Friday, August 04, 2006

Draft review essay, bit from the conclusion: Goodbye to All That? A requiem for neoconservatism

A bit from the conclusion of my still-in-draft (emphasize, still in draft) review essay on neoconservatism, reviewing Francis Fukuyama, After the Neocons, and Peter Beinart, The Good Fight, full but unfinalized draft posted to SSRN, here.

Neo-conservatism, let us be absolutely clear, is over as an intellectual and moral movement. The king is dead. Foreign policy idealism is not dead, to be sure, on the right or the left – and by all means let us resist la barbarie a visage humain of the new liberal realism[1] – but neo-conservatism is over. It has died partly from its failures in Iraq, its failure to plan for nation-building and not just liberation, and to anticipate the primacy of ethnicity, religion, tribe, and clan over modernity’s political categories; partly from the new circumstances of hard-headed, hard-hearted war in the Middle East; partly from the exhaustion of its intellectuals trying to hold together the internal contradictions of the theory (as happens eventually, of course, with every paradigm); and partly because its core strengths (despite what its many critics would admit) have actually been absorbed by other paradigms of foreign policy that are not so publicly connected with its failures. Intellectuals edge away from it – too quickly would be unseemly, but the whiff of naiveté that envelops it is deadly to intellectual reputation – even while they carry with them large parts of it into other, newer foreign policy models.[2] The king is dead – nevertheless, long live the king. Neoconservative ideas will live on, in other words, and in some seemingly unlikely places, places where idealists continue to gather, even if under other names.[3]

And it would be a profound mistake – not to mention intellectually dishonest – to write off neo-conservatism’s insights too quickly. Does anyone anymore doubt, for example, that the internal character of a regime matters – often decisively – in assessing the external threats it presents to the world? Does anyone really believe – really believe – that the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, for example, will ever be finally solved except by what Nicholas Eberstadt called in his eponymous book simply The End of North Korea?[4] Neo-conservatism has many failings, yes, but it does have the virtue of knowing that “containment,” today so beloved as the narrative of What Went Wrong In Iraq, especially in The Good Fight, must mean something more than merely accommodation, permanent accommodation of tyranny and brutality. Otherwise it is merely liberation in theory, never in practice, eschatological liberation, liberation in the end-time, liberation at (shall we say it?) the end of history and the last man.

Where in either Fukuyama or Beinart do we see a hint of criteria for distinguishing one from the other? What in their theories indicates that containment must someday cease to be accommodation and come to an end in transformation? Only when Russia, China, France, and Britain all agree with the US while sitting together at UN headquarters? For otherwise we have arrived at nothing more than Kissingerian realism, declinism, and the endlessly cynical accommodation of dictators, forever Truman and never Reagan.[5] All this intellectual and moral energy, for that? The insight, after all, which neo-conservatism shares with all the other idealisms, is that we are all idealists now. Even the realists among us put their realism at the service of some form of idealism, to temper fatal idealist enthusiasm, yes, but not to deny it altogether.[6] The problem is, the idealism that Fukuyama puts forth – let alone Beinart’s version – this ‘realistic Wilsonianism’ – seems to combine merely the vices of multilateralism and liberal internationalism with the vices of realism. And this is when one can figure out what it actually means in practice, rather than being simply a description of what it is not, viz., neo-conservatism.[7]

It is – and this is a harsh judgment, but no harsher than Fukuyama’s judgment on neo-conservatism – best described as ineffectual internationalism, internationalism taking refuge in its ineffectuality. It is an idealism that seems doomed from the outset to be stalwartly, heroically internationalist in precisely the ways that most ensure its ineffectiveness. Darfur? The New York Times Magazine a few months ago ran perhaps its saddest cover story in years – the international community will not prevent genocide in Darfur, it said, so instead let us get on with preparing criminal trials for the perpetrators we were unwilling to stop in the first place.[8] I say, why? It is morally corrupt, wicked even, to stand and watch genocide go by, but comforting oneself with a stern but vague promise to arrest some people after it is over. It is, however, a stellar example of the vices of internationalism, on the one hand – dithering with much hortatory diplomacy barely concealing great power interests – and realism, on the other – the billiard balls cannot possibly rebound to the good, and trying to make it so will only make it worse. Which is to say, neo-conservatism may be dead, and its autopsy expertly and clinically performed, but neither Fukuyama nor Beinart offers a remotely plausible or attractive alternative to the corpse: theirs, too, are dead on arrival.

A British foreign secretary, so I once read, addressed a Commons debate on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, remarking that there “are two kinds of sanctions – the ineffective, which are not worth putting on, and the effective, which lead to war. Which, gentlemen, do you prefer?” Paraphrasing Churchill, they preferred the first and got the second. Neo-conservatism, by contrast, preferred war in Iraq – naively searching for quick and painless democratic transformation, which it has not found, and not so naively believing that over the long run, the realist strategy of accommodation and containment of corrupt, authoritarian Middle East regimes – stability at all the moral costs of the past thirty years – feeds the beast. Francis Fukuyama has analyzed in exquisite and sobering detail where that vision went wrong, where it is internally contradictory, and where it draws on inapt historical parallels, in effect, erroneously to re-fight the last war, the Cold War. It is sharp and shrewd, although ultimately not so devastating as he believes. The alternative he offers, by contrast, realistic Wilsonianism, merely prefers the ineffective – ineffectual internationalism – and, alas, offers no real alternative at all.

Notes (which are not very complete - this is a draft):

[1] Borrowing from Bernard-Henri Levy, Barbarism with a Human Face (Harper & Row 1979).

[2] Consider the use, for example, to which Timothy Garton Ash – scarcely a neoconservative – puts the pro-Middle East democracy argument in this Guardian column, “A Little Democracy is a Dangerous Thing – So Let’s Have More of It,” Guardian, August 3, 2006. His point is that the “next US president may give up on democratization. But we shouldn’t. It’s still our best hope.” He, however, means that as reason to negotiate with Hamas and Hezbollah, which is not precisely what American neo-conservatives have in mind.

[3] Including, no doubt, the Truman Foreign Policy Project.

[4] Nicholas Eberstadt, The End of North Korea (American Enterprise Institute 1999).

[5] Fukuyama, watching his back, as it were, is careful to argue that, contrary to neo-conservative hagiography, Reagan was not really responsible for winning the Cold War and bringing down Soviet communism. Fukuyama prefers to attribute it to [].

[6] See the discussion of the range of forms of idealism in Kenneth Anderson, “Squaring the Circle: Reconciling Sovereignty and Global Governance Through Global Government Networks,” 118 Harvard Law Review 1255 (February 2005), at 1259-1268.

[7] And if this is true of Fukuyama, it is only that much more true of the far less sophisticated Beinart.

[8] Elizabeth Rubin, “Prosecutor of the World’s Worst,” NY Times Magazine, April 3, 2006, at 42 (“The U.N. is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur. The African Union is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur. The U.S. is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur. NATO is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur. The European Union is not going to stop the genocide in Darfur. But someday, Luis Moreno-Ocampo is going to bring those who committed the genocide to justice.”)