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February 22, 2006 [LINK]

Neocons & Neolibs: chastened alike

One of the fascinating cases of politics making strange bedfellows in the post-9/11 world is the convergence on foreign policy between the Neoconservatives (institutionally exemplified by the Project for a New American Century) and the Neoliberals (exemplified by the Brookings Institution). Before 9/11, Neocons sought a strong, unapologetic global push on behalf of American interests, relegating American values to a lower priority, while Neolibs sought to promote American (and Western) values through multilateral means. The dagger blow inflicted upon us by Al Qaeda convinced both those intellectual communities that America's future security depended on harmonizing American interests and values, relying primarily upon American means. The uneasy marriage of convenience between these two communities is under increasing strain, however, because of the difficulties in pacifying Iraq.

Francis Fukuyama, a shining star of Neolibs, distances himself from Neocons in the New York Times. He believes that democracy in Iraq can still be salvaged, but the cost will be higher than it had to be because of missteps by the Bush administration. More generally, he thinks the Bush Doctrine "is now in shambles":

But it is the idealistic effort to use American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback. Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy 'realists' in the tradition of Henry Kissinger.

I think that is a fair assessment. I was struck, however, by Fukuyama's insinuation that "that the United States would have done better to stick by its traditional authoritarian friends in the Middle East." What a change from the "End of History" democratic triumphalist of ten years ago! When I saw him speak at the APSA meeting in Washington last September, he expressed similar mixed feelings about the Bush policies in Iraq, and the general Wilsonian approach to foreign policy. I agree with Fukuyama that there is a major risk of an isolationist backlash among the "red-state" folks whose sons and daughters are crusading for freedom in the desert, if things don't work out.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a thoughtful review of Fukuyama's piece, including a frank mea culpa:

In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors in the last few years. The first was to over-estimate the competence of government, especially in extremely delicate areas like WMD intelligence.
The second error was narcissism. America's power blinded many of us to the resentments that such power must necessarily provoke.
The final error was not taking culture seriously enough.

Where do I stand? I have never identified with the Neocons, and I have acknowledged those three pitfalls Sullivan emphasized from time to time. As one with strong roots in the realist tradition, moreover, I have always viewed Bush's promotion of democracy with a bit of trepidation. I do remain convinced that regime change in Iraq was the sine qua non of turning back the Islamo-fascist global advance, nevertheless, even though Bush's team did not carry out the project as effectively as it should have, for reasons Fukuyama and Sullivan explain. Like Sullivan, I do feel somewhat chastened for having made a strong political commitment to a leader whose flaws are becoming more apparent over time. Live and learn. There is a fine line between confident assertiveness and hubris, and our President (a self-admitted C-student) probably never read that chapter.

This is where the stubborn reluctance by the White House to admit past policy mistakes or legal transgressions (e.g., torture and wiretapping) has the potential to damage U.S. national interests. I think Bush's advisers are on one hand rightfully scornful of the destructive type of dissent exhibited by the (mostly) "unhinged" Democrats, and on the other hand unduly worried that such dissent might spread if Bush shows any signs of humility or weakness. I was reassured when the White House adopted a more sober, realistic tone in speeches about the war in Iraq since December, but there remains a disturbing tendency to ignore well-meaning criticism from sympathetic sources. The key to political success in Iraq and the U.S. midterm election is for Bush to ditch his Texan bravado while maintaining a firm resolve to carry on the fight against the enemy, as we gradually withdraw troops. The ultimate outcome is now in the hands of the Iraqi leaders themselves.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 22 Feb 2006, 1: 19 PM

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