03/29/2006 10:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Attend to This Book

OK, for those who are serious about the long-range prospects for a progressive politics, here's a new book to pay attention to. It's called America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy by Francis Fukuyama. He's a former neocon, author of the landmark 1989 (remember that year?) book called The End of History [as in Hegel] and the Last Man [as in Nietzsche]. The thesis was that, with Marxism over, capitalist democracy was the last system standing and its world-wide consolidation was secured.

It's also important to pay attention to all the commentary about his new book. This is a pivotal moment among political intellectuals, because Fukuyama is finalizing his break with neoconservatism--and the war in Iraq is the main reason. Here's a quote from Louis Menand's review in The New Yorker. The City College references are to the 1930s. In this quote "Kristol" is Irving, Bill's dad:

"The present condition of the neoconservative movement is the outcome of a classic case of the gradual sclerosis of political attitudes. All the stages of the movement's development were based on the primitive psychology of the "break"--the felt need, as one ages, to demonize the exact position one formerly occupied. The enemy is always the person still clinging to the delusions you just outgrew. So--going all the way back to the omphalos, Alcove 1 in the City College cafeteria, where Kristol and his friends fought with the Stalinists in Alcove 2--the Trotskyists hated the fellow-travellers they once had been; the Cold War liberals hated the Trotskyists they once had been; and the neoconservatives hated the liberals they once had been. Now the hardening is complete. Neoconservatism has merged with the politics that its founders, in their youth, held in greatest contempt: the jingoist and capitalist American right... [But Fukuyama] is sliding back toward sixties liberalism. One hopes that others, inspired by his "break," will start sliding in the same direction. It would certainly be nice to see the independent intellectuals who should have known better when they loudly supported the Bush-Cheney war on terror explain publicly, as Fukuyama has done, where they went wrong. Who did they think was going to run that war, the [University of Chicago's] Committee on Social Thought?"

I'm not sure what "independent intellectuals" Menand has in mind, but the ones we should watch are the so-called "liberal hawks." For a sample of a conversation between some of them in early 2004 go here. What they all have in common is that they never thought this war was about WMD. They genuinely believed it was a progressive thing to do. They genuinely believed in liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam. They genuinely believed in the threat of what they call Islamo-Fascism and they care about its consequences, not just for the West, but for people in general. To them, those of us on the left who opposed the war originally (in Afghanistan too, remember), were reflexively expressing an entrenched ant-Americanism and a delusional strain of multiculturalism that induced us to overlook horrific crimes against humanity as long as they were perpetrated by some "Other." They saw us as refusing to analyze a harsh and altered reality in the light of authentic principle and lacking the courage to decide upon a course of action that broke the mold of habit. They were thinking, they thought. We were just reacting.

And they were entirely sincere, in my opinion. You cannot suspect them of ulterior motives, as I believe you can in the case of neocon mouthpieces like Fred Barnes and Charles Krautheimmer who don't give two pins for the welfare of people under Islamic authoritarian regimes--or for anybody else, besides themselves and their own. The neocons, in my opinion, have from the beginning been focused on establishing permanent bases in the Mideast as a long-term strategic hedge against an oil hungry China and the defense of Israel The rest of their discourse is brazen rhetorical manipulation of the American people, whom they ultimately disdain.

If that's roughly correct, it will be illuminating, in the light of Fukuyama's example, to watch liberal hawks cope with the outcome of Bush's invasion of Iraq. Except for Hitchens, who, judging by his tone, seems so caught up in the "break" psychology Menand describes above that he can't afford to entertain the possibility that he made a mistake. The others have, I believe, all expressed some second thoughts, but they also continue to hope that events will magically rescue them. I say "magically" because, at this juncture, if somehow or other the situation stabilizes into something better than before, it won't be for any reason any one of them could have anticipated going in. Finally, and inevitably, they are all busy explaining the war's apparent failure in terms of strategic misjudgments and tactical errors by Cheney and Rumsfeld etc.

In this last respect, the liberal hawks are on the same page as the neocons--blaming Rumsfeld's minions, blaming Bremer, blaming Feith and even Tommy Franks. So it is fair to ask them, as Menand asks of the "independent intellectuals" challenged by Fukuyama--"who did you think was going to run this war?" That surely had to be part of a responsible decision? Politically literate people were acquainted with Born-Again Bush and Halliburton Cheney and Manly Rumsfeld, understood their jingoism and their abysmal, pridefully parochial, ignorance, and their manifest contempt for educated expertise. Such assessments of personal character were part of what motivated opposition to the war. We didn't trust these arrogant pricks to do the right thing. That's a time-honored basis for judgment in a democracy. People fight wars, principles don't fight wars. If character was destiny in this case, where were the liberal hawks on that issue?

The acid test will come if present trends continue and civil war becomes an unspinnable reality and the Iraqi Shia fall back into a full-blown Islamo-Fascist alliance with Iran. If that happens, even Hitchens (whom I have admired for decades), by the logic of his own position, should feel obliged to reassess his position. If I am right in crediting liberal hawks with sincere and humanitarian motives, then that reassessment will be forthcoming from them. If I am wrong, they will find excuses. But it will be very difficult for them. There's a huge burden. We need to cut them some slack of understaniding and create some space for them to confront themselves. They know they can't just say "Ooops, sorry, I meant well" and move on.

Or they can't if they are the real deal--which I persist in believing they are.

By "real deal" I mean trying to do what's right. I can't imagine a higher calling...