Today's date:
Winter 2008

No Shortcuts to the 'End of History'

Summer 2004

Pondering all the failed revolutions throughout the Third World over the last 50 years, the literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski once offered this summary lesson of the 20th century: There are no shortcuts in history. Using force to try to accelerate social progress and political change before its time will fail.

It was this failure of revolution from Africa to Latin America to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself that led Francis Fukuyama to declare the "end of history"—the exhaustion of all historical alternatives to free markets and liberal democracy.

Seeking to speed up the "end of history" where it hadn't yet arrived, the neo-Wilsonian conservatives behind the Bush Administration's Iraq policy sought to bring liberal democracy and free markets to the Arab Middle East through the use of force. They held an ideological conviction that once Saddam was removed, the end of history would burst forth from beneath the repression in Baghdad and then knock over regimes around the region from Damascus to Ramallah (though hopefully not Riyadh and Cairo) like so many falling dominoes.

The lesson of this "bolshevik" approach to democracy is now clear: There are no shortcuts to "the end of history" either.

Historical coup d'etats—no less those conceived by outside extremists and executed by invading forces—breed paralyzing hostility and lack legitimacy. That is now manifestly evident in Iraq, where the United States policy has degenerated from swift military victory to embattled quagmire to strategic debacle.

Madeleine Albright understands this. "Imposing democracy," she says, "is an oxymoron. It doesn't work. It can't work. It has to bubble up from the bottom. Democracy has to evolve in time. It is not elections. It is the existence of social programs, of a middle class and effective institutions.

"You can't shortcut this," she concludes, even in a place like the Czech Republic, her birthplace, that found freedom again after dwelling under communism for decades. Albright notes that the left has returned to power in many Eastern and Central European states, and in Latin America as well, because "people prefer to eat and have their pensions than to vote. You can't have political development without economic development."

For the Third World—including the Arab Middle East—Francis Fukuyama agrees with a difference. "The real problem for most of the Third World is political—bad institutions and bad governance. For the promise of 'the end of history' to come true, competent self-governing institutions have to come into being. Before you have democracy, you have to have government."

Competent governance and institution building is the long march ahead in post-Saddam Iraq, starting with the basics: physical security, the rule of law, protection of property and infrastructure rehabilitation.

Like the mirage of an oasis shimmering in the distance through the desert heat, the end of history the neocons imagined in the Middle East has dissipated before their eyes as the tanks advanced close enough to see the reality on the ground.