Neo-Con Futurology

Stephen Holmes

  • After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads by Francis Fukuyama
    Profile, 226 pp, £12.99, March 2006, ISBN 1 86197 922 3

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Francis Fukuyama signed an open letter arguing that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was essential to ‘the eradication of terrorism’, even if Saddam were revealed to have had no connection to al-Qaida and no hand in the attack. At that time, in other words, and alongside neo-con celebrities such as Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, Fukuyama was beating the drum for a ‘shift in focus from al-Qaida to Iraq’. He now expresses qualms about the killing of ‘tens of thousands’ of innocent Iraqis who had done nothing to harm America or its inhabitants: ‘These casualties in a country we were seeking to help represent an enormous human cost.’ Such guarded words of regret will strike most readers as welcome and overdue. To unrepentant apologists of the war, by contrast, they have the feel of apostasy and betrayal.

The question is: does Fukuyama tell us anything that we don’t already know? Can he explain how ‘the irresponsible exercise of American power’ became ‘one of the chief problems in contemporary politics’? Can he help us understand how ‘so experienced a foreign policy team’ could make ‘such elementary blunders’? Can he indeed tell us why the administration decided to do what he and his former allies had encouraged them to do: namely, to transform Saddam’s isolated dictatorship into a central battlefront in the global war on terror? This is the essential issue because, as Fukuyama now admits, the Iraq war has ‘unleashed a maelstrom’, inflaming the anti-American extremism it was ostensibly launched to quell.

As it turns out, Fukuyama’s book sheds considerable light on the cognitive biases and intellectual incoherence behind America’s catastrophic response to 9/11. Above all, it deepens our understanding of the administration’s twisted interpretation of the terrorist threat. From Fukuyama’s analysis of Bush’s foreign policy, we can distil five debatable but stimulating propositions. First, the fatal decision to invade Iraq was based on a genuine, not merely contrived, ‘conflation’ of the threat posed by rogue states with the threat posed by nuclear terrorists. Second, Cold War habits of mind and a misunderstanding of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the administration’s blurred reading of the new enemy and therefore to its decision to launch an ineffectual, misdirected and self-defeating counterattack. Third, the neo-con democratisation project, having become a widely publicised justification for the invasion after the fact, makes assumptions about the nature of the threat that clash with the basic theoretical framework of the administration’s war on terror. Fourth, non-military counterterrorism policies in Europe (multilateral police operations and proposed social programmes designed to aid the integration of Europe’s alienated Islamic youth), reflect a much clearer understanding of the terrorist threat than unilateral military intervention in the Middle East. And finally, the administration’s visceral hostility to multilateralism has led it to play down threats to US national security that can be managed only co-operatively.

I will limit myself here to discussing the two propositions that seem to have attracted rather less informed comment than the others: first, that Cold War habits of mind are alive and well in the Bush administration; and second, that the neo-con ‘democratisation’ project clashes with the assumptions those same neo-cons make about the terrorist threat and what to do about it.

Although he is fiercely critical of contemporary neo-cons such as Kristol and Krauthammer, Fukuyama has little negative to say about neo-conservatism during the Cold War. After the break-up of the USSR, however, the neo-cons, and especially the younger generation, proved unable, intellectually and emotionally, to adapt to the radically altered security environment. Having created a formidable war machine to oppose Soviet power, the US suddenly found itself dominating the globe, its military power not merely unrivalled but seemingly irresistible. Nevertheless, ‘many neo-conservatives continued to see the world as populated by dangerous and underappreciated threats.’ They simply could not dial down their inherited alarmism. The context had shifted radically, but their reflexes remained the same. This failure to adapt may have been to some extent self-serving. So long as America appeared seriously endangered, the neo-cons could continue to inflate their own importance, admiring and advertising themselves as the only Americans capable of understanding the formidable dimensions of the threat. Whatever their motives, they tended ‘to overestimate the level of threat facing the United States’. They also resorted impulsively to old tropes, excoriating liberals for a spineless unwillingness to confront the enemy, and even for being soft on terrorism, just as an earlier generation had accused its liberal cohort of being soft on Communism.

The Soviet Union collapsed because of ‘its internal moral weaknesses and contradictions’, Fukuyama tells us. But the neo-cons credited President Reagan with ending the evil empire by forcing the Russians into an economically unsustainable arms race. As we know from the case of bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs, the illusion of having brought down the USSR can reinforce latent psychological tendencies to megalomania. Fukuyama does not highlight this parallel. But his account suggests that many neo-cons, like many of the jihadists, experienced a high when the Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991, for somewhat analogous reasons and with distressingly analogous results.

It is also important to remember that during the Cold War neo-cons had adamantly opposed détente. They didn’t believe that the US should learn to coexist with the Soviet Union, insisting instead that it could win an uncontested victory. Coexistence, they argued, implied accommodation, which would turn into appeasement, which would soon dissolve into capitulation. After the Soviet Union unexpectedly fell apart, they did not revisit, or apologise for, their overestimation of the Communist system’s resilience and strength. On the contrary, they felt totally vindicated. Although they had been spectacularly blind-sided, they concluded that they had been brilliantly prescient. As a result, according to Fukuyama, they were unwilling to admit that their eccentric intuitions of impending danger might ever prove to be false alarms. This is why ‘so experienced a foreign policy team’ came to make ‘such elementary blunders’. They committed fundamental errors because their guiding principles, distilled from the Cold War stand-off, had become obsolete.

Excessively pleased with themselves, the neo-cons drew two lessons from the collapse of Communism. First, threats should be eliminated, not managed. Second, American security is invariably enhanced by the transformation of autocracies into democracies. That the democratic transformation of Eastern Europe was triggered not by an invasion but by the withdrawal of a foreign army apparently made little impression on them. All they knew was that the threat to the US from the Communist bloc had been eliminated by the more or less successful transformation of its former members into democracies or, at the very least, democracies in the making.

That an anxious electorate would prefer to eliminate a lethal threat, rather than live under its ominous shadow, goes without saying. But when applied to the current terrorist threat, this impetuous desire ‘to end evil’, as Richard Perle defines the neo-con project, has deeply pathological consequences. The danger posed by radical Islamic anti-Western terrorists armed with weapons of unimaginable destructiveness cannot be dismantled overnight. The conditions that make Islamic radicalism dangerous to the West are ineradicable features of the modern world. They include global systems of transportation, communication and banking, rivers of petrodollars coursing through politically unstable Muslim countries, and the gradual spread of nuclear know-how. Under such conditions, a counterterrorism policy that aims at extirpating the terrorist threat is bound to be delusional. Promoted by an unsound analogy with the end of the Soviet Union, such utopian impatience can also be profoundly self-defeating, especially if it prompts policy-makers to focus irrationally on the wrong part of the threat – for example, on a minor danger that happens to lend itself to definitive obliteration. Saddam Hussein comes to mind.

As for the neo-con democratisation project, Fukuyama writes that the disgraceful failure of the war party around Cheney and Rumsfeld ‘to think through the requirements of post-conflict security and nation-building’ reveals the emptiness of their feigned interest in the fate of post-Saddam Iraq. For the vice-president and secretary of defense, the suggestion that the invasion would bring about ‘Iraqi democracy’ was merely an ‘ex-post effort to justify a preventive war in idealistic terms’. Their cavalier attitude to the sovereignty of other nations was the flip-side of their unapologetic commitment to America’s globally unlimited freedom of action. True, they agreed that it would periodically be ‘necessary to reach inside states’ to create conditions favourable to US interests. But this doesn’t mean that Cheney or Rumsfeld shared the democratising hopes of those self-described idealists in and around the administration who stress ‘the importance to world order of what goes on inside states’. For a start, the willingness of Cheney and Rumsfeld to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations was not and is not humanitarian. And they haven’t extrapolated from American efforts in postwar Germany and Japan to suggest that democratisation serves US security interests everywhere and always. They understand perfectly well the tactical benefits of cloaking narrow American interests, as they define them, in the language of do-gooder morality. But this doesn’t make them eager to spread electoral democracy, with all its unpredictable consequences, into politically unstable and strategically vital regions of the world.

In other words, the desire to demonstrate America’s unrivalled military power, after the country’s vulnerability was exposed on 9/11, played a much more important role in the decision to invade Iraq than the desire to establish a model democracy there. But the illusion of democratisation nevertheless deserves special examination. Why did Paul Wolfowitz and a few others argue, with reported sincerity, that a democratic Iraq was vital to America’s national security interests? True, they did not anticipate the exorbitant costs of the war, in lives and money. But they did assert that Iraqi democracy had become especially important to America after 9/11. Why?

The neo-con argument goes roughly as follows. The US had to deploy its military might because American national security was (and is) threatened by the lack of democracy in the Arab Middle East. The premise behind this allegation is not the much debated notion that democracies seldom go to war with one another and, therefore, that democratisation makes an important contribution to the pacification of the globe. The neo-con argument is concerned not with relations among potentially warring states, but with class or group dynamics within a single state that may spill over and affect other countries adversely.

The thesis is that democracy is the most effective antidote to the kind of Islamic radicalism that hit the US on 9/11. Its exponents begin with the premise that tyranny cannot tolerate the public expression of social resentment that its abuses naturally produce. To preserve its grip, tyranny must therefore crush even modest stirrings of opposition, repressing dissidents and critics, with unstinting ferocity if need be. In the age of globalisation, however, repressed rebellions do not simply die out. They splash uncontrollably across international borders and have violent repercussions abroad. Middle Eastern rebellions have been so savagely and effectively repressed that rebels have been driven to experiment with an indirect strategy to overthrow local tyrannies and seize power. They have travelled abroad and targeted those they see as the global sponsors of their local autocrats.

On 9/11, this argument implies, the US woke up in the middle of someone else’s savage civil war. The World Trade Center was destroyed by foreign insurgents whose original targets lay in the Middle East. The explosive energy behind the attack came from Saudi and Egyptian rebels unable to oust local autocrats and lashing out in anger at those autocrats’ global protectors. Thus, the rationale for reaching ‘inside states’ is not the traditional need to replace hostile or unco-operative rulers with more compliant successors (of the type Ahmed Chalabi was apparently slated to become), but rather to ‘create political conditions that would prevent terrorism’. The political condition most likely to prevent anti-American terrorism from arising, so the neo-cons allege, is democracy.

Their reasoning at this point becomes exasperatingly obscure and confused, but their guiding assumption is clear enough: democratic government channels social frustrations inside the system instead of allowing discontent and anger to fester outside. Autocratic governments in the Arab world have shown themselves capable of retaining power by sheer coercive force, but their counter-revolutionary efforts, under contemporary conditions, have serious ‘externalities’, especially the export of murderous jihad to the West. America’s security challenge is to shut down this export industry. To do so, the US must find a way to democratise the Middle East.

This convoluted and debatable argument played only a marginal role in the administration’s decision to invade Iraq. It plays a more substantial role in the current presentation of its ‘mission’ in Iraq, however. It is also a central focus of Fukuyama’s book. So how should we evaluate the idea? Is a democratic deficit in the Middle East the principal cause of anti-Western jihadism? And is democratisation a plausible strategy for preventing the export of political violence?

The first thing to say is that fighting terror by promoting democracy makes little sense as a justification of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Although the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia and Egypt may indirectly fuel anti-Western jihad, in Iraq it has never done so. In non-democratic countries with which the US is allied (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt), anti-regime violence naturally escalates or swerves into anti-American violence. The idea that a lack of democracy in countries overtly hostile to the US (such as Saddam’s Iraq or contemporary Iran) will have such an effect is logically implausible and unsupported by historical evidence.

To argue that creating democracy in Iraq will help defeat Islamic terrorism is to bank on a multi-stage process by which democracy, once established in Iraq, will spread to Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc by force of its inspiring example. Only then, after neighbouring dominoes (including governments allied with the US) begin to fall, would the democratisation of Iraq contribute seriously to draining the terrorists’ proverbial recruitment pool. Of course, such political revolutions, in the unlikely event that they actually erupted, would be wholly impossible to control or steer. That is reason enough to doubt that Cheney or Rumsfeld, for example, ever took seriously this frivolous bit of neo-con futurology.

The idea of a democratic cure for terrorism assumes that there are two separate causes of anti-American jihad: Middle Eastern autocracy, and unprincipled or opportunistic American backing for it. Anti-American jihad would subside, the theory implies, if either condition could be eliminated. Thus, the neo-con rationale for regime change in the Middle East seemingly justifies something much less radical, and presumably less difficult, than creating stable multiparty democracy in Mesopotamia: the gradual withdrawal of American support from the region’s corrupt oligarchies and oppressive autocracies. Putting daylight between the US and abusive Middle Eastern regimes should be enough to insulate America from the violent backlash such tyrannies produce.

Unfortunately, this pathway is blocked. The US cannot simply disengage from a region in which so many of its vital interests, including the steady flow of oil and the tracking down of terrorists, are at stake. Yet the paradox remains. From the impossibility of disengaging and the perils of engaging with autocrats, the neo-cons conclude that American interests require engagement with a democratic Middle East. The logic sounds impeccable at first. But it is based on the unfounded assumption that periodically elected governments in the region will necessarily be stable, moderate and legitimate, not to mention pro-American.

An even more fundamental argument against fighting terrorism by promoting democracy, however, is that no one in the US government has any idea how to promote democracy. Fukuyama accuses the neo-cons of chatting offhandedly about democratisation while failing to study or even leaf through the ‘huge academic and practitioner-based literature on democratic transitions’. Their lack of serious attention to the subject had an astonishing justification: ‘There was a tendency among promoters of the war to believe that democracy was a default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators.’ Democracy obviously has many social, economic, cultural and psychological preconditions, but those who thought America had a mission to democratise Iraq gave no thought to them, much less to helping create them. For their delicate task of social engineering, the only instrument they thought to bring along was a wrecking ball.

One might have thought that this ‘remove the lid and out leaps democracy’ approach was too preposterous ever to have been taken seriously. But it is the position that Fukuyama, with some evidence, attributes to neo-cons in and around the administration. They assumed, he writes, that the only necessary precondition for the emergence and consolidation of democracy is the ‘amorphous longing for freedom’ which President Bush, that penetrating student of human nature, detects in ‘every mind and every soul’. Their sociology of democracy boils down to the universal and eternal human desire not to be oppressed. If this were democracy’s only precondition, then Iraq would have no trouble making a speedy transition from clan-based savagery and untrammelled despotism to civilised self-restraint and collective self-rule: sceptics who harped on the difficulty of creating a government that would be both coherent and representative in a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and tribally fragmented country, simply failed to appreciate the love of freedom in every human heart.

Cavalierly designed by mid-level bureaucrats who were both historically and theoretically illiterate, the administration’s half-baked plans backfired badly. This should have come as no surprise. And prospects for reform in the Middle East have not been improved by the perception that democratisation in the region, at least when promoted by the West, spells violent destabilisation, criminalisation and a collapse of minimally acceptable standards of living.

Neo-cons, Fukuyama implies, seldom do the hard work required to learn about the evolving political and social dynamics of specific societies. Instead, they over-personalise any ‘regime’ that they dream of destabilising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler who can, in principle, be taken out with a single airstrike. But here again they walk into a serious self-contradiction. One of their principal claims is that a bad regime will have long-lasting negative effects on the society it abuses. A cruel autocracy puts down ‘social roots’ and reshapes ‘informal habits’. Thus, ‘Saddam Hussein’s tyranny bred passivity and fatalism – not to mention vices of cruelty and violence.’ It is very likely, in other words, that Saddam unfitted the Iraqi people for democracy, for a time at least. This is a logical implication of the neo-cons’ theory of ‘regimes’, but not one they considered, presumably because it would have knocked the legs from under their idealistic case for war.

These fallacies and contradictions are not even the most egregious of those associated with the democratisation rationale; not when you consider that the basic justification for helping spread democracy in the Middle East flatly contradicts the claim that Islamic radicals are apocalyptic nihilists who love death and hate freedom. Al-Qaida is obviously not at war with the House of Saud and Mubarak because those regimes are democratic. Indeed, the observation that Islamic radicals hate tyranny, not freedom, is the central premise of the argument for promoting democracy.

In administration rhetoric, terrorism (a method for waging asymmetrical war) is routinely opposed to liberty (a principle for organising a modern society). The antithesis of liberty, however, is not terrorism but tyranny. So when the administration tries to place jihadism in the space vacated by Communism, turning it into the new global enemy of liberty, it confuses both itself and others.

Tacitly, the neo-con advocates of Middle Eastern democracy are siding with the young men who might be tempted to join terrorist conspiracies against their clientalistic, kleptocratic and non-democratic governments, which are officially allied with the US. Al-Qaida is less like the KGB than the KGB’s implacable foe, the Afghan mujahidin, ‘freedom fighters’ supported by Ronald Reagan, among others. Today’s neo-cons no longer want to imitate Reagan by helping resentful young Muslim men regain their dignity through violent insurgency. Instead, they want to give them an alternative path to dignity: namely, liberal democracy. But the basic reason for supporting frustrated Muslim youth, that they deserve American support in their noble search for liberation, is the same.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on this massive contradiction. Although obvious in a way, it is seldom discussed; Fukuyama doesn’t seem to notice it. The neo-cons defend two diametrically opposed propositions: that the jihadists hate freedom at the same time as hating their own lack of it. On the one hand, neo-cons assert that Islamic radicals hate American values, not American policies, and deny that America’s past behaviour has in any way provoked anti-American violence. On the other hand, they imply that the 9/11 plot was inspired and implemented by terrorists radicalised by Arab autocracies allied with or sponsored by the US. This suggests that 9/11-style terrorists hate American policies, not American values. They hate not the principles of American liberty but, rather, America’s unprincipled support for tyranny. To promote democracy in the Middle East is to imply that such hatred is in part justified.

The proposal to increase American security by such means logically presupposes that America’s problem is not terrorism but Islamic radicalism, initially turned militant and subsequently turned outward. Terrorism is not the enemy: it is a tactic that Islamic radicals have found exceptionally effective. To recognise that America’s fundamental problem is Islamic radicalism, and terrorism only a symptom, is to invite a political solution. Promoting democracy is just such a political solution. Although publicly invoked to support a military invasion, the goal of a democratic Middle East implies that terrorism must be stripped of its appeal by political reform precisely because it cannot be crushed by overwhelming military force. The radical incompatibility of this perspective with Bush’s overall counterterrorism policy should be self-evident.

And that is not all. Fukuyama himself stresses a completely different contradiction afflicting the neo-cons. The proposal to pull Mesopotamia into the modern world, he says, is based on a facile optimism reminiscent of 1960s liberalism and publicly rebutted by the original neo-cons. Progressive dreams are bound to be dashed on the hard realities of social habit. One of the fundamental goals of neo-conservatism, in its formative period, was to show that ‘efforts to seek social justice’ invariably leave societies ‘worse off than before’. They were especially ‘focused on the corroding effects of welfare on the character of the poor’. All distribution from the rich to the poor and from whites to blacks is inevitably counterproductive. Progressive attempts to reduce poverty and inequality, although well-intentioned, have ‘disrupted organic social relations’, such as residential segregation, triggering a violent backlash and failing to lift up the downtrodden. According to the neo-cons, it is wiser to concentrate on the symptoms, using police power and incarceration to discourage violent behaviour and protect civilised values.

The neo-cons, according to Fukuyama, never explored the relevance of such warnings to US foreign policy. Proponents of the Iraq war, very much like old-style liberal advocates of welfare, ‘sought worthy ends but undermined themselves by failing to recognise the limits of political voluntarism’. Their failure in Iraq was just as predictable as the failure of American liberals to improve the lives of poor American blacks. In short, the plans of today’s idealistic hawks for creating Iraqi democracy show how utterly they have betrayed the neo-con legacy. Perhaps the deepest irony is that their enthusiasm for destroying the status quo and overthrowing the powers that be (without giving much thought to how to replace them) recalls the institution-bashing antics of 1960s student radicals more than the counter-revolutionary posture of the founding fathers of neo-conservatism.

Addressing the possibility that the US can still play a positive role in bringing democracy to the Middle East, Fukuyama is surprisingly optimistic. He continues to endorse what he calls ‘the perfectly fine agenda of democracy promotion’. Going beyond the bland liberal assumption that, on balance, less autocracy is better than more, he argues that ‘there is an imperative to liberate people from tyranny and promote democracy around the world by reaching inside states and shaping their basic institutions.’ Without wincing, he still advocates ‘a revolutionary American foreign policy agenda’. One of his principal reasons for sticking with this agenda is that it allegedly has history on its side: ‘There is a broad, centuries-long trend towards the spread of liberal democracy.’ Sweeping generalisations of this sort are meant to remind the reader of Fukuyama’s first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). For good or ill, he has never fully repudiated the ostentatious idea, which made him world famous as a young man, that human history is moving inevitably towards a ‘culmination’ that closely resembles Americanisation.

Fortunately, Fukuyama’s reluctance to disagree with himself does not extend to other neo-cons. He argues, for example, that the US should promote democracy abroad only for its own sake, not for its imagined usefulness in combating terrorism. He also dissents from present neo-cons on the proper methods for promoting democracy and ‘the time frame’ within which democratic change can be expected. America can accelerate its inevitable arrival by training, advice, funding and election monitoring, not to mention by good example. But it can’t do so by military invasion and conquest. This is why Fukuyama pleads for ‘a dramatic demilitarisation of American foreign policy and re-emphasis on other types of policy instruments’. The Pentagon, alongside its other deficiencies, is poorly positioned and incorrectly staffed for fostering democratic transitions. American ‘experts’ who write laws and design institutions for countries making the transition to democracy must be ‘immersed in the habits, mores and traditions of the people for whom they are legislating’. Such culturally informed Americans may or may not exist, but they don’t work for the Department of Defense.

Promoting democracy requires a sophisticated understanding not only of specific cultures but also of the relation between institutions and organised interests. Institutional reform frequently fails, Fukuyama says, because it ‘threatens entrenched interests’. Institutional reform is ‘almost always more of a political than a technocratic problem’, because ‘certain powerful actors have a strong self-interest in the status quo.’ As a result, ‘strong, unified indigenous groups willing to resist the former regime’ must exist within a society in order to overcome the resistance of entrenched spoiler elites. The amorphous love of liberty in every human heart is neither here nor there. The key is to strengthen pro-reform forces and weaken anti-reform ones.

For Fukuyama, this means, for example, ‘developing a local constituency in favour of fiscal reform, or otherwise eliminating the political support for recalcitrant political groups’. His plausible conclusion here is that ‘institutions will not be created unless there is a strong internal demand for them.’ Strong external demand, coming, say, from the US, is not a sufficient condition for successful institution building or institutional reform. The administration’s plans for swiftly democratising Iraq were doomed from the outset, he persuasively argues, because the US had ‘no organised local allies’ there. The planners and managers of the invasion paid no attention to this fatal lack. They were taken aback by the invasion’s chaotic aftermath because of their appalling ignorance of the elementary preconditions of political stability. That formal institutions function properly only when supported by informal social networks seems to have occurred to none of those assigned to manage the postwar process of reform.

Such grave misapprehensions obviously diminish the legitimacy but also the effectiveness of US efforts in the war on terror. That they have undermined the decency and even sanity of America’s response to 9/11 is Fukuyama’s unnervingly persuasive claim. Administration dead-enders are unlikely to appreciate his final suggestion that ‘a new team’, with ‘new policies’, would be able to free itself from this spider’s web of fallacies and fixations. Less partisan readers will be grateful for the random rays of hope, justified or not, with which Fukuyama lightens his bleak but informative account of an American foreign policy that has completely lost its bearings, with consequences, grievous and perhaps irreparable, that we have yet to see.