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The Reaganites Strike Back

September 01, 2002|JACOB HEILBRUNN | Jacob Heilbrunn is a Times editorial writer.

WASHINGTON — If President Bush goes to war against Iraq, he'll be abandoning traditional Republican foreign policy. The most fervent objections to war against Saddam Hussein are coming from members of the old guard of the Republican Party. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, for example, are waging battle against neoconservatives who they believe are hijacking Bush administration foreign policy.

The opponents of war view the neocons as intoxicated with the idea of American hegemony and obsessed with Israel's security. As a result, the GOP is locked in a mini-civil war over whether to follow the legacy of Ronald Reagan or the elder George Bush.

For most of its history, the Republican Party has followed the tenets laid down by the patron saint of realism, Theodore Roosevelt. Despite all his bellicose bombast, TR, as his biographer Edmund Morris notes, was a peacemaker. He was reluctant to enter into wars and skeptical of expanding democracy abroad. He devoted much of his presidency to peace conferences. Above all, Roosevelt believed in spheres of influence and staying out of international organizations.

As Europe and Asia descended into fascism and war, the GOP's Roosevelt-inspired attitudes hardened. It was Republicans who were ardent America Firsters. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, they reverted to type. The GOP's leader, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, voted against the Marshall Plan, calling it "globaloney." He opposed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and was antagonistic to the Korean War. To "old right" writer Garet Garrett, the United States had "crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire."

By then, however, anti-communism had legitimized foreign intervention for most conservatives. Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger may have deepened America's involvement in Vietnam, but they were true realists. There was no room in their foreign policy for human-rights considerations and crusades for democracy. On the contrary, they were obsessed with power relationships and spheres of influence. Such ruthless attitudes enabled them to cut deals with ideological foes like the Soviet Union and China.

The rise of neoconservativism and Reaganism in the 1970s, however, augured a different approach. A small band of intellectuals, notably Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, began converting Republicans to a Wilsonian crusading mentality. The neocons contended that both the isolationism of the Democratic Party, under Sen. George S. McGovern, and the amoralism of the GOP, under Kissinger, had it wrong. Democratic Sens. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave them political influence and legitimacy.

The neocons founded the Committee on the Present Danger, one of whose members was Donald H. Rumsfeld, the current secretary of Defense. The U.S. military was falling dangerously behind its Soviet counterpart, they warned. America needed to confront communism, not appease it.

Reagan embraced the ideas of the neoconservatives. As president, he beefed up the defense budget and created the National Endowment for Democracy. Dozens of neocons served in his administration, among them Elliott Abrams, Richard N. Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz. Above all, Reagan rejected the idea of passively containing the Soviet Union. His invasion of Grenada, as well as his support for the Afghan rebels and Nicaraguan Contras, were essentially go-it-alone undertakings that were intended to take the battle to the enemy.

The first President Bush, by contrast, promptly retreated from these in-your-face policies. He had little interest in continuing the Contra program. When the Berlin Wall fell, he didn't exactly celebrate it, worrying that a collapsing Soviet Union meant a great deal more instability in the world. (Contrast this with Reagan's injunction to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall.")

And though his administration did go to war with Iraq, it was only after Bush had painstakingly assembled an international coalition to back him up. In short, Bush was hostage to the ideas of realists like Colin L. Powell and Scowcroft. It was Scowcroft and Powell--then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now secretary of State--who stopped the Gulf War before U.S. forces marched into Baghdad. It was Scowcroft and Powell who shunned humanitarian considerations and refused to get the U.S. involved to stop the marauding Serbs in the Balkans.

Today, it is neocons like Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of Defense; Perle, chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board; and Abrams, a National Security Council member--along with William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard--who are the brains behind Bush's push to expel Hussein. Without them, there would be no war talk. What's more, many neocons believe that the U.S. should target Saudi Arabia too.

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