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Perspective

Fukuyama feels a bit neocontrary

The theorist, a recovering neocon, hopes we've learned some lessons.

By FRANCIS FUKUYAMA Special to the Times
Published February 11, 2007


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Leading up to the invasion of Iraq, neoconservative theorists saw America exercising a benevolent hegemony over the world, using its enormous power wisely and decisively to fix problems such as terrorism, proliferation, rogue states and human rights abuses.

But even if friends and allies were inclined to trust America's good intentions, it would be hard for them not to be dismayed at the actual execution of policy and the amount of broken china this particular bull left behind.

The failure to absorb Iraq's lessons has been evident in the neoconservative discussion of how to deal with Iran's growing regional power, and its nuclear program. Iran today constitutes a huge challenge for the United States, as well as for America's friends in the Middle East. Unlike al-Qaida, Iran is a state, deeply rooted historically (unlike Iraq) and flush with resources as a result of energy price rises. It is ruled by a radical Islamist regime that - particularly since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in June 2005 - has turned in a disturbingly intolerant and aggressive direction.

The United States unintentionally abetted Iran's regional rise by invading Iraq, eliminating the Baathist regime as a counterweight, and empowering Shiite parties close to Tehran. It seems reasonably clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons, despite protestations that its program is only for civilian purposes; nuclear energy makes little sense for a country sitting on some of the world's largest oil reserves, but it makes sense as the basis for a weapons program. It is completely rational for the Iranians to conclude that they will be safer with a bomb.

It is easy to outline the obstacles to a negotiated end to the Iranian program, but much harder to come up with an alternative strategy. Use of force looks very unappealing. The United States is hardly in a position to invade and occupy yet another country, especially one much larger than Iraq. An attack would have to be conducted from the air, and it would not result in regime change, the only long-term means of stopping the WMD program.

It is hard to have much confidence that U.S. intelligence on Iranian facilities is any better than it was in the case of Iraq. An air campaign is much more likely to build support for the regime than to topple it, and will stimulate terrorism and attacks on American facilities and friends around the globe.

None of these considerations, nor the debacle in Iraq, has prevented certain neoconservatives from advocating military action against Iran. Some insist that Iran poses an even greater threat than Iraq, avoiding the fact that their zealous advocacy of the Iraq invasion is what has destroyed America's credibility and undercut its ability to take strong measures against Iran.

All of this could well be correct. Ahmadinejad may be the new Hitler; the current negotiations could be our Munich accords; Iran could be in the grip of undeterrable religious fanatics; and the West might be facing a "civilizational" danger.

There are reasons for being less alarmist. Iran is, after all, a state, with equities to defend - it should be deterrable by other states possessing nuclear weapons; it is a regional and not a global power; it has in the past announced extreme ideological goals but has seldom acted on them when important national interests were at stake; and its decisionmaking process appears neither unified nor under the control of the most radical forces.

What I find remarkable about the neoconservative line of argument on Iran, however, is how little changed it is in its basic assumptions and tonalities from that taken on Iraq in 2002, despite the momentous events of the past five years and the manifest failure of policies that neoconservatives themselves advocated. What may change is the American public's willingness to listen to them.

This is an edited excerpt from America at the Crossroads, coming out in paperback next month. Fukuyama, who used to regard himself as a neocon, is author of The End of History, Trust, The Great Disruption, Our Posthuman Future and State Building. He is professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University.

THE BOOK

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neo- conservative Legacy

By Francis Fukuyama

Yale University Press (paperback to be published March 28), 264 pp, $15

[Last modified February 11, 2007, 07:31:00]


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