When is a neocon not a neocon?

March 31, 2006

Francis Fukuyama has cut all ties with the ideology of his past. Stephen Phillips asks why his relationship with the Right has soured.

Francis Fukuyama's critique of the neoconservative ideology that he credits with fomenting war in Iraq will sound familiar to anyone who has kept even half an ear open to debate on the conflict. For anyone who is familiar with Fukuyama's intellectual roots, however, it may come as a surprise.

In his book After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads , published this week, Fukuyama attacks a "naive" George W. Bush Administration for its decision to go to war. He says the decision was based on an exaggerated sense of American exceptionalism and a misguided faith in the US's ability to enforce democracy and provide international security in a post-9/11 world.

Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, says that attempts to compare the situation in Iraq to the post-Soviet flowering of democracy in Eastern Europe are spurious. He also criticises the Administration's "over-optimistic" belief that regime change will spontaneously kindle liberal democracy in Iraq. He says this overoptimism is responsible for the US's failure to plan for postwar occupation and for its now-missed target of "drawing down" troop numbers to 25,000 soon after the invasion.

Fukuyama attacks neoconservatism's "over-militaristic" approach. He embraces a more conciliatory foreign policy vision to meet "the jihadist challenge" and calls for less bellicose expressions of US power and diplomatic initiatives aimed at winning the "hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims".

After the Neocons has won largely favourable reviews in the US. In The New York Times , it is described as "astute and shrewdly reasoned... tough-minded and edifying". But it is not so much what the book says as who says it that has captured press attention. In that same newspaper, Fukuyama recently laid out his place in neoconservatism's famously interlinked world. He was a student of the late Allan Bloom, who was a philosopher at Cornell and Chicago universities and studied with fellow philosopher Leo Strauss.

Strauss is considered a formative intellectual influence on Paul Wolfowitz, former Assistant Defence Secretary.

Fukuyama has worked twice for Wolfowitz, latterly when Wolfowitz was dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Wolfowitz then joined the Pentagon, where he presided over the US-led attack on Iraq. Fukuyama has also worked with Albert Wohlstetter, who taught Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board in the run-up to the Iraq War, and with Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Iraq. And Fukuyama's 1992 bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man , is considered a key neoconservative tract.

In 1998, he was a signatory to the so-called "PNAC letter" from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, which urged Bill Clinton, then US President, to "enunciate a new strategy" to topple Saddam Hussein and to show "a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing". Signatories included Wolfowitz; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence under two Republican administrations; and John Bolton, now US Ambassador to the UN.

In his new book, however, Fukuyama emphatically breaks his links with neoconservatism, rounding on it as "a political symbol and a body of thought [that] has evolved into something I can no longer support".

The main reason for this is his belief that the zeal of the neoconservatives' democratising mission has betrayed the movement's other key tenet - its aversion to social engineering and emphasis on self-determination.

To understand how the movement arrived at this "Leninist" position of believing that "history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will", Fukuyama highlights the tension between its domestic and foreign-policy thinking. He traces neoconservatism back to its roots as a Trotskyite critique of Stalinism by a group of students attending the City College of New York in the 1930s. Their views developed into an "anti-communist Left" creed sympathetic to communism's aims, but, in light of developments in the Soviet Union, deeply sceptical of "utopian social engineering".

Early neoconservatism was distinguished, says Fukuyama, by both a vehement anti-communism and an "idealistic belief in social progress and the universality of rights" - proponents were, for instance, staunch supporters of the civil rights movement.

The critique of social engineering and heavy-handed state intervention was refined during the 1960s and 1970s by writers such as Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Glenn Loury, who argued that such efforts were doomed to "unanticipated consequences" such as welfare dependency. Indeed, Irving Kristol, founder of neoconservatism, has famously described neocons as "liberals mugged by reality".

Meanwhile, says Fukuyama, neoconservatism flourished as a public intellectual movement, with adherents clustering around Henry "Scoop"

Jackson (the maverick 1970s Democrat senator known for his anti-Soviet stance), journals such as the now-defunct The Public Interest and the Weekly Standard , and think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute.

Fukuyama says the movement has also been influenced by other philosophical currents, including the conservative - or what some describe as "elitist" - philosophising of Strauss.

But even before the publication of his new book, Fukuyama had a more uneasy relationship than most of his fellow ideologues with the kind of neoconservatism seen in America's post-9/11 foreign policy. In 2003, he came out against the Iraq War. In 2004, he was involved in a public spat with Charles Krauthammer, the prominent neoconservative pundit. The spat began after Fukuyama branded a Krauthammer speech on the US's role "in a unipolar world" as "strangely disconnected from reality".

The two traded blows in back-to-back issues of the conservative publication National Interest , with Fukuyama accusing Krauthammer and others of overestimating the threat posed to America by "radical Islamist groups" and of conflating US security risks with those faced by Israel. Krauthammer in return accused Fukuyama of "Judaising neoconservatism", implying that Fukuyama was anti-Semitic because he had spuriously introduced Judaism into his argument.

David Hendrickson, a political scientist at Colorado College, notes that Fukuyama "is much more cautious in assessing the link between the doctrine of Bush and the concern for Israeli security" in his new book, but says that "whatever credit" this earns him among neocons "will be cancelled by his ascription of 'Leninist' propensities to the neoconservatives. This will drive them up the wall."

Hendrickson, who co-wrote several books and essays with Robert Tucker, a neoconservative professor at Johns Hopkins, before becoming "disaffected"

with neoconservatism in the 1980s, predicts that neocons' response to Fukuyama's book will be "midway between frosty and cold as ice". Tod Lindberg, research fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution and editor of its bimonthly Policy Review , will comment only that Fukuyama's New York Times article "wasn't popular" among neocons.

Hendrickson, however, thinks it unlikely that the book will spark any fundamental reappraisal of the movement among other neocons in the light of Iraq. "Fukuyama is very unusual in that respect," he says.

Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, calls Fukuyama "mostly a dissident voice". Nevertheless, Eliot Cohen, who is often identified as a leading academic neocon, although he shuns the title, has also criticised the Administration's handling of the Iraq War. "I've come away quite depressed by the incompetence with which we've executed a lot of this." The professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins adds that his son is serving with the US Army in Iraq, so his concerns aren't merely academic. Despite his anxieties, though, he thinks the Iraq War does not call into question the fundamental enterprise of neoconservatism.

Fukuyama "over-intellectualises the issues", he says. "He's doing what intellectuals do, which is to exaggerate the immediate influence of ideas.

To make Iraq into a test of ideas seems misguided."

Besides, Cohen locates the war within the normal run of US policy, rather than seeing it as a product of what Fukuyama calls the "neoconservative moment". "US foreign policy has this peculiar mix of idealism and realpolitik. It will always be tilting one way or the other, so the central issue becomes one of prudence and execution," he says.

Cohen is surprised by Fukuyama's stance, given his earlier advocacy of military intervention in Iraq. "What did he think he was calling for? It's something more than a pious wish when you call for an overthrow."

Lindberg, who describes himself as "inheriting the neoconservative tradition as expressed in classical liberalism", and who, like Fukuyama, studied under Bloom, concedes that current realities in Iraq are a far cry from prewar hopes that "within every Iraqi beats the heart of a liberal democrat".

But he challenges the idea that only ideological warriors were convinced of the wisdom of pre-emptive action against Iraq, citing the failure of the international community to mobilise itself to avert genocide in Bosnia and other catastrophes during the 1990s. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, he adds. "We know what we know because we did what we did."

Lindberg calls Fukuyama's identification of contradictory impulses within neoconservatism "acute", but defends "intervening to undo the bad social engineering that creates vicious, totalitarian government".

He says that foreign policy took precedence over domestic policy among neocons after their views on domestic policy became political orthodoxy in the US in the 1960s following the enactment of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation. "The critique was superseded by its own success."

Indeed, Alan Wald, literary scholar and intellectual historian director of the University of Michigan's programme in American culture, says he doesn't "see what's 'neo' about [those identified today as neoconservative]. They're conservative," he says.

Wald notes that "neoconservative" originally referred to a group that emerged in the 1960s, composed of former Leftists who were later on joined by ex-liberals. This legacy lives on. Wattenberg was a speechwriter for Johnson and remains a registered Democrat, though he says he doesn't vote that way now.

But, otherwise, the intellectual continuity is overplayed, Wald says, despite inter-generational connections. "Just because [ Weekly Standard editor] Bill Kristol is the son of Irving Kristol doesn't mean he's a former Trotskyite [like his father]. He didn't grow up in that atmosphere.

"The term 'neoconservative' is misleading because the current group is so different from the original group. They're products of a new historical phase, a new generation and a new world conjunction."

After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads , Profile Books, £12.99.

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