Francis Fukuyama, the most thoughtful of the neo-conservatives, announced in the Sunday NYTimes Magazine that he is no longer a neo-con. This turn of events is no opportunistic team-switching on his part, but an inevitable result of the neo-conservatives’ Middle East agenda. Fukuyama explains that neo-conservativism was originally defined by two contradictory principles: first, that “American power can be used for moral purposes” and second, a “skeptical stance toward ambitious social engineering”. American exceptionalism – the delusion that our foreign policy is morally upright – drives the unilateral foreign policy adventures. Conservative caution about social programs breaks domestic support for redistributive taxes and public welfare. While welcoming Fukuyama’s defection, we on the left need to be careful about the premature burial of neo-con ideology. We cannot throw out the baby of American intervention with the bathwater of American hubris.
Even I admit that there are respectable conservative positions that are worthy of consideration. These sorts of conservatives are wary of revolutionary schemes for changing the human condition. Edmund Burke saw the French Revolution through the lens of the bloodshed that followed. Such people tend to defer to the traditions of the past, and view the wild-eyed schemes of radicals and the unmannered masses with anxiety. Cold War liberals like Protestant superstar Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin warned of the “evils” of communist radicalism. For the former, communism was a false religion, violent vice posing as revolutionary virtue. For the latter, communism implied a tyranny of the One True Way that would iron out all of the wrinkles and contradictions of human life. Both agreed that schemes for human perfectibility ignored the insight that “the crooked timber of humanity cannot be made straight.” Traditional conservatives and Cold War liberals agreed: social change must proceed with caution.
On our side of the 1960s, cautious social change seems like an oxymoron. Understandably, we now scorn cautious positions taken against slavery, desegregation, women’s rights, and apartheid. Today, this leads many radicals to demand peace and justice now – troops out of Iraq or transgendered bathrooms. These positions are tempting for many; after all, who wants to be stuck on the wrong side of history?
The neo-cons also believe they are on the correct side of history, and thus fatally departed from cautious thought of the past by pushing utopian schemes to spread universal capitalism and democracy. Here, Fukuyama is somewhat to blame. His book The End of History led many to champion the liberal democratic way – free speech, free markets, free society – as the inevitable climax for all societies, even Human History itself. With communism and fascism defeated, what better system could one imagine? Fukuyama’s book philosophically sanctioned the path that American hegemony would take over the next decade. The energetic economic policies that America sought to impose on the world through the IMF, the World Bank and other international bodies and trade agreements were driven by this belief that the American system was the apex of human achievement. Thus, free trade American style would solve all problems. John Gray, a conservative British political theorist, has pointed out with that American neo-liberalism has become the new “communism,” America imposing its One True Way on the rest of the world. Clinton did this with panache and sympathy, Bush does it with arrogance and self-certainty. The neo-cons do not believe we can solve class inequality or racial segregation or poverty through government programs. Yet they believed that we could eradicate rogue states, terrorism and tyranny through military intervention. That belief is now being questioned. But instead of laughing at the irony of their domestic cynicism and international utopianism, we should be wary of losing our own utopian aspirations.
Already, the Iraqi adventure has soured left voices on an indispensable principle: we have lost our faith in radically transforming the world. There are cases in which the values we stand for ought to be encouraged or coerced on everyone else. Shall we stand aside for regimes, forms of life, or religions that perpetuate violence against women, minorities, and dissidents? No. This is why we are on the left. We stand for decency, justice, and freedom. Some cultures are worth transforming, most effectively by supporting the opposition, the resistance and the heretics in their locales. Of course, regime change begins at home, but we must not lace our current dissent with the traditional conservative pessimism about changing the world. The neo-cons thought they could change the international status quo; so should we.
There are times when American intervention, even its “military humanism” does more good than harm. No doubt, American intervention has mixed results, but the downfall of the Taliban should have been our agenda. The deployment of American power may always conceal impure interests, but sometimes its use is justified. We forget that other States operate on similar self-interested logics, that the United Nations is a political body, not an impartial court of pure reason, and defer moral judgment to the sketchy, if widespread, opinions of others. America certainly has no monopoly on prudence, moral vision, or justice, but we do have responsibility to act for peace and justice in the world, to oppose tyranny and exploitation and encourage democracy and human flourishing, similar to the winged words of Bush’s second inaugural address. What the neo-cons have done, through hubris and imprudence, is given American mission a bad name.
The American left needs to cop some of this American attitude. Yes, we are powerful, and yes we stand for justice, peace, and oppose evil. The rub is that we need to do it better, more multilaterally, creatively, and with humility. Fukuyama predicts that our adventurism in Iraq will produce an isolationist backlash among the American population. We can see this happening by the Bush administration’s twin disasters of Iraq and Katrina. Already, many have lost faith not simply in this particular bad government but in the very role of government itself. The neo-cons have bemoaned big government for decades, and we on the left need to defend government both as protector and instigator, explain that government interventions in the economy are worthwhile if done competently, and that American intervention on the world stage is worthwhile if done correctly. What “correctly” means should be a point of debate, not a capitulation to the Noam Chomskyian cynicism that America can do no good, ever, anywhere.
Sixty years ago, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies argued that we faced a choice between utopian engineering schemes that sought to radically change all of society at once (communism again) or the cautious gradualism of “piecemeal reforms” which sought to experiment with social change, harboring few utopian hopes but optimistic that democratic tinkering may lead to less suffering. The neo-cons today represent, ironically, the radicals who would transform Middle Eastern society whole-hog, having faith that a new Democratic Consumer will emerge in a new Democratic society after a shock treatment of American neo-liberal policy and military intervention. The cautious gradualism, the camp of which Fukuyama is now part, represents the new realism about American intervention. If Paul Wolfowitz and Christopher Hitchens are the wild-eyed radicals, Fukuyama and John Gray are the cautious conservatives. But this is a false dichotomy.
For we leftists, we cannot lose our faith in radical transformation and American intervention because of neo-con abuse. An America that helps transform the world could certainly be a good thing. How it is done should be tempered with the tragedy of unintended consequences, mindful of the fact that humans are prone to error, selfishness, and tribalism. Yet we must hold that radical transformation and human freedom is still possible through human effort, lest we resign ourselves to quietism outside of politics, or rearguard actions against American Empire.