Last Sunday, just in time for Iraq’s current slide into near civil war, the conservative political scholar Francis Fukuyama announced in The New York Times Magazine that he is finished with neoconservatism.
Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.
The piece has received quite a lot of attention this week because if Fukuyama is done with neoconservatism, it’s definitely an idea on its way out. And as we bid adieu to the political ideology that brought us the Iraq War, it seems a good time to remark on another way of seeing things that appears suddenly out of vogue: Manicheanism.
While neoconservatism may be the animating political ideology behind the Bush administration, Manicheanism is the administration’s public face, the way it speaks to the masses. It’s the “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” attitude, the simple black-and-white, good-vs-evil dualisms that Bush is so fond of — and which used to get him a lot of fawning praise for his “clarity.”
We saw the appeal of Manichean language in the last election, when Bush’s simple splitting of the world into darkness and light (with America and Bush naturally on the side of light) won out over Kerry’s tendency to find six sides to every issue (and to be on at least four of them at any one time, while also seeing the gray areas). But now Bush himself seems to be admitting the insufficiency, and the danger, of the Manichean world-view.
First the Danish cartoon controversy, and now the Arab port ownership controversy have produced pleas from Bush for an appreciation of the world’s complexities, rather than his usual insistence that we man the barricades of stark binaries.
With the Danish cartoons, Bush and his spokespeople essentially asked Americans to condemn the cartoons and defend free speech at the same time, and on top of that to respect Islam but at the same time understand that it was being manipulated by some Arab leaders for political reasons. Was that clear, middle America?
And with the port controversy, Bush is asking Americans to understand that while Dubai may be an Arab country, and while it may have been a habitat for terrorists (including some of the 9-11 hijackers) at one time or another, it’s actually “with us,” not “against us” in the War on Terror, because it’s so much better on terrorism than many other countries in the region, and anyway it lets our warships stop in its Persian Gulf ports, and also, by the way, globalization means American ports are inevitably going to be owned by foreign-based companies, and that’s not always a bad thing. Clear?
As this news story notes, Bush, in the past synonymous with simple arguments, now…
…finds himself burdened with the more nuanced argument that turning down this deal would send a message to the entire Arab world that it is not to be trusted, no matter how friendly individual countries may have been.
Speaking of nuance, I got in trouble on the Slog the other day for offering too much of the stuff. But here’s another instance where it’s more useful than a Manichean approach: The controversy over American tech companies cooperating with censorship in China, which I write about in this week’s Stranger.
Like the cartoon and port controversies, the Chinese censorship controversy also has at its root the phenomenon of globalization.
And what Fukuyama admits in his essay, in part, is that it is on the shores of globalization that neoconservatism has foundered. In a complex, interconnected world, you just can’t succeed with a political ideology (neoconservatism) that tells you one country (America) has a duty to spread freedom, by force, wherever it sees fit, especially if you twine that political ideology with an orientation (Manicheanism) that tells you there are only two types of things in the world, good and evil things, and then use that orientation to tell yourself that whatever America does is always a good thing.
Here is how Fukuyama closes his essay:
Neoconservatism, whatever its complex roots, has become indelibly associated with concepts like coercive regime change, unilateralism and American hegemony. What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world — ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about.