As the song says, sorry always seems to be the hardest word. It takes courage to admit you got it wrong. So it is tempting to applaud the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama for his current bout of self-criticism. In his new book and the flurry of journalism and chatter that has accompanied it, Fukuyama has essentially repudiated his earlier support for the invasion of Iraq. He has recanted. Eaten his words. Issued an apology.
Though scarcely the man who ordered the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Fukuyama made it plain long before 2003 that he favoured such action. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama had begun to argue that the American model of democracy was poised to become a kind of global political standard. "In the political and economic sphere," he wrote in The Great Disruption, "history appears to be progressive and directional, and at the end of the 20th century has culminated in liberal democracy as the only viable alternative for technologically advanced societies."
Dictators who clung to authoritarian rule were therefore standing in the way of historical progress. The United States, enjoying as it did after 1989 a position of unrivalled military power, was well placed to give history a helping hand. Aware that something more was involved than merely decapitating the Baathist regime and coming home, Fukuyama then wrote a book on "state building", a kind of instruction manual for the political reconstruction of a failed state.
Three years on, he is a chastened man. With the benefit of hindsight, he now sees that he and other "neoconservative" proponents of regime-change in Iraq were naive. If that country today is an ungovernable mess - economically prostrate, chronically violent and slithering into a civil war of unforeseeable duration - then neocon naivety is in large measure to blame.
There was, of course, never anything very conservative about the neoconservatives, except that during the Cold War they hated Com-mun-ism - but only because so many of their mentors were former Trotsky-ites. The neocons were, like Trotsky, enamoured of the idea of world revolution. Except that this would be an American, capitalist revolution, exporting freedom - if necessary, by force of arms - to a benighted world.
The neocons first emerged as a force in American politics as critics of 1970s detente with the Soviet Union. They excoriated Henry Kissinger for a cynical realism which, they argued, was merely protracting the life of the evil empire. A homespun autodidact, Ronald Reagan articulated their vision more eloquently than they could themselves. And then, in 1989, they got their vindication. The Soviet Union collapsed, toppled (they believed) by the strain of matching the Reagan defence-spending splurge. The world revolution was underway. Next stop: the Middle East.
To their disgust, Reagan's successor, George Bush Snr, failed to follow through after ejecting Saddam from Kuwait. To their joy, his son agreed to finish the job off, seizing the opportunity presented by the 9/11 attacks and the vengeful public mood they left in their wake. Occupying key posts in the Defence Department, neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith played a key role in planning (and justifying) the invasion of 2003.
What did they get wrong? First, says Fukuyama, they succumbed to the illusion that America's "benign hegemony" would be welcomed as such abroad. Second, they were too confident of their ability to achieve their objects by unilateral action. Third, they embraced a doctrine of pre-emption that depended on greater knowledge of the future than was possible. Above all, they failed to see the potential risks of democracy in the Greater Middle East: namely, that Iraq would fragment or radical Islamists would win elections.
Fukuyama is not the first proponent of the war to repent. The liberal interventionists, who justified Saddam's deposition on humanitarian grounds, long ago ate their crow. (One of them - Michael Ignatieff - has even sought to atone for his past errors by becoming a Canadian MP, a cruel form of penance.) Yet Fukuyama's is the better-timed U-turn. It coincides with a sea-change in the public mood. Disillusionment with Iraq has even begun to penetrate Bush's once-loyal base in the American heartland.
The worst of all this is that all those who from the outset opposed the war in Iraq now appear vindicated, no matter how dubious their arguments. We are rapidly reverting to the default setting of the Demo-cratic Left, that it is preferable to leave tyrants in power than to sully the republic with the taint of imperialism. Better a multitude of Attilas abroad than Rome at home.
I agree that the neocons got it wrong, but my reasons are different from Fukuyama's, and they do not lead me to conclude that the Left was correct all along. The first big neocon error was their abandonment of realism. In particular, there was a failure to grasp the implications of toppling Saddam for the Middle Eastern balance of power. Kissinger was right when he said of the Iran-Iraq war: "A pity they both can't lose." By getting rid of Saddam, the US unwittingly ensured that Iran belatedly won. Now we confront the possibility that Iraq's political future will be determined in Teheran.
Secondly, there was a woeful lack of historical knowledge. Too many people in Washington bought the idea that the post-war reconstruction of Iraq would be akin to the post-Communist reconstruction of Poland. No one paid any attention to the difficulties the British had experienced in trying to govern Iraq after the First World War.
The third and perhaps worst sin of neocon omission was a lack of self-knowledge. In assuming that the US was in a position to do as it pleased in Iraq, the neocons failed to appreciate three deep-seated American weaknesses. (I argued this in 2004 in my book Colossus, and nothing has happened since its publication to change my view.)
First, the US has a chronic financial deficit, which is making it increasingly dependent on foreign capital and strapped for resources when it comes to "nation building". Second, it has a chronic manpower deficit, which means it cannot put enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order in conquered territory. And third, it has a chronic attention deficit, because after two years of even quite low casualties, American voters lose their enthusiasm for small wars in faraway places.
There is, however, a fourth deficit that I forgot to mention, and that is the chronic legitimacy deficit it now suffers. The most recent findings of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey - a compendium of international opinion polls - reveal just how far the standing of the US has fallen in the eyes of foreigners in the past six years. And yet the logical conclusion from all this is not that the United States should pack up and march off home. For what precisely is the alternative to American hegemony, benign or blundering? Fukuyama pins his hopes on a new multilateralism, trying to breathe life into the corpse of the United Nations and other kindred institutions. The French fantasise that the European Union should somehow act as a counterweight to American power.
Yet when people in other countries are asked: "Would the world be safer if another country were as powerful as the United States?", they generally say "No". We and the Turks are evenly split, but a majority of Russians, Germans and even Jordanians, Moroccans and Pakistanis think the world would be less safe with a second superpower.
What all this tells us is not that American hegemony is finished and should be wound up. It tells us that there is no better alternative available. Pace Fukuyama, the United States does not need to say "sorry" for getting rid of Saddam. What it needs to do is to be more realistic, better informed historically and less fiscally profligate; and to get more boots on the ground.
I'm all for admitting to error. But let's get it right about what has gone wrong.