The Good Idea Shortage

Frances Fukuyama is getting great publicity for his new book, "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy," in which he parts company with his former neocon allies. I don't have the book, nor the time to read it now, so I was glad the Wall Street Journal published an essay he co-wrote that would present the meat of his argument.

The piece, by Fukuyama and Adam Garfinkle, is called, modestly, "A Better Idea." Given the morass Iraq has become, given the continued fears of a major terrorist attack, I'm not alone in hoping a better idea is out there somewhere, and that one of the 2008 presidential candidates finds it.

Bush was the post-9/11 firefighter. He reacted to the horrible tragedy of that morning, and his reactive stance has rippled through all his policy decisions — for better and for worse. He and his administration were in the battle, day-by-day, trying this, trying that. Everything was done with utmost urgency, with no pause for considered strategy. It was not the way to win a war.

If John Kerry'd had a better idea, he could've beaten Bush in 2004, and given us a fresh start on a more comprehensive strategy. To say the least, Kerry proved a terrible disappointment, both intellectually and as a political craftsman. So the fireman is still on duty. He deserves some credit. But we need a new approach.

So that's what was in the back of my mind in approaching Fukuyama. I didn't care that he was turning his back on former allies. That's a good press angle to sell books, but just frosting from my point of view.

Unfortunately, Fukuyama's got no game. I'll paste in a few quotes, but overall, his WSJ essay reminds me of a speech by Kerry: 'I'd pursue the same policies, but differently.' (That's not a quote — it's just my summary of every Kerry speech on the war and the battle against Islamo-fascism.) Here's what I mean:

That better idea consists of separating the struggle against radical Islamism from promoting democracy in the Middle East, focusing on the first struggle, and dramatically changing our tone and tactics on the democracy promotion front, at least for now.

The essential problem with the administration's approach is that it conflates two issues that are separate. The first has to do with violent, antimodern radical Islamism (on display both in the reaction to the Danish cartoons and in the mosque bombing in Samarra); the second concerns the dysfunctionality of political and social institutions in much of the Arab world.


What the administration sees as one problem ought to be seen as two. Radical Islamism needs to be dealt with separately from democracy promotion. This involves doing everything we can to ensure the political success of the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also involves killing, capturing or otherwise neutralizing hard-core terrorists in many parts of the world, and keeping dangerous materials out of their hands, in what will look less like a war than like police and intelligence operations.


To put it mildly, the Iraq war has not increased the prestige of the U.S. and American ideas like liberal democracy in the Middle East. The U.S. does not have abundant moral authority for promoting the rule of law, since the first thing people in the region associate with America today is prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Many Americans have explained these events to themselves by saying that the abuse was an aberration that has been hyped by enemies of the U.S., and that in any event such things just happen during wartime. Perhaps; but the fact remains that Guantanamo is still open, and nobody except for a couple of lowly enlisted soldiers have been prosecuted for prisoner abuse by the Bush administration. Fair or not, American insistence on rule of law and human rights looks simply hypocritical.


Democracy promotion should remain an integral part of American foreign policy, but it should not be seen as a principal means of fighting terrorism. We should stigmatize and fight radical Islamism as if the social and political dysfunction of the Arab world did not exist, and we should shrewdly, quietly, patiently and with as many allies as possible promote the amelioration of that dysfunction as if the terrorist problem did not exist. It is when we mix these two issues together that we muddle our understanding of both, with the result that we neither defeat terrorism nor promote democracy but rather the reverse.

How empty. How lacking in new thought or vision. Much of what he recommends is basically already happening on a tactical level. The rest is just repurposed criticism of Bush's war plans–criticisms that Bush, among others, have long accepted.

Does this mean there really aren't any better ideas out there?

This is why the Democratic party is so frustrating. They are the opposition. But they've interpreted that role like the Monty Python character who advertises he'll give you an argument but just provides contradiction. "Gotcha" is not a philosophy. "Told ya so" is not a strategy. Liberals used to be seen as the intellectuals in public policy, but they've run dry at the worst possible time.

I have a fearful suspicion that 2008 will end up ratifying Bush's strategy instead of changing it, and that this will be true whichever party wins. There just might not be any better ideas out there.


2 thoughts on “The Good Idea Shortage

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