GOP split is only splitting hairs

By Jonathan Chait Published:

By Jonathan Chait

Newspapers and magazines have been filled with talk of a conservative foreign-policy schism. The Republican Party comes off sounding a lot like. . . well, Iraq: its charismatic leader deposed, long-suppressed feuds have bubbled up into a bloody and seemingly intractable feud.

I dont think thats quite right. The conservatives are more like a married couple bickering over how to break the news to their kids that theyve gone broke and have to sell the house and move to a poorer neighborhood.

Supposedly, Republicans are divided over core principles. Neoconservatives favor continued Bushian wars to spread democracy, while realists are skeptical. However, neoconservatives arent really pushing for any Iraq sequels. Many of them are threatening Iran, but theyre talking about airstrikes to take out a nuclear program, not a land invasion to implant democracy.

The neoconservatives and realists may be divided about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but their prospective strategies arent that different. Both favor deep engagement with the world, nonmilitary measures to promote democratization, alliances with Pakistan and other unsavory allies, and so on.

To the extent that there is a schism, its between the GOPs intellectuals and its base. Republican voters have always held a dim view of nation building, democracy implanting and any expenditure of blood or treasure that seems to have some charitable motivation. They can be roused to belligerency by wars of revenge or against communists of any sort, but they retain a deep-seated isolationist impulse.

Those Republican voters, though, are a fairly pliable lot. George W. Bush ran in 2000 as a committed enemy of nation building who promised a more humble foreign policy. He railed against what he saw as an overstretched military and promised to treat our friends overseas as allies, not satellites. Republicans lapped it up. Now hes done the opposite of all those things, and theyre still lapping it up.

I know, I know -- 9/11 changed everything. Thats the pro-Bush explanation for his total ideological reversal.

Im not buying that one either.

The Bush doctrine announced after 9/11 held that we wont distinguish between terrorists and the countries that harbor them. The administration had good reasons to invade Iraq, but getting the terrorists wasnt one of them. That was just the reason given to the GOP base. Bush sometimes mentioned his desire to spread democracy before the war, but he only started emphasizing it after Iraq turned out not to have any weapons of mass destruction. The war didnt follow from the theory. The theory followed from the war.

The Republican base bought into this theory mainly because Bush said it. As the end of the Bush era approaches and the prospects for democracy in Iraq grow ever more remote, Republicans are trying to figure out what to tell them next. What theyre not arguing about is what to do next.

Ill summarize the recent conservative manifestos. National Review Editor Rich Lowry, sort of a conservative/realist, argues in a cover story that while the Iraq war was in important respects ill-conceived, the outcome is still in doubt and we can win. Going forward, our foreign policy should be adjusted to allow more of an emphasis on diplomacy and allies; a realization that creating democracy through military intervention is deeply problematic; a greater measure of prudence.

On the other hand, disillusioned neoconservative Francis Fukuyama in his much-discussed essay in The New York Times Magazine laments the Bush administrations incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency. Nonetheless, we need to prevail. Fukuyama argues that the worst legacy that could come from the Iraq war would be an anti-neoconservative backlash. He favors tweaking: better alliances, more skepticism about imposing democracy, etc.

What did arch-neoconservative Bill Kristol have to say to this? In a Weekly Standard editorial, he blasted Fukuyamas essay but almost entirely avoided its substance. Instead, Kristol issued rousing calls for resolve against the enemy and denounced dishonorable retreat. This is roughly translated as: La la la, I cant hear you.

Here is the real difference between the realists and the neocons: The former think the way to keep the base in line is to concede some mistakes and adjust accordingly, while the latter think any admission of error will cause their political coalition to collapse.

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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