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Book Review With Commentary
Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservatve Legacy
Francis Fukuyama

This book deserves a careful read by anyone wanting to understand US policies since 2000. Fukuyama fairly describes the Neocon history and from there, the dynamics that led to the present situation where the US is bogged down in an unwinnable war, has alienated allies, and enhanced terrorism while giving it a new base of operations. Fukuyama then offers prescriptions for the future that are more sensible than those employed by the Administration, but still leave much to be desired.

Fukuyama thinks of himself as a Neoconservative. This feature sets him apart from the Neocon school that helped lead the Administration astray in Iraq. This point is critical; as an insider of the movement, he saw it as the rest of us did not.

Nevertheless, he keeps what he considers the good features of Neocon philosophy as he suggests what should be done next on the world scene. He makes eminently good sense. However, see Critique for some problems remaining in the Neocon foundation.

Neoconservatism early on was not a cohesive movement since the works of Strauss and his students can be interpreted in various ways. And, Neoconservatism has evolved significantly since the Carter Administration. General principles followed by the Neocons include:

  • a concern with democracy and human rights and the internal politics of states;
  • a belief that US power can be used for moral purposes;
  • a skepticism about the effectiveness of the UN in dealing with serious international problems; and
  • a view that ambitious social engineering can lead to unexpected consequences.

While some of these principles may still sound good to American ears, Fukuyama no longer supports the Neocon foreign policy that led to war in Iraq. He has valid arguments that reveal shallow and wishful thinking in the execution of Neocon policies in American foreign policy. Specifically, he lists:

  • Mis-characterization of the WMD threat from Iraq.
  • Failure to anticipate the virulent negative global reaction to the exercise of "benevolent hegemony", [American style, imperialism in disguise.]
  • Failure to anticipate the requirements of pacification and reconstruction of Iraq.

After analyzing, in interesting fashion, how it was that the Bush Administration arrived in such a sorry mess from the more humble Straussian beginnings, Fukuyama gets around to recommendations for the here and now. In the process, he develops a case for the use of "soft power" diplomacy, in lieu of "hard power" military. This is the strongest single feature of Fukuyama's book. He recommends a different kind of American Foreign policy. His basic reasoning is as fundamental as it is compelling.

He frankly believes history will not judge the Iraq War kindly:

  • Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, training ground and operational base for jihadism [terrorism, Islamic style] while coming under increased fire in the process.
  • What was once a tenuous connection between Zarqawi and the Baathists is now a strong alliance -- both deeply resent American occupation. A new alliance against us exists that was not there before.
  • A military policy of striking like lightning and getting out has instead utterly failed the getting out part. What is worse, our all-volunteer defensive forces now have a serious recruitment problem.
  • We are bogged down and any new Iraqi government will remain weak to ineffectual for too many years to come.

For the future, Fukuyama fears that the Neocon movement is now so discredited that all of its tenets will be rejected. Nevertheless, he holds onto its better pieces in suggesting ways out of this mess in Iraq. Some points he makes follow:

  • Public relations will not fix Iraq; A whole new policy is required.
  • This means demilitarizing US foreign policy; soft power must be used to encourage reformations from within. That cannot happen immediately; the US is so hated that Islamic progressives feel they must distance themselves from us.
  • Working with other democratic nations is perhaps the only viable solution. The Community of Democracies is one platform he suggests.
  • We must recognize that post 9/11 diplomacy must be as legitimate as it is powerful. These features are often at odds. Power is obviously needed to deal with both rogue states and terrorism. But it must be applied in ways that preserve legitimacy. That means working through international institutions that are typically slow moving, even rigid. Legitimacy ultimately requires consent of those concerned. The European Union could also be a vehicle, but it will take time and require patience -- lots of it.


Fukuyama is certainly an eminent scholar who thinks for himself. Unlike the administration, he can see the errors of the Neocon ways -- once tried. Unlike his cohorts, he is flexible; he can see mistakes for what they are, even as they challenge his own philosophy.

This book is the strongest indictment of the current administration we have seen, not so much because of its novelty, of which there is plenty, but for its source, a self-reformed Neocon who was once a hawk and Neocon activist. In a touching aside, Fukuyama credits his wife in discussing his reorientation.

At the same time Fukuyama seems to be trying to save his favorite parts of the movement. And he smooths over his own history. He does not expound on how the Neocon philosophy has a halo effect, beyond its core. While Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld were never Neocons in the fold so to speak, the Neocon agenda nevertheless permeated the Adminstration. Fukuyama merely writes: "We do not at this point know the origins of their views." We are reminded that a score or so of Neocons are part of the Administration. Their politics appealed to Bush.

Our problem remains with the basic Neocon agenda Fukuyama sets out. Let's take a closer look at the basic precepts.

  • a concern with democracy and human rights and the internal politics of states;
  • Democracies have been at the forefront of human progress for over half a millennia now. This is surely a cause and effect. And if we believe in human progress and liberty, democracy is a proven road to follow. But what of the internal politics of states? Fukuyama, in retrospect, sees the error there when he notes that reformations cannot be imposed. They can only arise from within. So what does this say about the "march" of democracy? It too can only arise from within. And that means soft power, in his words, not miltary.

  • a belief that US power can be used for moral purposes;
  • The key words are "can be." Of course US power "can be" used for moral purposes; any power could be . There is no guarantee of that, however; just look at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, not to mention the gross loss of life on both sides attending the "immoral" war in Iraq. The old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely came from behaviors observed from time immemorial. Historically at least, a belief that benevolent US power is a given is ill-founded; it has no experiential basis compared with all the noise in the opposite direction. It is simply propaganda and window dressing. In concert with all other democratic nations, US power would have a better chance of being used in moral ways.

    A system of checks and balances is needed at all levels of society, the international level especially. [Ed]

  • a skepticism about the effectiveness of the UN in dealing with serious international problems;
  • This feature is generally recognized by all parties the world over. It is a result of a Security Council whose permanent members can veto any legislation not in their own particular interests. That situation was all that could be agreed to after WWII. Fukuyama is correct in suggesting that a forum such as the Community of Democracies would be better. The prime difficulty here is that this concept,too, requires that member states give up veto power. We see this step as a necessary step in achieving peace. But that will never happen with any US administration that overlooks its roots and behaves in the non-democratic ways of this administration. To continue pursuing the Authoritarian policies we have so far, is to resign ourselves to violence as a natural way of life and to concede that we do not want a democracy among nations even as we want it for ourselves. See 1776 for something on our roots.

  • a view that ambitious social engineering can lead to unexpected consequences.
  • This happens to be true. The Neocons doubtless had in mind the progressive advances of Roosevelt, Johnson and King, but may not have realized that pre-emptive war is far more ambitious than the American social experiments of the 20th Century. And in any event, we have not seen definitive proof that the social programs led by these Democrats were negative on balance. In isolated cases, yes, of course. But on the whole, when all sides of their progressive legislations are looked at objectively and sufficiently, the case for unintended consequences outweighing the intended consequences is just not there. Equal Opportunity is a specific case in point. Having said that, we believe in evolution of society rather than revolution wherever possible, with majority rule where minority rights are safeguarded.

Reviewed by Harry Rosenberg


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