The Big Idea


The neoconservative tragedy.

As Iraq continues to deteriorate under American occupation—the question of the week is whether it can avoid full-blown civil war—the issue of how we got into this mess presses ever more urgently. A number of instant histories and inside accounts of the Bush administration’s decision-making have already been published. But it is a book with no original reporting whatsoever that does the best job of explaining why the disaster unfolded in the way it has. Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads argues that the United States made the mistake of going into Iraq without preparing for a hostile occupation because of the flawed foreign-policy thinking of a small group of people called neoconservatives.

“Neoconservative” has become such a loaded term that it tends to obliterate civil discussion. Some Europeans use it as a synonym for supporters of the Iraq war or for sophisticated warmongers in general. On the American far left and far right, “neocon” often emphasizes the Jewishness of many of its adherents, implying that they care more about the interests of Israel than those of the United States. Fukuyama, who until recently counted himself a neoconservative, defines the term not by the shared back story of some of its founding members (Trotskyism in the 1930s, opposition to the New Left in the 1960s, Commentary magazine in the 1970s, etc.), but rather by a shared set of ideas.

Francis Fukuyama

Though there are endless exceptions and caveats, the most influential neocons are “hard” Wilsonians with respect to foreign policy. They reject the realist notion, most strongly identified with Henry Kissinger, that the United States should act only according to its interests. Instead, neocons believe that America must provide moral leadership to the rest of the world, spreading liberty and democratic ideas, by force if necessary. They like alliances but have little time for global institutions or the finer points of international law. Applying this characterization, Fukuyama counts as neoconservatives both Ronald Reagan and the second-term George W. Bush, who is about as far from a Jewish intellectual as it is possible for someone to be.

While he remains sympathetic to the democracy-spreading mission, Fukuyama castigates the unilateral and militaristic turns that gave us such concepts as “preventive war,” “benevolent hegemony,” and “regime change.” Neoconservatives, he contends, have abandoned their fundamental political insight, namely that ambitious schemes to remake societies are doomed to disappointment, failure, and unintended consequences. “Opposition to utopian social engineering,” Fukuyama writes “… is the most enduring thread running through the movement.” Yet neoconservatives today are bogged down in an attempt to remake a poorly understood, catastrophically damaged, and deeply alien semi-country in the Middle East. How did these smart people stray—and lead the country—so far off course?

Though Fukuyama does not make this comparison, their failure looks increasingly like that of the architects of the Vietnam War, chronicled by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest. In the First Act of the neoconservative tragedy, an intellectual movement springs up in the mid-1960s, animated by Lyndon B. Johnson’s misguided expansion of the American welfare state. Applying a version of its critique of totalitarian communism to Great Society liberalism, the movement’s key early figures—Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—argue that good intentions are foundering on the shoals of recalcitrant humanity and ignorance about the realities of poverty. What distinguishes these writers from their more conventionally minded liberal counterparts is both their shrewd skepticism about the possibility of social change and their keen empiricism about people, government programs, and results.

In Act 2, which takes place in the late 1970s, a slightly different cast of neoconservative characters applies the same insight to the American foreign policy of the detente era. There are scenes here of their hostility to the United Nations; of their battles with Kissinger’s realism, which they see as too accommodating of communism; and of their push to challenge the Soviet Union more aggressively, both morally and militarily. Once again, they look prescient in retrospect, though in his sympathy for the golden era, Fukuyama doesn’t consider the ways in which the neocons were also massively wrong about communism. For example, a central tenet of neoconservative thinking in the 1980s, derived from Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous article “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” was that Communist societies could not change from within.

It is not until the Third Act that neoconservatism goes catastrophically wrong. Imbued by the revolutions of 1989 with a sense of their own rightness and of America’s unchallenged dominance, the neocons imagine that even backward, non-Western societies with no liberal traditions can follow a Polish post-totalitarian path to modern democracy. Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and William Kristol fantasize that a dubious Garibaldi figure, Ahmad Chalabi, can overthrow the world’s most vicious dictator with a small band of followers. After this hope proves futile, they somehow persuade the vice president and secretary of defense—and in the climactic scene, the president himself—that once the American military finishes the job his father started, Iraqis will embrace their occupiers.

In winning this climactic battle, the neoconservatives forget who they are. Their two best qualities—their skepticism about government-led change and their sociological empiricism—get lost somewhere along the way. Fukuyama makes an especially damning point when he discusses the tremendous intellectual ferment over the past decade and a half around the question of how democratic transitions are accomplished. “The prominent neoconservatives who supported the war stood largely outside this debate and one is hard-pressed to find much discussion of the concrete mechanics of how the United States would promote either democratic institutions or economic development,” he writes.

In Greek tragedy, the hero’s fall is often charted in terms of his hamartia, sometimes translated as “tragic flaw.” What undid the neoconservatives in the end may have been an instinct left over from their old Trotskyist days, a weakness for categorical Marxist-Hegelian thinking (a pretty good expression of which, come to think of it, is Fukuyama’s own most famous work, The End of History and the Last Man). People who should have known better came to believe that one place was like another, and that historic inevitability would do the heavy lifting for them. Now the neoconservative tragedy is ours as well.