is bitterly resented still; without the threat of force the region would likely have fallen back into chaos by now. Hardly a thrilling success for democracy. More like a cautionary tale warning us against pulling the rug too quickly out from under societies long habituated to autocracy.

We stepped in only after it became obvious that to stand by and allow the slaughter would be unconscionable; this is something very different from invading, occupying and installing governments in countries that pose no threat to us.
None of those who advocate the global enforcement of democracy have yet demonstrated how we have the right. That's why the invasion of Iraq had to be framed as a pre-emptive assault on a gathering threat-pure balderdash.

No, Reagan wouldn't have feared Middle East democracy, but he would have had the conservative good sense to give it time, and to respect the soveriegnty of other nations, even the dictatorships; another quaint conservative value neo- and theocons are unwisely impatient with.

No, I would say global democratization is very much like a massive social engineering project; well intended but doomed to the failure of unintended consequenses.

Posted by: Dennis at February 19, 2006 9:03 PM

"Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy "realists" in the tradition of Henry Kissinger."

Huh? I guess I missed all those "realists" W has appointed recently.

"Already there is a host of books and articles decrying America's nave Wilsonianism and attacking the notion of trying to democratize the world."

Ah. That sort of authority. So the realists write books and go to dinner parties with NYT reporters, and the idealists run the world.

Posted by: b at February 19, 2006 10:10 PM

Dennis, how much respect did Reagan show for the sovereignty of the former Soviet Union?

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 19, 2006 10:32 PM


We have choices and the enemy has choices. If once we resolve that surrender is not an option, then it is left to the enemy to choose blessing or cursing, life or death.

The choice is theirs to make.

That said, the article does point out a very real danger. The language of moderation and restrain--of nuance, to use the Democrats' word--is inconsistent with the fighting spirit. It is quite true that the populace will not support an indefinite quagmire.

This is Vietnam revisited, and that is the danger. If we get all weepy, blubbering, "We seek no wider war!" then we squander the fighting spirit of the people., and the lack of the will to win becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The present course might be the best we could have hoped for. Iran and Hamas might yet save the day. We need to be saying that our grandchildren will not live under Islam, but theirs will live under freedom. If that means that the enemy will not be appeased, it shall be their choice.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 19, 2006 11:02 PM


What fighting spirit? Taking five minutes away from American Idol to tell Mr. Gallup that one approves of the USAF bombing somewhere provided it doesn't affect gas prices or the real estate market isn't exactly the spirit of the Blitz. The President promised a long war, but note the tone of despair in this guy's agreement, and he is in the front lines for cryin' out loud. Most of the public seems far more personally fixated on the saga of Brad and Jen than Al Qaeda (both of which seem to have fifty-year strategies). No doubt we can marshall short term anger and resolve in response to an individual bombing, but what evidence shows we are anywhere close to a general belief in a clash of civilizations or a need to take on the entire Muslim world? Especially one that explodes in the streets over cartoons and shrugs off the death of dozens of their own in the process. And if, like in Vietnam, the public is having a lot of trouble deciding whether we are liberating or conquering Iraq, just how is that confusion supposed to play out from Morocco to Indonesia?

Leaving aside our differences on who the enemy is for a moment, do you honestly see any hint of the general resolve and support that would be necessary for such a task?

Posted by: Peter B at February 20, 2006 6:04 AM

Well...they are willing to put yellow ribbons on their SUV's.

Posted by: Pug at February 20, 2006 7:58 AM


Yes, as you correctly point out, we stepped in and imposed peace. It's who we are. The Realists can't take us back to Nixon and Kissinger days.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 8:29 AM

"...they believed that their children were fighting to defend the United States against nuclear terrorism, not to promote democracy." No, we're defending the U.S. BY promoting democracy.

When Scowcroft said 'This 'Evil Empire' talk is not particularly helpful', he was saying that some people must remain enslaved that we might remain secure, an immoral premise.

In any event, we've tried it their way for years and it only got us here.

Posted by: Noel at February 20, 2006 8:48 AM

...and to say that Iraq posed no threat to us is absurd.

Posted by: Bartman at February 20, 2006 8:58 AM


The mistake is to think the battle is military. Islam is being transformed by the penetration of Western culture more than anything. It's impossible to reconcile their poverty and our affluence with the notion that the umma is spiritually healthy.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 9:12 AM


How was it any threat to us? Saddam was completely contained. We did him for ideological reasons, not security.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 9:13 AM

Peter: Even worse than mistaking BrothersJuddians for the majority would be mistaking us for the saner portion of the population. We obsess about these things more than is quite right.

Dennis: What made Kissinger a realist was not his willingness to do business with dictators. All administrations do that. What made Kissinger a realist was his understanding that his job was to manage the inevitable decline of the United States and the loss of its power and prestige so as to make it as painless as possible. The fundamental problem with foreign policy realists is that they are living in a dream world in which we're about to be overtaken by the USSR/Japan/Europe/China and nothing bad can come of having client states in the middle east repress their restive populations.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 20, 2006 9:20 AM

Dennis, just asking. Who do you think are the bad guys in Balkans?

Posted by: erp at February 20, 2006 10:52 AM

The threat Saddam originally posed was the domination of Middle Eastern oil. Kenneth Pollack (Who was appointed by Clinton) claimed that a hostile power taking over Middle Eastern oil would plunge the international economy into a state that would make the great depression look like fun. The invasion of Kuwait was Hussein's second effort (Iran being the first) to approximately double his considerable supply of oil.

I have NO IDEA if he is right, but the idea that Hussein was a threat was shared by a lot of people. The public disagreement was not over whether or not he was a threat, but over what to do about it. "Manage" it, or take it out (and deal with its replacment).

Also, Hussein was technically contained, but I highly doubt he would have stayed contained for much longer. I think the tide had turned against containment though the economic stranglment of poor Iraqis.

Sanctions were dying a slow death, complete with widely disseminated photographs of dying Iraqi children. Oil for Food - an attempt to soften sanctions, was a gigantic fraud, and according to the Dalfur and Kay reports, both of which openly acknowledged the absence of WMD, Hussein's plan evolved to waiting out sanctions then building WMDs with the expertise that his administration retained.

The most likely alternative to removal of Hussein was Hussein eventually getting WMD after sanctions fizzled, and America basically acknowledging (not publically, of course) that envorcement of the agreement that ended the First Gulf War was being abandoned, and we would now "wait and see" what Mr. Hussein's next move would be.

Posted by: Randall at February 20, 2006 3:11 PM


We don't care who sells us the oil.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 3:53 PM

Randall: close but not so close. Saddam didn't pose a direct threat either to the U.S. or to the world economy (like anyone else, he'd have sold as much oil as the rest of the world was willing to buy. From the point of view of a supplier the oil weapon is a suicide weapon.) The threat he did pose was to our policy of not allowing any serious competitors since the demise of the Former Soviet Union. Had Saddam survived another few years he would have outlasted the U.N. sanctions regime, and with that would have emerged as an example of successful evasion, resistance and eventual escape from our hegemony. So we took him out. Think of it as broken-windows policing applied to the international order. And we should be all for that: broken-windows policing works, so far as we know, better than the alternatives.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 20, 2006 4:14 PM

Actually, upon re-reading, very close. Just move the stuff about oil from your first paragraph to your last and you've got it. Oil is sort of important to us, but it's life and death to those captive populations.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 20, 2006 4:27 PM


Contained in a conventional military sense, yes. But a covert threat did exist. To say otherwise is to ignore why we're over there in the first place.

Posted by: Bartman at February 20, 2006 7:05 PM


We're there because we owed Saddam one.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 8:33 PM

Point taken. Others exist, such as the growing realization that we could surround Iran with democracies. Or the fact that the totalitarian Arab governments couldn't or refused to control their imams (which accelerated terrorist acts). Something had to give and Saddam drew the short stick (so to speak).

Posted by: Bartman at February 21, 2006 7:58 AM

Iran is a democracy. Ideally, we'll establish a Shi'ite democracy in Iraq that holds the Guardianship to be heretical.

Posted by: oj at February 21, 2006 8:03 AM

I like talking to you oj. You make me think!

Posted by: Bartman at February 22, 2006 7:18 PM