Fukuyama On Form

I have no doubt that Frank Fukuyama's essay in the New York Times Magazine will prompt a lot of debate. For my part, I think he gets his analysis almost perfectly right. In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors in the last few years. The first was to over-estimate the competence of government, especially in extremely delicate areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an understandable but still mistaken over-estimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed. Fukuyama's sharpest insight here is into how the near miracle of the end of the Cold War almost certainly lulled many of us into over-confidence about the inevitability of democratic change, and its ease. We got cocky. We should have known better.

The second error was narcissism. America's power blinded many of us to the resentments that such power must necessarily provoke. Those resentments are often as deep among our global acquaintances as enemies - in fact, may be deeper. Acting without a profound understanding of the dangers to the U.S. of inflaming such resentment is imprudent. This is not to say we shouldn't act at times despite them, unilaterally if necessary. Sometimes, the right thing to do will inevitably spawn resentment. We should do it anyway. But that makes it all the more imperative that we get things right, that we bend over backwards to maintain the moral high-ground, and that we make our margin of error as small as possible. The Bush administration, alas, did none of these things. They compounded conceptual errors with still-incomprehensible recklessness, pig-headedness and incompetence in preparing for the aftermath of Saddam.

The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. Fukuyama is absolutely right to note the discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism toward's government's ability to change culture at home and its naivete when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian and un-Western cultures, like Iraq's, abroad. We have learned a tough lesson, and it's been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than it is for a few humiliated intellectuals. American ingenuity and pragmatism on the ground may be finally turning things around, but the original policy errors have made their work infinitely harder. The correct response to this is not more triumphalism and spin, but a real sense of shame and sorrow that so many have died because of errors made by their superiors, and by intellectuals like me.