Catfight Among the Conservatives


It was in 1927, amid the rise of Fascism and the fatal political decay of post-World War I Europe, that French sociologist and historian Julian Benda wrote his classic anti-polemical polemic, La Trahison des Clercs. Benda’s mournful intent was to abhor among fellow thinkers the abandonment of rational, disinterested inquiry for self-promoting resort to ideology and politics. Over remorseless decades of hot and cold war that followed, The Treason of the Intellectuals was often a casualty of the scourge it deplored. One of those works far more cited than actually read, it was gladly unlimbered by conservatives to bombard dissenting artists, academics or journalists with the withering “treason” of its title.

With Francis Fukuyama’s slight regret at the ongoing foreign policy debacle of his old neoconservative cohorts in the Bush Administration, the Benda anathema seems come full circle, right on right -though with a vivid sense of the betrayal and cost not only in the craven partisanship of intellectuals, but in the false pretense of intellect to begin with.

Fukuyama brings his critique as a celebrity ideologue of the neoconservative moment he now thinks misused and spent in the colossal blunder of the war on Iraq. Delivered as the Castle Lectures at Yale in 2005, this small book thus has the apparent aura of defection, even civil war, in Washington’s ruling clan. Fukuyama’s 1989 The End of History and The Last Man became a best-selling paean of post-cold war capitalist triumphalism, declaring the finish of any real contest between systems. The irrepressible, inevitable worldwide urge toward consumerist modernization, he proclaimed, would lead eventually but just as ineluctably to political “democracy” and “free-market economics” on the end-of-century U.S. model. The author is quite right that read carefully-as tracts like this almost never are, of course, by zealots they confirm-his more academic, evolutionary, proto-Marxist delineation in The End was “misinterpreted” by his friends in the Bush regime, who took what he terms a “Leninist” view that history could and should be pushed along in settings such as Iraq by dialectical forces the likes of the Third Marine Division or Halliburton. Still, Fukuyama’s earlier confident pronouncements-game over, we win-were catechism of the neoconservative self-congratulation and sense of inevitability feeding the hubris of US policy after 9/11, making all the sharper the sting-and irony-of what he says now.

America at the Crossroads begins with a useful summary of the political-cultural origins of neoconservatism, which in the perversities of its current reign has been subject to demonologies and conspiracy theories that mistake its indigenous depth, and so do rescue no service. As one of the converts, Fukuyama reverently retraces the genealogy back to the old disenchanted Trotskyites of the late 1930s, through the academic fount of the wistful classicist Leo Strauss with his ever lesser, more strident students, and on to the battles of nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, Russophobe Paul Nitze, political plungers like Senator Henry Jackson, and assorted others against policies of détente symbolized by Henry Kissinger and his own posterity. It is all a valuable reminder of how much our present predicament owes to such recent, swiftly forgotten history. We are still paying the price of the passions and occupational opportunities of the cold war, and of the bitter, betrayed-lover disillusionment that angrily equated the Soviet monstrosity with social democracy, begetting blind, blanket rejection of the liberal state and authentic internationalism in favor of rationalizing (and being handsomely employed by) the chauvinism, free-flowing corruption and fierce corporate oligarchy now in power on the Potomac. Fukuyama does not call it by name, of course, but era to era, as the intellectual gentry decays, it is unmistakably a sequence of fugitive Reaction and Reactionaries. Benda would understand.

Not to say this book is disingenuous. The author is obviously a gifted man, an endowed-chair Johns Hopkins professor accomplished as an amateur photographer and craftsman of classical furniture, his blurbs tell us, as well as skilled in the smooth generality that exudes authority. With that he coolly ticks off the Bush blunders in Iraq as if a saddened but still barely tolerant teacher correcting an exam. The Administration misread and oversold the threat, misjudged the international reaction to its unilateralism, and succumbed to violating the base neoconservative skepticism of “social engineering” in its presumption to plant a functioning democracy in the wake of robotically planned invasion and wildly unplanned occupation. It all traced, Fukuyama laments, to the regrettable if not quite explained “mindsets” of the neoconservatives who dominated decision-making. The remedy is what he calls with similar vagueness and no small pretense “Realistic Wilsonianism.” His new old prescription is a duly chastened neoconservative worldview with less ready resort to militarism or nation-building, more reliance on fresh “overlapping” international institutions (not to be confused with the motley, still deplorable beast of the United Nations), but no real sense of how this transparently unoriginal, unspecified confection would work, much less serve to cope with the political, economic or environmental crises breaking over America and the world.

The substantive void, in fact, once Fukuyama has stated the obvious about failure in Iraq, is plain. For all hype as a communiqué from the ardent, now-divided heart of neoconservatism, there is often less in this essay, as Tallulah Bankhead would say, than meets the eye. The critique of the Iraq War is banal, almost cursory after years of analysis by Administration critics in the US and abroad, and by now hardly novel in a growing chant of conservative dissent. Fukuyama’s rendition of Islamic terrorism and the political-cultural phenomenon of postmodern jihad amounts to a simplistic morality play of modernity versus barbarism, good against evil, untroubled by any of the richly layered and tragic history of the Arab world since the late Ottoman Empire, including the deep anti-colonial impulse as well as sectarian atavism in the heritage and seeding of al-Qaeda. Much of the story, as we should know, is of the West in its own cold war jihad, overtly or covertly, directly or by proxy, not just modernizing and patronizing but often manipulating and brutalizing societies in painful transition. Despite his brief tenure in the Reagan regime State Department, Fukuyama seems one of those academics on whose rarified world of conferences and conflations the CIA or MI6 never intrude.

Nor can be bring himself to admit, along with his friends’ folly in Mesopotamia, the glaring fraud and forfeit of the globalism he made his reputation revering and still exalts, a world of evidence notwithstanding. Measures were taken “prematurely,” as the author delicately describes the IMF, WTO and corporate plundering that has brought such economic and environmental havoc to so much of the planet. The resulting political turmoil, of course, mocks the “end of history” with a rising tide of popular and even neo-socialist reassertion, forces to which Fukuyama in his own unexamined “mindset” seems oblivious.

“With regard to regime change,” he declares at another point, “only Afghanistan among recent cases resembles Germany and Japan in the thoroughness with which it has rejected the political order in place before the US intervention.” Written any time in the past year or more, as Canadians will know from their own experience in the Hindu Kush, that sentence leaves one aghast. It is as if the Taliban backed by Pakistan in its old double game did not control much of the countryside beyond Kabul, Western overseer Hamid Karzai did not survive only behind a wall of mercenary bodyguards, the old drug mafias did not rule with utter impunity, and on and on. The intellectual shallowness is systemic. In this ostensible treatise about a more realistic American foreign policy, what we are missing is any deeper reality of the world, or of American policy.

“It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies,” wrote John Steinbeck on discovering as a war correspondent in 1944 the stratified separate worlds of public image and political reality. One of the morals of Fukuyama’s slender work, as of most foreign policy books, is the contrast between those strata, the politely discussed and the never-acknowledged, history admitted and history hidden. Thus the unmentionables in this version of “the neoconservative legacy.”

Readers will have to look elsewhere for the Washington realities beneath the pretensions of people and ersatz ideology. What an intellectual devolution there was from the founding priests of the 30s-50s, serious thinkers like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, to the acolyte staff bureaucrats and lawyers, figures like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and others, who succeeded to power. How anti-intellectual their crackpot belligerence appealing to the culture’s worse fears and provincialism. How they rode to decisive office on the tyranny of money in American politics and ultimately the vulnerability of an extraordinarily uninformed, susceptible President in George W. Bush. Noses ever pressed to the window, what a wanna-be establishment they were and are, and how tightly and hungrily they held together in or out of power-“basically just Bill Kristol and a fax machine,” Fukuyama describes the relentless propagandizing that always surpassed substance, yet was effective enough in the substantive wasteland of thinking about America’s post-cold war foreign policy. Credentialed without intellect, savagely partisan without sensibility, what they thought needed knowing of the world they cherry-picked (much as they slanted intelligence on Iraq) from ethnocentric, colony-nostalgic academics of kindred views.

The problem, of course, is that history’s shattering verdict came in. We know from the Kremlin archives, the streets of Baghdad, and so much more just how unrelievedly ignorant they were. No pikers these, our turn-of-the-century neoconservatives have been wrong about everything of consequence they elbowed and brazened to judge, from the Soviet Union to Iraq, from democracy as panacea to capitalism as hypocrisy, from the lessons of Vietnam to the meaning of 9/11, and not least the tragedy of an Israel whose ultimate descent to colonial oppression many of them aided as a veritable sixth column of divided loyalty. Over it all was the requisite machismo, the obliviousness to human costs Fukuyama can allude to only in euphemisms like “rolling the dice.” “The enthusiasm of sedentary, effete men (and women) for bloodshed they never see, bits of body they never have to retch over, stacked morgues they will never have to visit, searching for a loved one” John Pilger calls it more honestly. “Their role to enforce parallel worlds of unspoken truth and public lies”

It is a “legacy” for which Fukuyama is now at pains, understandably, to deny paternity, though the DNA is rather unmistakable. It is scarcely the neoconservatives’ fault alone. The New York Times’ resident reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, in her own qualifying ignorance necessarily clinging to the obligatory shallows, thought America at the Crossroads “astute and shrewdly reasoned tough-minded and edifying.” Yes, well.

And of course there are no Democratic Party counterparts of Professor Fukuyama to dig any deeper, that policy-intellectual wasteland being a thoroughly bipartisan landscape.

The best that may be said of this book is that it just may make a little easier the Great Debate on foreign policy America still desperately needs in the wake of 9/11-though it is far less important in that respect, and thus is getting far more attention, than the recent study on the pernicious power of the pro-Israel lobby by Fukuyama’s more scholarly fellow academics, Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt.

Meanwhile, Fukuyama and his misguided colleagues will have to cope with their considerable shares in the common disaster. America at a crossroads? For everybody’s sake, one hopes. Still the end of history? Please. The real war against the treason of the clerks is just beginning.

ROGER MORRIS, an award-winning historian and investigative journalist who served on the National Security Council Staff under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, has just completed Shadows of the Eagle, a history of American policy and covert interventions in the Middle East and South Asia, to be published early next year by Alfred Knopf. Morris is the author of Partners in Power: the Clintons and Their America and with Sally Denton The Money and the Power: the Making of Las Vegas. He may be reached at