Moment of Truth

by , February 28, 2006

One has only to look at the headlines coming out of Iraq to see that the moment of truth has arrived: the Iraqi government is warning of an "endless civil war"; mosques across Iraq, including the "Golden Mosque" in Samarra, were targeted in a wave of sectarian attacks, and 60 were killed in just one day, including two U.S. soldiers; and the Pentagon is reporting that not a single Iraqi battalion can stand on its own, while insurgent attacks are at an all-time high. Heck, even George W. Bush is admitting that everything is not coming up roses.

Not Bill Kristol, however: according to the little Lenin of the neocons,

"We have not had a serious three year effort to fight a war in Iraq, as opposed to laying the preconditions for getting out."

And all this time you thought American troops were fighting and dying in a deadly serious way. Alas, you were wrong, because, you see, the Bush administration was never serious about implementing the neocon agenda of "liberating" the entire Middle East by force of arms. The fact that they are even talking about getting out – standing down as the Iraqis stand up, as the president puts it – is proof enough of that. The neoconservatives’ goal has never been to end the war, but to extend it. All this time, they have been urging the administration "Faster, please!" – yet the slowdown is perceptible, and, given the present brick wall we have run up against, bound to become more noticeable. There is now a bipartisan consensus that the war in Iraq – or at least our direct involvement in it – must be allowed to run down. Where the "debate" – if it can be called that – takes place is around the question of just how to accomplish that.

In their extremism on this question, the neocons stand out, isolated and alone: No pasaran! Like the Third Period Stalinists of the 1930s, however, their allies and sympathizers are having a hard time swallowing the party line, and there are significant defections in the ranks. The most important is William F. Buckley, Jr., the former enfant terrible of the conservative movement and founder of National Review magazine, the literary hub of right-wing activism since the late 1950s. In a piece for NR, the "pope" of the American Right declared:

"One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. … Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven’t proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols."

The fabric of Iraqi society is crumbling in the grip of America’s iron fist, an eventuality predicted in this space and by anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of the region. And now that the inevitable has come to pass, all the former optimists, the beaters of the war drums, are pounding out a different tune. The air is filled with their confessions, their disappointment, their regrets, melding with the anguished cries of the wounded and dying on the battlefields of Iraq in a melody of pain and remonstrance. Buckley consoles himself with the thought that a few uniquely evil and powerful "ice men" are responsible for frustrating the "latent" desire of the Iraqis to turn their country into a replica of Kansas. After all, who could have known that what Buckley calls the "postulates" wouldn’t work in this case? As he puts it:

"One of these postulates, from the beginning, was that the Iraqi people, whatever their tribal differences, would suspend internal divisions in order to get on with life in a political structure that guaranteed them religious freedom.

"The accompanying postulate was that the invading American army would succeed in training Iraqi soldiers and policymakers to cope with insurgents bent on violence.

The first postulate is based on – what? The answer is: nothing. Neither the history of the region, nor the proximity of Iraq to Iran, is taken into account by this axiom, which seems merely a projection of the American penchant for normalcy. In universalizing characteristics that may perhaps be unique to Americans, we have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of our hollow "victory" and visited ruin upon our own interests and prestige, wrecking an entire country in the process.

I question the reality of the second postulate: according to various accounts of the internal policymaking debate during the run-up to the invasion, no one in the government predicted the insurgency, let alone devised a plan for coping with it. They all thought it would be, as one neocon apparatchik enthused, a "cakewalk." Since Buckley was complicit in that delusion, and allowed his magazine to be taken over by the devotees of this fever dream, he is in no position to recognize any of this, and, besides, the question is now what to do about it:

"The administration has, now, to cope with failure. It can defend itself historically, standing by the inherent reasonableness of the postulates. After all, they govern our policies in Latin America, in Africa, and in much of Asia. The failure in Iraq does not force us to generalize that violence and antidemocratic movements always prevail. It does call on us to adjust to the question, What do we do when we see that the postulates do not prevail – in the absence of interventionist measures (we used these against Hirohito and Hitler) which we simply are not prepared to take? It is healthier for the disillusioned American to concede that in one theater in the Mideast, the postulates didn’t work. The alternative would be to abandon the postulates. To do that would be to register a kind of philosophical despair. The killer insurgents are not entitled to blow up the shrine of American idealism."

In short: keep the faith. The Democratist faith, that is. Just because the Iraqi experiment in social engineering has imploded into what one American general calls the worst strategic disaster in our history is no reason to abandon the interventionist dogma that we can and should export "democracy" at gunpoint. Buckley’s phraseology masks the real issue: while the failure in Iraq doesn’t prove that "violence and anti-democratic movements always prevail," what it does prove is that interventionism leads to unintended and potentially horrific consequences – and that the "blowback" from our efforts is likely to prove deadlier and far costlier than staying home and minding our own business in the first place.

We are losing, avers Buckley, on account of our humanitarianism, embodied in our reluctance to use such "interventionist measures" as were deployed against Hitler and Hirohito: we are not quite ready, in short, to punish those ungrateful and rebellious objects of our "liberation" by duplicating the bombing of Dresden or the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kristol would call this faintheartedness, and the lack of these sorts of measures lies behind his imputation of a lack of "seriousness" on the part of the U.S. Buckley quails at such a prospect, but Kristol doesn’t flinch from implicitly calling for mass murder. It is the main difference between "mainstream" conservatism and its mutant offspring of the neoconservative persuasion.

Speaking of mutant offspring, the neocon theoretician Francis Fukuyama, whose famous thesis that capital-H History has "ended" was the leitmotif of neoconservative thought in the early 1990s, has also defected from the ranks of the War Party, albeit proclaiming his own innocence in the process. Without so much as mentioning that his name adorned the various joint statements put out by the neocons in the run-up to war, he now seeks to separate himself from the implosion of the neoconservative vision in Iraq and the disaster unfolding:

"As we approach the third anniversary of the onset of the Iraq war, it seems very unlikely that history will judge either the intervention itself or the ideas animating it kindly. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at. The United States still has a chance of creating a Shi’ite-dominated democratic Iraq, but the new government will be very weak for years to come; the resulting power vacuum will invite outside influence from all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. There are clear benefits to the Iraqi people from the removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and perhaps some positive spillover effects in Lebanon and Syria. But it is very hard to see how these developments in themselves justify the blood and treasure that the United States has spent on the project to this point."

The only proper reaction to this is: Now he tells us?

Like Buckley, there is no acknowledgment of his own personal error or responsibility, no apology for misleading his readers and those who took – and still take – him seriously. There is only an effort to save the "postulates" that regulated their delusionary dogma. Fukuyama stands in fear of a recent Pew poll that portends a return by the American people to "isolationism," defined by the pollsters as a policy of "minding our own business." Heaven forfend that such a commonsense policy should ever prevail! The mere prospect has Buckley and Fukuyama on the barricades, poised to defend the interventionist faith.

After naming neoconservatism as the one political tendency most responsible for leading us down the path to war – albeit not naming himself as prominent among them – Fukuyama avers:

"The problem with neoconservatism’s agenda lies not in its ends, which are as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them. What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a ‘realistic Wilsonianism’ that better matches means to ends. "

It is hard to see how one could "overmilitarize" the invasion of Iraq: when Fukuyama signed statements, including newspaper advertisements, calling for the U.S. to invade, what, exactly, did he have in mind? That kind of excuse-making exudes the isolation of these Deep Thinkers from the actual material reality of the policies they recommend. This is what we mean by "chickenhawks" – not necessarily those who, like Dick Cheney, "had other priorities in the ’60s than military service," but those who lack the courage to face the reality of the policies they are advocating.

There is much more to be said of Fukuyama’s disingenuous and highly self-exculpatory non-confession, but that will have to wait for another day. Let us cut to the chase, however, and examine his own explanation for the split in the neoconservative ranks that has now separated him from his erstwhile comrades. It all began, he writes, with a misunderstanding and misapplication of his "End of History" thesis:

"’The End of History,’ … presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism. In the formulation of the scholar Ken Jowitt, the neoconservative position articulated by people like Kristol and Kagan was, by contrast, Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support."

When Fukuyama published his "endist" piece in The National Interest, he was congratulated by, I think, Irving Kristol for importing Hegel into the discussion of foreign policy. Now the neocons have good reason to regret that particular innovation: it has given their schismatic protégé the ideological cover he needs to slink away from the scene of the crime, leaving them to take all the blame. The forces of capital-H History, says Fukuyama, move with imperceptible slowness: the Leninist Kristol (Junior) and his neocon cadre were too impatient, too militaristic, too Bolshevik in their methods. Leave it to Fukuyama and more mild-mannered Mensheviks like Buckley to cobble together a more "realistic Wilsonianism" that will serve the War Party in its future endeavors.

The problem with neoconservatism – which is, today, almost exclusively concerned with foreign policy issues – is not its means but its ends. Aside from being doomed to failure, the very idea of America as a "benevolent world hegemon" is inherently subversive of the national character and our system of constitutional limited government. At this point, the Buckley-Fukuyama project of saving neoconservatism from itself has probably come too late to have any appreciable effect on the American peoples’ reconversion to the dreaded doctrine of "isolationism." The neocons cannot save their discredited and bloodstained ideology; they can only save certain individual neocons from spending a good deal of time behind bars. And I can see that Fukuyama, at any rate, while renouncing neoconservatism, has joined the effort to save one of its chief practitioners – one Scooter Libby – from being sent from the White House to the Big House.

In the end, these guys are sticking together in the knowledge that if they don’t, they will most certainly hang together.

Read more by Justin Raimondo