Fukuyama: Iraq Shows There Are No Short Cuts To "The End of History"

This idea that America can simply use its dominant power to completely shape the world is an illusion.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

It turns out that liberal democracy can't be forced at the barrel of a gun any more than socialist revolution. Neither Leninist-style coups nor preemptive wars can force societies to mature before their time. If anything, the Iraq debacle shows there are no short cuts to "the end of history." So says Francis Fukuyama, the neoconservative intellectual who ought to know. Read my interview with him below:


Francis Fukuyama, the famed author of "The End of History and the Last Man," teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His newest book, "America at the Crossroads," will be published this month by Yale University Press. He spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Nathan Gardels: Three years after the invasion of Iraq, as you have suggested, it looks like the U.S. has created a self-fulfilling prophecy: It went to war to thwart any link between Islamic extremists and weapons of mass destruction, but has ended up creating the "Shiite Crescent" King Abdullah of Jordan worries about with religious-oriented Shiites empowered in Baghdad sympathetic to a radical Iran seeking a nuclear bomb.

Now civil war is around the corner.

What were the illusions of the American neoconservatives who sought this war that led to such folly?
Francis Fukuyama: There was, of course, the illusion about the existence of mass destruction weapons. In a way that was forgivable because the intelligence community thought they existed. What was far more damaging was the conflation of this perceived threat of Saddam and his weapons with the real threat of jihadist terrorism, which was another thing entirely.

The really big illusion was the idea that Iraq would somehow transition easily out of a totalitarian dictatorship into a peaceful and relatively successful democracy. This was a peculiar illusion for neocons because in the past neoconservative thinkers were known for being skeptical of the prospects of ambitious social engineering in U.S. domestic policy. They had fairly perceptive insights into how well-meaning social policies never worked out as expected, for example how welfare could lead to dependency or large public housing projects could turn into slums.

The other important illusion was their perception of how the world would react to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There was a belief in the legitimacy of the moral uses of American power, something the neocons share, I think, with most Americans. Unlike Europeans, Americans have a benign view of the use of force by their state from the Revolution to the Civil War to the world wars and the Cold War, in which American force was used for ultimately good, democratic outcomes.

The neocons, as the Stalinists used to say, made a "fetishism" of this power. And they failed to realize how in the period between the end of the Cold War up to the beginning of the Iraq war the imbalance in the distribution of power around the world created tremendous resentment and fertile ground for anti-Americanism. The neocon promoters of the Iraq war simply failed to anticipate how negatively the rest of the world would react to the use of American power in such a preemptive war.

Gardels: You have long been known as a key figure among the neoconservatives you are now criticizing. What was the turning point for you?

Fukuyama: I started out reasonably hawkish on Iraq back in the 1990s. But after 9/11 I was asked to participate in a Pentagon-sponsored study on long-term strategy in the "war" on terrorism. In the course of doing that, I thought through the underlying threat and the kind of strategies needed to address it. I decided then the challenge of terrorism was ultimately a political contest that couldn't be solved by military means. It was clear to me then, about a year before the war, that, at a minimum, a war with Iraq would be a huge distraction. It has turned out worse: It has become a major setback, making terrorism worse.

Aside from Afghanistan, coping with terrorism will not be about invading countries. It will be about everything from police and intelligence operations to dealing with controversies like the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It has a complicated political dimension, which is about peeling off ordinary Muslims from sympathy for the jihadists and reducing the appeal radical Islamism.
Gardels: Despite the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine, President Bush insists on arguing that spreading democracy is the antidote to Islamic radicalism. Isn't that a flawed argument?

Fukuyama: It is a flawed strategy because democracy is going to make problems worse, as in the case of Hamas, in the short run. That does not mean democracy is not some ultimate part of an effective policy. One of the ways you deal with the underlying problem of terrorism is by letting the Islamists grow up and get used to the realities of power. This certainly can be dangerous, because, in the end, the way they exercise that power may well be against the interests of the West.

We have to accept that risk because, in the long run, democratization is going to come to the Middle East anyway. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is right to say that U.S. policy in the region can no longer be based on supporting illegitimate dictators. If you support the Shah of Iran you are bound to get the ayatollahs afterward. The process of political maturation has to begin sometime - but that process can be very long itself. But the immediate road ahead is going to be very bumpy and perilous.
Gardels: "Pre-emption" and "preventive war" were the catch phrases that led the U.S. into Iraq. The new national security phrase in Washington is "the long war" against terrorism. Do you agree with the idea of a "long war"?

Fukuyama: War is not a good metaphor for what is happening. It confuses what is a long political struggle with what is conventionally understood as war - a conflict of high intensity declared, fought and won, or lost, in a defined time frame. This struggle is going to percolate along at a relatively low level of activity with spikes of intensity, but its not going to have a clear ending.

By using the war metaphor we get into all kinds of trouble from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to wiretapping of our own citizens. People say "we have to suspend civil rights because we are at war." War overstates the intensity of the struggle and the kinds of sacrifices that requires.
Gardels: What policies are effective in this long political struggle against jihadist terrorism?

Fukuyama: In dealing with Islamism and the Middle East we need more of a political strategy and less of a military one. America needs to try to shape the world not by the overt use of military power but by establishing a set of multilateral institutions that then shape long-term incentives for stability, growth and cooperation like, for example, the Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II, or NATO, or the U.S.-Japan security treaty. For 50 years these created an institutional framework for the U.S. and others to shape the world without recourse to military might.

Unfortunately, so much of the discussion has focused on the United Nations. The left says that the U.N. is the only alternative and the right seeks "coalitions of the willing." What we need, in fact, is a "multi-multilateral" strategy that brings to bear a host of multilateral institutions. NATO and the Community of Democracies, for example, already exist. Other new ones can be created at some point in the future to both permit American action in an effective manner, but also to legitimate the way American power is used to beneficial ends in eradicating the roots of Islamic radicalism.

I do believe with the neocons that we must reach into states to promote democracy. But here we have to understand that we don't control the show. We can't set the timing. Any such policies must be opportunistic, ready to help when the moment is right, when the demand for democracy arises organically. Given that constraint, we need to figure out how to improve American "soft power" tools - the State Department and public diplomacy, the U.S. Treasury, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), our relationship with the World Bank. All these soft power aspects need to go through the same "lessons learned" and reorganization process that the military does after every conflict or when facing a new foe.

Gardels: Hollywood is America's most influential soft power tool. Does it have a role?

Fukuyama: Unfortunately, it does. A negative role. It is perceived as the purveyor of the kind of secular, materialistic, permissive culture that is not very popular in many parts of the world, especially the Islamic world.

Gardels: After decades covering all the failed revolutions throughout the Third World and looking back to the origins of the Soviet state, the literary journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski summed up the lesson of the 20th century as this: "There are no short cuts in history." Leninist coups or military interventions can't force societies to ripen politically or modernize before their time.

In these first years of the 21st century, would you say also that "there are no short cuts TO THE END of History"; that is, to liberalism and democracy?

Fukuyama: Yes. That is the basic argument I am trying to make. I'm not arguing that we need to be passive in the face of large social forces. There are times when power, action, decisiveness and leadership play a role. But that has to be kept in perspective. The opportunities for decisive action and change are few and far between. The essence of statesmanship is knowing when you can push things forward, and when not.

This idea that America can simply use its dominant power to completely shape the world is an illusion.
If Iraq has taught us anything, it is that there are no short cuts.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot