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February 21, 2006

A Conservative Crack-up?
Posted by Derek Chollet

Anyone who has tuned in to the discussion about politics and foreign policy here in Washington knows that things tend to circle back to a couple basic questions: when will progressives get their act together, and how will the Democrats overcome their perceived weaknesses in national security?  Obviously we welcome this debate -- one of the reasons for establishing this blog was to create a place for such discussions to play out.  Yet while there is certainly plenty of reason for more soul-searching on the progressive side (don’t worry, DA ain’t going anywhere), folks are starting to notice something equally interesting and consequential: the fissures in the conservative movement. 

We're seeing this in the debate about the NSA domestic surveillance program, the torture and detainee issue, what to do about Iraq and Iran, and how (and even whether) the U.S. should work to promote democracy abroad.

It’s not just progressives who are grappling with how to respond to a Bush Doctrine that stresses democracy promotion, pre-emption, and unchecked executive power; the conservatives are divided too – and this internal struggle will only grow more intense and bitter as the 2008 election approaches.

As the New Republic’s Josh Kurlantzick explained recently in must-read cover story, “for four years after the Bush Doctrine's inception, the GOP had maintained impressive intraparty unity on foreign policy, uniting Christian social conservatives, neoconservatives, traditional realists, and libertarian-minded business Republicans. This was the result of many factors, including Bush's immense personal popularity, a rally-round-the-flag effect from the war on terrorism, the predominance of Iraq over all other foreign policy issues, and the fact that moderates in the Bush administration, such as Colin Powell, were marginalized within the bureaucracy.”

“But, now, other schools of foreign policy thought are emerging within the GOP… Pragmatic Republicans have realized that the Bush Doctrine cannot be easily applied to other foreign policy crises, such as Iran, and potential 2008 presidential candidates have begun thinking through their foreign policy positions.”

Kurlantzick argues that conservatives are dividing into three camps: transformationalists, like Condoleezza Rice, who embrace the Bush Doctrine’s ambitions but value alliances; nationalists, like George Allen, who have less patience for multilateralism and stress more traditional state-centered threats, like a rising China; and traditional realists, who articulate the kind of pragmatic, less-ambitious, “humble” policy along the lines of what Bush entered office espousing.

The flavor of the month in this last category is Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who was recently the subject of a New York Times magazine profile that sent Washington buzzing.  Hagel offers a critique of the Administration that many progressives share, but gets credit for bucking his party in the process.  “When I think of issues like Iraq,” the Times quoted him, “of how we went into it -- no planning, no preparation, no sense of consequences, of where we were going, how we were going to get out, went in without enough men, no exit strategy, those kind of things -- I'll speak out, I'll go against my party.”

Politicians aren’t the only ones second guessing; the crack-up is clear inside conservative intellectual circles.  Last weekend another Times magazine blockbuster landed, this time by Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame and sometime neocon (co-signer of the infamous 1998 Project for a New American Century letter advocating Saddam’s overthrow), which is a devastating critique of neo-conservatism and its adherents.  Fukuyama offers a brief history of neo-conservatism and traces its lineage throughout the Bush Administration, especially as it manifested itself in the handling of Iraq. 

Distancing himself from this, Fukuyama explains that “the neoconservative position articulated by people like [William] Kristol and [Robert] Kagan [was] Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will. Leninism was a tragedy in its Bolshevik version, and it has returned as farce when practiced by the United States. Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.”

Whew.  Keep a lookout for the Kristol and Kagan response, coming to a Weekly Standard near you.  And let the games begin.


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The foreign policy of the Bush administration has generally been a disaster. It was refreshing to hear a significant challenge to that posed by Senator Kerry in the 2004 election, but sadly that did not turn out well. Senator Hagel's comments have an important place to play with in conservative circles as conservatives will hopefully abandon the baby Bush approach to foreign policy.

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