"I just think that if you're responsible for this kind of a big policy failure, you ought to be held accountable for it."
This unremarkable perspective goes a long way toward explaining the consternation and anger that those who opposed President Bush's reelection feel. Interestingly, this comment comes not from John Kerry or one of his surrogates, but from Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins professor of International Political Economy and leading neoconservative author who shocked fellow conservatives with The Neoconservative Moment, a critique of unipolar unilateralism, exemplified by the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and articulated recently by Charles Krauthammer. To many people, this may have sounded like the sudden turn against the Iraq war some conservatives like George Will and William Buckley have recently taken due to the observed difficulties, but Fukuyama's point is much larger. I just wish he had made it earlier than he did.
I've followed Fukuyama's writings since the appearance of his most famous book, The End of History and the Last Man over a decade ago. Although I've found much to disagree with and think that he sometimes writes far too conclusively on the basis of thin or speculative inference or declines to commit to other conclusions when his thinking seems to be leading to them, there are often strong, nonobvious and surprisingly simple observations to be found in his books. At the root of his critique of Krauthammer is a simple observation about the unwarranted response to risk and uncertainty that the Bush administration made in their decision to invade Iraq, although I think that most people who have analyzed that policy choice have oversimplified it. I address this below.
Newly arrived criticisms of the Bush administration from conservatives, especially the anti-interventionist, small government types represented by the Libertarian Party, have found an irony in the vast expansion of government ambition, power and spending under what has been described as the most "conservative" president of the modern era. Just as the enthusiasm for centralized regulatory intervention among "liberals" is often blamed on the misplaced desire to entirely eliminate risk from human experience, I see in the Bush team's rush to war with Iraq a desire to react against any risk with the most extreme response possible. Actually, I think the Bush team's rush to war with Iraq was based only in part on this; identifying Iraq as the "risk" worthy of extraordinary intervention was in large part a function of a predisposition toward action against Iraq exposed most clearly in Richard Clarke's book.
As much as the GOP reminds us that everyone, Clinton and Kerry included, agreed that Saddam Hussein was a "risk" to the safety of the United States, the important detail is the magnitude of that risk and what costs were justified to eliminate it. A lot of people, myself included, were not convinced, or even inclined to bet, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now, I don't know anything special about the Middle East, but Powell's presentation to the Security Council, which presumably didn't hold back on the strongest evidence they could muster, suggested that the evidence was not very convincing.
As Fukuyama makes clear, resistance to war with Iraq wasn't merely based on an aversion to unilateralism, but on differing assessments of the risk Iraq posed and what the likely costs would be of eliminating that uncertain risk. The Bush team, if you assume that they sincerely believed that Iraq was a sponsor or potential sponsor of cataclysmic radical Islamic terrorism against the United States, were unreasonably certain of that risk and unreasonably sanguine about the costs that we would suffer to remove it. This is, at root, the same argument made by those who say that, for instance, substantial reduction in greenhouse gases is an overreaction to the minor threat that they pose to the ecosystem that will impose much more costly reduction in productive economic activity. Fukuyama's point is thus quite simple: Without rejecting the acceptability, even the preference, for unilateral action in the international arena on behalf of American ideals, that action should be based on a realistic assessment of what military force can accomplish and how people, those subject to intervention and those who observe it, will respond to it.
Thus, Fukuyama's argument here is a real threat to the shape of the neo-conservative enterprise, but not necessarily an abandonment of the principles neo-conservatives have embraced. Like many movements, Fukuyama suggests that the policies championed by neo-conservatives have become unmoored from the principles that initially led to them and now live independently, resistant to stark realities and the unpleasant environments in which they are imposed. This is what he means that the premises Krauthammer begins with could lead to a different foreign policy than that pursued by the Bush administration.
Of course, all of this assumes that the Bush administration's stated reasons for invading Iraq, protecting American lives, spreading democracy to the Middle East, overthrowing a brutal dictator, etc, are sincere. Unlike some other critics, I think that these motives are to be found in the choice to invade Iraq, along with some other motives like providing a stage for the road testing of Rumsfeld's new blueprint for the American military, acquiring an exhibit and laboratory for radical privatization of public services, and, yes, unlocking Iraqi oil. I've never bought the simple argument that the war in Iraq was just about "stealing" their oil. There are other, more subtle, changes in Iraqi oil production that might have been considered pleasant side effects of overthrowing Hussein. Getting rid of Hussein makes it much easier to eliminate the sanctions under the "oil for food" program, permit private investment that can increase the yield of Iraqi oil extraction, and, yes, rearrange the contractual relationships Iraq holds with the constellation of international oil companies. Alone, these are not reasons for invading a country, but they may bring certain valuable interests into alignment with a policy chosen for other reasons.
Fukuyama's critique of Krauthammer and neoconservativism's unipolar unilateralism lends credence to the notion that the movement has succumbed to a "garbage can" decision-making process, wherein policy prescriptions are produced for certain reasons, which are at the time insufficient to justify their adoption, but hang around anyway, brought out again and again by their proponents in response to any and every other problem that they may be contorted to address. Eventually, a problem may surface that the policy can be radically retooled to confront. In this case, terrorism was that problem and the policy is unilateral military adventurism.
While reading the National Interest piece weeks ago, I found his argument against making this critique earlier unsatisfying and I still do. Now that Bush has been reelected and is making startling claims about his "mandate" to "spend political capital," the consequences of not calling his policy choices into question are getting exponentially more dire. In the last few days I've been especially concerned with the likely result of Bush's reelection for the judiciary, since that's my beat. I'll likely write about that in the next couple of days.