Bush’s Foreign Policy: Changing Tactics, Not Changing Conservatism

In their latest column, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue that Bush has changed conservatism. I can’t say that I agree with them and there are two points in particular that I take issue with. The first is the whole concept of “big government conservatism,” but I’ve addressed that issue in some detail before.

Then there’s their take on how Bush changed conservative foreign policy.

“Which brings us to what is Mr. Bush’s boldest contribution to reinventing conservatism–foreign policy. It is easy to find parallels between his foreign policy and Reagan’s. The latter married American power and American principle (particularly the onward march of freedom). He believed in calling evil by its proper name. And he endured criticism that he was a naïve Wilsonian rather than a sensible conservative realist. In some ways Mr. Bush’s battle against “the axis of evil” is a logical continuation of Reagan’s against “the evil empire.”

But these continuities should not blind conservatives to the radicalism of America’s post-Sept. 11 foreign policy. First, remember that Reagan’s foreign policy was, at the time, a radical departure from older conservative traditions such as America-firstism and Kissingerian realism. Then add the fact that the Bush foreign policy has been far more ambitious than Reagan’s was (Hawkins’ Note: More ambitious than defeating the Soviet Union?). Turning to the neoconservatives, Mr. Bush has applied his doctrine of spreading democracy to an area of the world where the Reaganites feared to tread. Baghdad is not Warsaw; Ayatollah Sistani is not Lech Walesa. Mr. Bush has also taken his ideas much further than Reagan. Within a few months of the declaration of the “Bush doctrine”–those who harbor terrorists will be treated as terrorists (Hawkins’ Note: Bush actually said this 9 days after 9/11) –American tanks were rolling into Baghdad.

From Sept. 11 till the Iraq invasion, most conservatives expected that the war on terror would hold their movement together. The “axis of evil” would fit into the slot vacated by “the evil empire.” And the conservative foot soldiers would put aside their differences–particularly over government spending–in a common war against Islamist extremism.

There are still times when that theory holds–the GOP convention was a masterly exposition of this unifying credo–but as Iraq gets ever messier, the noises off-stage grow louder. Conservatives as diverse as William F. Buckley and Pat Robertson have started to air their doubts. That clamor would become deafening if the Republicans lose the presidency on Nov. 2, with the neoconservatives the main target of the movement’s wrath. But even if Mr. Bush wins, the neoconservative dream at its most fanciful is surely over (Hawkins’ Note: I wouldn’t bet on that). The neocons will remain; they are too clever and too prominent on Washington’s rive droite to disappear. But the main question will be which representatives of other conservative foreign-policy traditions–particularly realism–will be able to re-establish influence.”

Despite what you often hear from people on the left and sometimes the right, the war on terrorism is not a neoconservative idea per se. Yes, there have been neoconservatives championing the way we’ve conducted the war on terror, but since 9/11 there has been no practical difference between prominent neocons and the overwhelming majority of the conservative movement when it comes to terrorism. In other words, whether you are talking about prominent neocons like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, & Jonah Goldberg or the overwhelming majority of run-of-the-mill conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, Victor Davis Hanson, & Donald Rumsfeld, there’s not two dimes worth of difference in how they believe we should be running the war on terror (at least in the larger sense).

Secondly, while the Bush Doctrine is certainly a change from our Cold War policies, it’s not as radical of a shift as it might seem at first glance.

For example, do you think we would have tolerated a 9/11 style attack from Cuba during the height of the Cold War? Of course we wouldn’t have. Had Castro sent a team of Cubans into our country to blow up the WTC, we would have smashed him the same way we did the Taliban. And when you get right down to it, does it really make any difference if we’re talking about a team of terrorists directly employed by a government or a group of terrorists that are trained, supplied, and protected by that same government? The difference between the two is practically nil although people don’t always see it that way.

Furthermore, there’s nothing new about preemptive war. What was Vietnam if not a preemptive war? Was their an “imminent threat” to the United States in Grenada? Didn’t we kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the Gulf War primarily because we feared he wouldn’t stop there? Preemption isn’t something that began with the Bush administration.

Then there’s spreading Democracy and freedom in Iraq and the rest of the Middle-East. Didn’t we stay in Japan and Germany to help them rebuild after a war? Don’t we have troops in South Korea and Taiwan to help protect Democracy and hem in our enemies? Did Reagan not talk constantly and work tirelessly to bring down the Soviet Union and free the people of Eastern Europe? Americans have always been interested in spreading freedom when we have the opportunity, it’s just that relentlessly agitating for Democracy often isn’t practical even for a nation as powerful as the United States.

So is the Bush Doctrine really a truly “radical” change of philosophy for conservatism? Not given the circumstances we’re faced with. It’s just a different type of war than say WW2 or the Cold War was and therefore it requires different, although not truly new, tactics.

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