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Nation-Building Exposes GOP's House Divided

The neocon dream of exporting democracy clashes with the traditional Republican view of a foreign policy grounded in "realism."

March 21, 2004|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer at The Times.

WASHINGTON — The longer the U.S. struggles to impose order in postwar Iraq, the harsher the indictments of the Bush administration's foreign policy are becoming. "Acquiring additional burdens by engaging in new wars of liberation is the last thing the United States needs," declared one Bush critic in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "The principal problem is the mistaken belief that democracy is a talisman for all the world's ills, and that the United States has a responsibility to promote democratic government wherever in the world it is lacking."

Sound like a Democratic pundit bashing Bush for partisan gain? Nope. The jab came from Dimitri K. Simes, president of the predominantly Republican Nixon Center and co-publisher of the National Interest magazine. And he is not alone in calling on the administration to reclaim the party's pre-Reagan heritage -- to abandon its moralistic, Wilsonian, neoconservative dream of exporting democracy, in favor of a more limited and realistic foreign policy.

The most profound foreign affairs ideological divide in the 2004 election might not be so much between liberals and conservatives as it will be among conservatives themselves. A growing number of so-called "realists," who feel that U.S. foreign policy should be shaped by a narrowly defined national interest rather than by a broad desire to promote global democracy and human rights, have gotten increasingly vociferous in warning about the perils of adventurism abroad.

These critics, unlike the anti-imperialists of the left, don't view U.S. power with antipathy: They revere it. But they fear squandering the country's might and are fond of recalling 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke's warning: "I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread being too much dreaded." They see neoconservatives like the Weekly Standard's William Kristol as championing big government in the service of social engineering abroad. The debate between realists and neoconservatives over U.S. power and moralism could prove as poisonous to the Republicans as the foreign policy fights that racked the Democratic Party during the 1970s and 1980s.

The GOP has struggled before with its position on entanglements abroad. Sen. Robert Taft, a leading light of the party during the 1940s and early 1950s, decried America's entry into NATO and its sponsorship of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe: "No foreign policy can be justified except a policy devoted ... to the protection of the liberty of the American people, with war only as the last resort and only to protect that liberty." But once Mr. Republican, as Taft was known, lost the 1952 presidential nomination to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the GOP was set on a more internationalist course. As William F. Buckley Jr. put it, "in order to fight communism, we may have to accept bureaucratic totalitarianism on these shores" because communism was "the greatest danger the West has ever faced."

But this was only a temporary accommodation. By the mid-1990s, many Republicans, like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, displayed distinct isolationist impulses, attacking the Clinton administration's interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. They saw Bill Clinton's humanitarian interventions as the equivalent of welfare programs -- as attempts by big government to carry out social engineering. But like the Cold War, Sept. 11 pushed a large chunk of the GOP back onto an internationalist course. George W. Bush, who denounced nation-building during his campaign, has found himself presiding over the economic and political reconstruction of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before the Iraq war, conservative complaints about Bush were largely confined to a figure like Pat Buchanan. "Lust for destruction is not policy, no matter how much Pentagon hawks and neoconservative media trumpets may yearn to plow salt into the fields of Iraq," his American Conservative magazine declared in fall 2002. In response, in the April 7 issue of National Review last year, David Frum, coauthor of the new neoconservative manifesto "An End to Evil," denounced "unpatriotic conservatives," declaring that "they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them."

But in recent months, the kind of apprehensions expressed by Simes and others about U.S. overreaching have spread. According to realist thinker Fareed Zakaria, author of the bestseller "The Future of Freedom," a skeptical look at exporting democracy, "At some point denial will stop working, the markets will react ... and the budget will be under severe pressure. Then Congress will begin searching for cuts, and spending on foreign affairs, even military spending, will get the ax. And America's grand new engagement in the world will turn out to be short-lived indeed."

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