Fukuyama on the Neoconservatives

The Atlantic is running a series that “attempt[s] to replicate what the French author Alexis de Tocqueville accomplished in the nineteenth century with his book Democracy in America,” this time through the eyes of Frenchman Bernard-Henri Levy. His interview with Francis Fukuyama reveals an intellectual battle in the neoconservative movement:

Then we start talking about the war in Iraq, which, contrary to my expectations, he, unlike most other neo-conservatives, in fact condemned. We talk about one of his articles, “The Neoconservative Moment,” which he wrote in reaction to a speech given by Charles Krauthammer at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, and which was published in the summer 2004 issue of the neo-conservative journal The National Interest. This article unleashed one of those vigorous debates Fukuyama seems so good at provoking; barely a dozen pages long, it has his typically provocative, cold tone, and his typically Zen-like way of breaking everything in sight without seeming to touch it.

What’s the reason behind his condemnation of the war? What objection does he really have?

No moral objection; for a Hegelian, such an argument would be nonsensical.

No objection from a strategic point of view; the apostle of the end of history, this man who keeps telling us how the provinces of the empire will be brought into line with the victorious world order, could scarcely disagree with the plan to democratize Iraq.

Certainly not the traditional conservative idea that some cultures are better adapted to freedom than others; I sense that Fukuyama isn’t the least bit torn between two great poles, Irving Kristol and Samuel Huntington—between the ex-leftist who has on the whole remained faithful to the universalism of his youth and the postulator of a clash of civilizations who has great difficulty ridding himself of the stumbling block of relativism—and that it’s the former who remains closer to his heart.

No, his great subject, his chief and indeed only disagreement, has to do with the relationship to time that he thinks he can sense in most of his friends who are unconditional supporters of this war—their misunderstanding of the time it actually takes to build democracy, and hence of opportunity and political tactics.

It is here that Fukuyama aims straight for the neoconservative position on gov’t, foreign policy and state-building. Lévy continues:

These people are strange, is the gist of what he says to me.

They’ve spent their whole lives preaching against giving too much power to the government. They told us to beware of the naiveté of the social-engineering specialists who purported to be able to eradicate American poverty with one wave of their political wand. And then they lost all perspective as soon as it was a question of eradicating such poverty, along with the roots of despotism, 6,000 miles away. And they have complete faith in a political decision when it’s an issue—as a nation and a government are being constructed—of winning not just the war but also the peace. And they adopt the same “messianic” tone for which they’ve so often reproached their progressive adversaries as soon as it’s a matter of building a Western-style democracy, ex nihilo, in a country that’s never harbored such a concept!

Odd, this Hegelian who condemns the messianism of others.

Odd, this historicist who used to tell us that the absolute Spirit was about to arrive, and who starts praising the delays and difficulties of post-history.

Paradoxical, the spectacle of this disciple of Kojève, fed on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and on the prosopopeia of the Idea, reproaching others for their excessive idealism.

But captivating, nonetheless.

First of all because it’s another sign, this time inside a single ideological family, of the intensity, the vigor, the quality, of debate that so struck me during the Democratic and Republican conventions: Hegel plus Leo Strauss … Hegelian providentialism chilled, almost reduced, by the “Greek” skepticism of the author of The City and Man … That is the Fukuyama equation. Those are the metaphysical—thus political—coordinates of this agnostic-universalist, this pessimistic progressive. And it’s more than a variation—it’s actually a new position on the American political chessboard.

But above all I get the impression of finding here the first serious—I mean theoretically articulated—objection to the war. Before that operation was launched, I had written that because it mistook the target, because it was aiming at Iraq instead of worrying, for instance, about Pakistan, it was morally right but politically wrong. Quietly, almost whispering, with that special smile whose very reserve oddly reveals a certain intensity, Fukuyama tells me that these people are to him—theoretician that he is of the inevitable triumph of democratic order—what Lenin was to Marx: by trying to act like angels, behaving as if time were not an issue, they condemn themselves to acting like idiots.

The problem with neo-conservatives is not, as Europeans think, their lack of a moral center or their cynicism. On the contrary, it’s an excess of morals. It’s the victory of mysticism over politics. They’re noble spirits who don’t do enough actual politics.