The Neoconservative Moment

The Neoconservative Moment

Mini Teaser: Charles Krauthammer's "democratic globalism" fails as a guiding principle of foreign policy and creates more questions than answers.

by Author(s): Francis Fukuyama

It is clear that Krauthammer's axiom provides very little practical guidance for answering these questions. He might respond that applying the general principle requires prudential judgment. He might further respond that his position is very distinct from that of the realists because he is using democracy as an instrument to advance U.S. strategic interests: By transforming Iraqi politics and turning a bloodthirsty dictatorship into a Western-style democracy, new possibilities will open up for the entire region that promises to get at some of the root causes of terrorism. This is indeed an ambitious and highly idealistic agenda, and it is precisely in the prudential judgments underlying the current project of transforming the Middle East that his argument is fatally flawed.

Excessive Idealism

Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy, and go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East. It struck me as strange precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning--in The National Interest's former sister publication, The Public Interest, for example--about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences. If the United States cannot eliminate poverty or raise test scores in Washington, dc, how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?

Krauthammer picks up this theme in his speech. Noting how wrong people were after World War II in asserting that Japan could not democratize, he asks, "Where is it written that Arabs are incapable of democracy?" He is echoing an argument made most forthrightly by the eminent Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who has at several junctures suggested that pessimism about the prospects for a democratic Iraq betrays lack of respect for Arabs.

It is, of course, nowhere written that Arabs are incapable of democracy, and it is certainly foolish for cynical Europeans to assert with great confidence that democracy is impossible in the Middle East. We have, indeed, been fooled before, not just in Japan but in Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of communism.

But possibility is not likelihood, and good policy is not made by staking everything on a throw of the dice. Culture is not destiny, but culture plays an important role in making possible certain kinds of institutions--something that is usually taken to be a conservative insight. Though I, more than most people, am associated with the idea that history's arrow points to democracy, I have never believed that democracies can be created anywhere and everywhere through sheer political will. Prior to the Iraq War, there were many reasons for thinking that building a democratic Iraq was a task of a complexity that would be nearly unmanageable. Some reasons had to do with the nature of Iraqi society: the fact that it would be decompressing rapidly from totalitarianism, its ethnic divisions, the role of politicized religion, the society's propensity for violence, its tribal structure and the dominance of extended kin and patronage networks, and its susceptibility to influence from other parts of the Middle East that were passionately anti-American.

But other reasons had to do with the United States. America has been involved in approximately 18 nation-building projects between its conquest of the Philippines in 1899 and the current occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the overall record is not a pretty one. The cases of unambiguous success--Germany, Japan, and South Korea--were all ones in which U.S. forces came and then stayed indefinitely. In the first two cases, we were not nation-building at all, but only re-legitimizing societies that had very powerful states. In all of the other cases, the U.S. either left nothing behind in terms of self-sustaining institutions, or else made things worse by creating, as in the case of Nicaragua, a modern army and police but no lasting rule of law.

This gets to a much more fundamental point about unipolarity. Krauthammer has always stressed the vast disparity of power between the United States and the rest of the world, vaster even than Rome's dominance at the height of its empire. But that dominance is clear-cut only along two dimensions of national power: the cultural realm and the ability to fight and win intensive conventional wars.

Americans have no particular taste or facility for nation-building; we want exit strategies rather than empires--a point Krauthammer reiterated at the start of his lecture. Where then does he think the domestic basis of support will come from for this unbelievably ambitious effort to politically transform one of the world's most troubled and hostile regions? And if the nation is really a commercial republic uncomfortable with empire, why is he so eager to expand its domain? Lurking like an unbidden guest at a dinner party is the reality of what has happened in Iraq since the U.S. invasion: We have been our usual inept and disorganized selves in planning for and carrying out the reconstruction, something that was predictable in advance and should not have surprised anyone familiar with American history.

Allies, Institutions and Legitimacy

The final area of weakness in Krauthammer's argument lies in his treatment of legitimacy, and how the United States relates to the rest of the world. Failure to appreciate America's own current legitimacy deficit hurts both the realist part of our agenda, by diminishing our actual power, and the idealist portion of it, by undercutting our appeal as the embodiment of certain ideas and values.

Krauthammer avoids confronting this issue by creating a bit of a parody of foreign critiques of American policy, something easily dismissed because it comes from "the butchers of Tiananmen Square or the cynics of the Quai d'Orsay." He manages to lump both the Democratic Party and most of our European allies into a single category of liberal internationalists. He argues that their opposition to the Iraq War was founded on a self-proclaimed normative commitment to multilateralism and international law. For liberal internationalists, war is legitimate only if it is sanctioned by the United Nations. But this high-mindedness, he argues, masks motives that are much baser: the Europeans are Lilliputians who want to tie the American Gulliver down and reduce American freedom of action. So they are both naive and hypocritical in the same breath.

What Krauthammer here describes as the Democratic/European position is one that is readily recognizable and does in fact characterize the views of many opponents of the Iraq War. But if he had listened carefully to what many Europeans were actually saying (something that Americans are not very good at doing these days), he would have discovered that much of their objection to the war was not a normative one having to do with procedural issues and the UN, but rather a prudential one having to do with the overall wisdom of attacking Iraq. Europeans tended not to be persuaded that Iraq was as dangerous as the Bush Administration claimed. They argued that Ba'athi Iraq had little to do with Al-Qaeda, and that attacking Iraq would be a distraction from the War on Terror. Many Europeans, moreover, did not particularly trust the United States to handle the postwar situation well, much less the more ambitious agenda of democratizing the Middle East. They believed that the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a more dangerous source of instability and terrorism than Iraq and that the Bush Administration was undercutting its own credibility by appearing to side so strongly with the policies of Ariel Sharon.

All of these were and are, of course, debatable propositions. On the question of the threat posed by Iraq, everyone--Europeans and Americans--were evidently fooled into thinking that it possessed significant stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. But on this issue, the European bottom line proved to be closer to the truth than the administration's far more alarmist position. The question of pre-war Iraq-Al-Qaeda links has become intensely politicized in America since the war. My reading of the evidence is that these linkages existed (indeed, it would be very surprising if they did not), but that their significance was limited. We have learned since September 11 that Al-Qaeda did not need the support of a state like Iraq to do a tremendous amount of damage to the United States and that attacking Iraq was not the most direct way to get at Al-Qaeda. On the question of the manageability of postwar Iraq, the more skeptical European position was almost certainly right; the Bush Administration went into Iraq with enormous illusions about how easy the postwar situation would be. On the question of Palestine, the Europeans are likely wrong, or at least wrong in their belief that we could move to a durable settlement of the conflict if only the United States decided to use its influence with Israel.

The point here is not who is right, but rather that the prudential case was not nearly as open-and-shut as Krauthammer and other neoconservatives believe. He talks as if the Bush Administration's judgment had been vindicated at every turn, and that any questioning of it can only be the result of base or dishonest motives. Would that this were so. The fact that our judgment was flawed has created an enormous legitimacy problem for us, one that will hurt our interests for a long time to come.

Essay Types: Essay