Neocons to Bush: Saddam or Else?

There is a specter haunting neocon-land, and that is the specter of a Bush wimp-out in the Middle East.

The conservative claque of Washington was aghast. George W. Bush trashed his own Bush Doctrine (we go to war against terrorists, we don't talk to them or anyone that does, and we treat all parties who harbor terrorists as terrorists) by pressing Ariel Sharon to cease his offensive against the so-called 'terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank and by attempting to restart political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As William Kristol and Robert Kagan put it in the Weekly Standard, Vice President Cheney's "recent trip [to the Middle East] marked a detour from the Bush Doctrine; the president's recent statements pressuring Israel to stop its campaign against terrorism, a retreat; [Secretary of State Colin Powell's] trip so far risks turning a retreat into a rout."

Bush did not heed the advice of the Kristolites, or the religious right, or prominent Democrats (such as Senators Tom Daschle, Chuck Schumer, Joe Lieberman) -- who all defended Sharon's actions in the West Bank and urged Bush to back these strikes. Instead, Bush dispatched Powell to the region to lean on Sharon and to coax Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.

On his way to Israel, Powell said, "I think we are all in agreement, and the world is in agreement, that the solution will not be produced by terror or a response to terror ... What will get us there are political discussions, and the sooner we can get them the better."

Well, the world may agree, but few, if any, political players in the United States do. From William Bennett to Jerry Falwell to Hillary Clinton, practically every mainstream voice of note here has said that the immediate solution should be supporting Sharon's "response to terror." On the Middle East, Bush -- who usually adopts the role of a unilateral, screw-the-allies cowboy -- is acting as if he is part of the European Union.

"There is lots of concern in our circles," says an aide to a leading Washington hawk who advocates letting Sharon run free. "And criticism. Lots. This is not the Bush we've been cheering." The best the Sharonistas could hope for was that if Powell mission founders, a frustrated Bush would say, "I tried being even-handed" and return to a go-Sharon-go stance.

History informs the disappointment of the hawks. During the first Bush reign, Daddy Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, were seen by foreign policy conservatives to be less-than-ardent supporters of Israel. Bush the Elder, for instance, tried to force Israel to cut back the settlements in the West Bank. Some conservatives wondered if the Bush/Baker clan's ties to Big Oil caused them to be sympathetic to the Arabs. During the 1992 election, a group of hawkish foreign-policy types -- including Paul Nitze, Samuel Huntington, R. James Woolsey, Martin Peretz, and Morris Amitay -- endorsed Clinton over Bush -- in part, as one columnist noted, because Bush had been "unsympathetic in tone and nuance to Israel." (Clinton later rewarded this bunch by appointing Woolsey to be CIA director.)

W's lineage was much on the mind of foreign policy hawks when he entered the 2000 presidential contest. "For years, there has been a split," explains Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, "between the old Republican establishment of, say, Brent Scowcroft and the first President Bush; and more Reaganite and neoconservative folks like Paul Wolfowitz [the deputy secretary of defense] and Donald Rumsfeld." To boil it down, the establishment sorts are motivated by realpolitik and balance-of-power global politics. The neocon/Reaganites are driven more by ideology and causes. "In the 2000 campaign," Wittmann says, "George W. Bush was presented to the right as being part of the Reaganite school and as someone not sharing his father's foreign policy proclivities. He was sold as not his father's son." Now Wittmann and others worry Bush might be punking out, not sticking with the hang-tough crowd and, instead, following his genes.

In recent weeks, Bush has pissed off conservative comrades on several fronts. He signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that bans soft-money contributions (the mega-donations made by corporations, unions, and millionaires to political parties) and that restricts "issue ads," advertisements run by advocacy groups that purport to be about an issue but that aim to influence an election. The National Right To Life Committee and the National Rifle Association howled about this legislation, and conservative activists called on Bush to veto it. Bush said he wasn't sure the measure was constitutional, but he signed it anyway, disheartening rightwingers who believed his campaign vow not to sign legislation he considered unconstitutional. (After Enron, did they really expect Bush to take a political hit by deep-sixing campaign reform?)

Bush irritated pro-business conservatives by imposing tariffs on imported steel, a retreat from his supposed commitment to unfettered trade. He also angered movement conservatives by backing former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, a pro-gay-rights, pro-choice Republican, for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in California over true-blue conservative William Simon. (An embarrassment for the White House: Simon trounced Riordan.) And NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has been griping for months that the Bush administration's domestic anti-terrorism initiatives have undermined civil liberties. "We've witnessed a fire sale of American liberties at bargain basement prices in return for the false promise of more security," he says.

Then Bush goes and tears up his own doctrine. It's as if he said, "The evil axis -- well, never mind." Bush did toss a juicy bone to his right-wing base by delivering a forceful speech against human cloning, raising the profile of the coming Senate debate on legislation to ban all cloning, even cloning for therapeutic or research purposes. But there remains reason for unrest on the right, even if the natives are not yet pounding the drums.

"It's quite amazing how much forgiveness he gets from the right on a range of issues," Wittmann notes. But Wittmann says there may be a bottom line: "It could come down to how aggressively he pursues Iraq. That could be the linchpin. Iraq has become the means by which the entire war is judged a success or failure."

That may seem odd to some, since Iraq, as far as we know, had nothing to do with the horrific attacks of September 11. But I understand what Wittmann is driving at. The non-isolationist wing of the conservative movement has yearned for an international cause the United States could adopt in the post-Cold War era. The neocon/Reaganite band cheered when Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, declared the enemy to be not only the people and groups who engineered that assault but terrorists everywhere and anyone who as much as winked at them. America had a mission beyond obtaining justice and preserving its security. It would root out the scourge of terrorism, wherever it might be found.

This set of conservatives was further aroused when Bush expanded the war -- at least, rhetorically -- to take on Iraq, Iran and North Korea. (The "axis of evil" line was apparently the handiwork of Bush speechwriter David Frum, who had been a writer at the Weekly Standard and a member in good standing of the neocon/Reaganite club.) Bush's war had grown into war on terrorism and a (possible) war on states that (possibly) possess weapons of mass destruction. And whatever or whomever the target, the United States was willing to go it alone.

The neocons and cons egging Bush on probably do believe this wider war is necessary to secure the United States. But I sense a psychological dimension to the crusade. Bill Kristol, for one, has long sought an endeavor through which the United States can achieve national greatness. (Other Republican conservatives like Kristol who pine for Teddy Roosevelt share this desire.) Saving the world from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction -- whether the world wants the United States to do the saving or not -- is certainly one path toward national greatness, though conceivably a dangerous one. Particularly if it entails partnering up with Sharon or mounting an unilateral military invasion of Iraq.

Wittmann has a point. After Bush dumped his doctrine when confronted with the difficulties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a war on Saddam remained perhaps his last chance to demonstrate American exceptionalism (assuming Bush does not reverse course on Israel). "Whether Saddam is in power in a few years or not," Wittmann says, "will be a better way to judge whether the Bush administration will have problems with conservatives."

But Bush's current engagement in the Middle East -- in which he is calling upon Arab nations for help in easing tensions and finding a negotiated resolution -- provides less room for him to mount a serious action against Saddam. What can he do? Tell Saudi Arabia, he's not applying his doctrine in the West Bank but he is applying it in Iraq? (I hope Powell has a good interpreter.)

But if Wittmann is correct, if the conservative movement's ultimate demand is, "bring me the head of Saddam Hussein," then Bush faces a challenge more daunting than achieving calm in the Middle East. To placate conservatives in this fashion, he will have to undermine the chance for a negotiated settlement in the Middle East conflict, enrage Arab populations, risk instability in the region and oil price shocks around the world, break with European allies, and send thousands of Americans into a unilateral war. That's a lot to ask of a president. But at least William Bennet will be happy.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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