WASHINGTON -- It was, as the hero tells it, his Road to Damascus moment. There he is, in a hall of 1,500 people he has long considered to be his allies, hearing the speaker treat the Iraq War, nearing the end of its first year, as "a virtually unqualified success." He gasps as the audience enthusiastically applauds. Aghast to discover himself in a sea of comrades so deluded by ideology as to have lost touch with reality, he decides he can no longer be one of them.
And thus did Francis Fukuyama become the world's most celebrated ex-neoconservative, a well-timed metamorphosis that has brought him a piece of the fame that he once enjoyed 15 years ago as the man who declared, a mite prematurely, that history had ended.
A very nice story. It appears in the preface to Fukuyama's post-neocon coming out, "America at the Crossroads.'' Last Sunday it was repeated on the front page of The New York Times Book Review in Paul Berman's review.
I happen to know something about this story, as I was the speaker whose 2004 Irving Kristol lecture to the American Enterprise Institute Fukuyama has now brought to prominence. I can therefore testify that Fukuyama's claim that I attributed "virtually unqualified success'' to the war is a fabrication.
A convenient fabrication -- it gives him a foil and the story drama -- but a foolish one because it can be checked. The speech was given at the Washington Hilton before a full house, carried live on C-SPAN and then published by the American Enterprise Institute under its title "Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World.'' (It can be read here.)
As indicated by the title, the speech was not about Iraq. It was a fairly theoretical critique of the four schools of American foreign policy: isolationism, liberal internationalism, realism and neoconservatism. The only successes I attributed to the Iraq War were two, and both self-evident: (1) that it had deposed Saddam Hussein and (2) that this had made other dictators think twice about the price of acquiring nuclear weapons, as evidenced by the fact that Gaddafi had turned over his secret nuclear program for dismantlement just months after Saddam's fall (in fact, on the very week of Saddam's capture).
In that entire 6,000-word lecture, I said not a single word about the course or conduct of the Iraq War. My only reference to the outcome of the war came toward the end of the lecture. Far from calling it an unqualified success, virtual or otherwise, I said quite bluntly that "it may be a bridge too far. Realists have been warning against the hubris of thinking we can transform an alien culture because of some postulated natural and universal human will to freedom. And they may yet be right.''
We do not yet know. History will judge whether we can succeed in "establishing civilized, decent, nonbelligerent, pro-Western polities in Afghanistan and Iraq.'' My point then, as now, has never been that success was either inevitable or at hand, only that success was critically important to "change the strategic balance in the fight against Arab-Islamic radicalism.''
I made the point of repeating the problematic nature of the enterprise: "the undertaking is enormous, ambitious and arrogant. It may yet fail.''
For Fukuyama to assert that I characterized it as "a virtually unqualified success'' is simply breathtaking. My argument then, as now, was the necessity of this undertaking, never its assured success. And it was necessary because, as I said, there is not a single, remotely plausible, alternative strategy for attacking the root causes of 9/11: "the cauldron of political oppression, religious intolerance, and social ruin in the Arab-Islamic world -- oppression transmuted and deflected by regimes with no legitimacy into virulent, murderous anti-Americanism.''
Fukuyama's book is proof of this proposition about the lack of the plausible alternative. The alternative he proposes for the challenges of 9/11 -- new international institutions, new forms of foreign aid and sundry other forms of "soft power'' -- is a mush of bureaucratic make-work in the face of a raging fire. Even Berman, his sympathetic reviewer, concludes that "neither his old arguments nor his new ones offer much insight into this, the most important problem of all -- the problem of murderous ideologies and how to combat them.''
Fukuyama now says that he had secretly opposed the Iraq War before it was launched. An unusual and convenient reticence, notes Irwin Stelzer, editor of "The Neocon Reader,'' for such an inveterate pamphleteer, letter writer and essayist. After public opinion had turned against the war, Fukuyama then courageously came out against it. He has every right to change his mind at his convenience. He has no right to change what I said.