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Neocons, Reconstructed And Unreconstructed

Francis Fukuyama, a registered Republican and a central figure in the rise of neoconservatism in the 1980s, widens his break with the movement by endorsing Barack Obama for president. Of Republicans, Fukuyama says, "Their two big things are fear of [terrorism] and fear of immigrants--that's not an agenda." He describes Obama as "the only one of the candidates who can escape the polarization" of American politics. Fukuyama's support should help Obama win over the critical swing voting bloc of political science graduate students.

On the other hand we have Doug Feith, who has taken to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to chide President Bush for failing to make a compelling case, in 2003 and 2004, that the war in Iraq was justified primarily on national-security grounds (rather than as a democracy-promotion effort). Feith acknowledges that the failure to find WMD made this p.r. strategy a little tricky, but thinks the administration should have tried it anyway:

White House officials understandably preferred to declare affirmative messages about Iraq's future, rather than rehash the government's intelligence embarrassments. Even so, I thought it was a strategic error for the president to make no effort to defend the arguments that had motivated him before the war. Mr. Bush's political opponents were intent on magnifying the administration's mistakes regarding WMD. On television and radio, in print and on the Internet, day after day they repeated the claim that the undiscovered stockpiles were the sum and substance of why the U.S. went to war against Saddam.

Electoral politics aside, I thought it was important for national security reasons that the president refute his critics' misstatements. The CIA assessments of WMD were wrong, but they originated in the years before he became president and they had been accepted by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as by the U.N. and other officials around the world. And, in any event, the erroneous WMD intelligence was not the entire security rationale for overthrowing Saddam.

This would have been a somewhat dishonest strategy, of course, in that Bush didn't simply take the CIA's assessment at face value; he actively sought to play up the aspects of it that painted the situation in the most dire light possible, while playing down its less alarming findings. And it seems unlikely, to say the least, that the public would have responded well to a presidential attempt to pass the buck for intelligence failures to the CIA while simultaneously trying to insist that the whole WMD rationale wasn't all that critical anyway.

But, more broadly, I think Feith underestimates how well the democracy-promotion argument served the pro-war side. He suggests putting "electoral politics aside," but in fact the outcome of the 2004 presidential election is clearly the single biggest reason (very nearly the only reason) why advocates of staying the course have managed to stave off calls for beginning a troop withdrawal. And while, in retrospect, the democracy-promotion argument was bound to fall apart once it became clear just how hard it would be to establish a functioning democracy in Iraq, in 2004 and 2005 it was compelling enough to provide a rationale for re-electing Bush and continuing the war for another four years.

--Josh Patashnik