Altered State


“The U.S. position,” Edward W. Said writes in From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, “has been escalating toward a more and more metaphysical sphere, in which Bush and his people identify themselves (as in the very name of the military campaign Operation Enduring Freedom) with righteousness, purity, the good, and manifest destiny, and the country’s external enemies with an equally absolute evil.” Later in the same chapter, Said offers that Washington’s “domain is purely theoretical because they sit behind desks in the Pentagon, and they tend to see the world as a distant target for the United States’ very real and virtually unopposed power.” Those who know Said’s work will recognize that these accusations are not mere turns of phrase. The late author of Orientalism spent a great deal of time connecting the dots between the immaterial realm of beliefs and philosophy—the “metaphysical” and the “theoretical”—and the all-too-mortal gunpoint realities of global power struggles. At the ethical fulcrum between ideas and actions, in Said’s view, is the public intellectual, a figure endlessly dissected in his voluminous oeuvre, and exemplified through his own controversial public status.

A posthumous collection of Said’s essays from Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly, British Arabic journal Al-Hayat, and the London Review of Books, From Oslo has been designed as a sequel of sorts to his 2000 The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, which collects pieces from the same publications. Drawing exclusively from Said’s political writings, rather than literary topics from the same sources, these 46 essays written from 2000 to 2003 cover his ongoing examination of the Palestinian crisis and American reactions following September 11. But lit crit nevertheless seeps in when Said takes aim at fellow Middle East experts who took on increased currency following 9-11, particularly New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and scholars Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) and Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong?, The Crisis of Islam, and dozens more). Said trounces Huntington as “someone who wants to make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not, shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history to contain not only wars of religions and imperial conquest but also exchange, cross-fertilization, and sharing.”

One can only imagine what Said would have said about conservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. A former State Department policy planner, Fukuyama is best known for his neo-Hegelian treatise The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which contends that Communism’s collapse signaled the completion of ideological struggles and the emergence of democratic capitalism as the best pos-sible economic and governance model. In State-Building, Fukuyama backtracks a bit, to argue that neocon free-market, anti-statist policies promoted as cure-alls in the developing world have failed because of a lack of complexity in understanding “stateness”: While numbers-friendly institutions like banking are relatively easy to import, cultural institutions like law or education are much harder to foster. Yet the dilemma of how to do so remains pressing, since “weak or failed states” create internal humanitarian crises (Kosovo, Somalia) and “failed governance can create intolerable security threats in the form of terrorists wielding WMD.”

As thought-provoking and big-idea seductive as any leftist continental thinker, Fukuyama certainly kicks up more useful concepts than any of the logorrheic anti-capitalist fairy tales by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who avoid addressing at-hand problems with vague concepts like Empire and Multitudes. Yet Fukuyama’s own categorization of “weak or failed states” is suspiciously broad—surely the distinction between Argentina and Afghanistan is more substantial. How the uncontrolled pursuit of Western interests may have engendered such varied situations is elided in favor of stressing local cultural differences as contributors to internal incompetence.

The most surprising aspect of State-Building for non-con readers is Fukuyama’s Bush-bashing. One of the original Clinton-era signatories, along with Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and others, of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, Fukuyama also signed his name to a September 20, 2001, policy letter from PNAC to President Bush urging that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” Yet in State-Building, Fukuyama deals harsh words to the Bush team, which he says “failed to draw on [the international community’s] prior experience when it entered Afghanistan and Iraq, and committed many of the same mistakes that were made in previous nation-building exercises.” Elsewhere, he argues that “differences between the United States and Europe are the product of a rather maladroit handling of allies by this particular administration.” If neocons like Fukuyama aren’t happy with Bush’s policies, then who is? Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of different state models, Fukuyama recommends one possible start to solving our current global mess: “Democratic regimes at least have some institutional checks against the worst forms of incompetence and rapacity: Bad leaders can be voted out of office.”

Archive Highlights