"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Criticism from conservatives signals troubles for Bush's agenda

Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - (KRT) - Here's what critics are saying these days about President Bush's war policy:
One says, "America has blundered into a needless and dangerous war." Another says, "We were rushed into the war, and now we are bogged down." Another assails "this massive exercise in social engineering." Another scorns Bush's "specious arguments" for going to war, and says Bush's democratization dream is "untenable." Another says "troop withdrawal ought to be an option."
With costs and casualties mounting on the eve of the Iraqi elections, you might assume these attacks were launched by the likes of Michael Moore, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, John Kerry or Whoopi Goldberg. But you would be wrong, because all these comments, and many more, were uttered by card-carrying conservatives.
Indeed, the discomfort among conservatives is proof that the president is risking considerable political capital in his signature foreign venture. A majority of conservatives are still loyal to Bush and indulgent of his war aims, but the rumblings are unmistakable - and that kind of opposition could imperil his ambitious second-term agenda, one of the intended cornerstones of his legacy.
"The dissent and unease is growing," says Doug Bandow, who was an aide in the Reagan White House. "I can see it in my own church, a conservative evangelical church. People come up and say to me, `I'm glad we're having that (Iraqi) election, because then we've got to leave.' Or, `We got rid of Saddam; let's declare victory and go.' A lot of them are retired military, and I didn't hear that a year ago. That talk will start percolating up to the elected Republican officials."
The unease also is starting to show up in surveys. In a new national Los Angeles Times poll, 34 percent of conservatives now say it wasn't worth going to war in Iraq; last fall, 20 percent said so. Today, 56 percent of conservatives say that the war has hurt America's global image - and a plurality, 47 percent, believe that the Iraqi elections will not significantly stabilize the country.
Michael Desch, an ex-State Department official who writes for conservative magazines and teaches at the George Bush School at Texas A&M, says "all this happy talk about democratizing the world, which built to a crescendo in the president's second inaugural, has rubbed a lot of conservatives the wrong way. It's another expansion of big government, and we have to oppose that, just as we opposed big government liberalism during the '60s.
"Iraq was completely unnecessary. The president is in danger of overreaching, the way conservatives did during the Newt Gingrich era. My party has not always been very good at dealing with victory."
The pro-war conservatives, however, denounce the dissenters as out to lunch and on the fringes of power; by contrast, conservative hawks crafted Bush's war policy and dominate much of the conservative opinion empire - the National Review and Weekly Standard magazines, the Rush Limbaugh radio show, the top Washington think tanks.
Rich Lowry, who edits National Review, paints the dissenters as "cowboys without cattle. They have little public support, and a naive view of the world. The poisons of the world reached out and killed 3,000 people (on Sept. 11, 2001). They don't seem to appreciate that." Yet his former boss, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., said recently: "If I knew (in 2002) what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war." Lowry won't comment on Buckley.
Some pro-war conservatives who admire the president are nevertheless worried about his political standing. Peter Robinson, a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, says Bush "will have a real problem holding everyone together, because, believe me, all those conservative congressmen are increasingly going to hear about the heightened level of anxiety when they show up in their districts."
Buckley's anxieties are shared by Tucker Carlson, the bow-tied conservative pundit, who says he is "ashamed" of his initial support for a war that he now calls "a total nightmare and disaster."
And other conservatives are openly deriding Bush's aspirations for global democratization; commentator Peggy Noonan, the Reagan special assistant, writes that Bush may be suffering "mission inebriation," and that he risks exposing himself abroad to accusations of "conceit, immaturity or impetuousness."
That kind of talk has been scarce on Capitol Hill, where most conservative members remain reluctant to question their own party's president in wartime. But the unity has cracked. Howard Coble, dean of the North Carolina Republican delegation - and a die-hard conservative whose district voted 2-1 for Bush in 2000 and 2004 - has declared that he is "fed up" with the U.S. casualties, that Congress should have asked tougher questions during the prelude to war, and that a U.S. withdrawal scenario should now be on the table.
"He'd been getting more and more agitated," says Coble's press secretary, Ed McDonald. "He's a real fiscal conservative, and the war money bothers him greatly. But he's really not alone on this. Some Republican House members - names you would recognize - have called and said privately: `Right on, Howard, you've hit the nail on the head. Let's get through this election over there, then we'll see where we are.'"
In a sense, it's no surprise that conservatives are split today. There have long been divisions over foreign policy, between the so-called realists (who support U.S. intervention only when our security is imminently threatened; witness Iraq war critic Brent Scowcroft, adviser to President George H.W. Bush) and the idealists (who want to promote democracy abroad; witness Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the current "neoconservative" war team).
Marshall Wittmann, former lobbyist for the Christian Coalition and a close observer of conservative politics, says: "This debate had been suppressed within the ranks, because of support for a Republican president. Now, with no weapons of mass destruction found, and with the war more difficult than anticipated, all the tensions are coming to the fore."
But even pro-war conservatives are faulting Bush for a failure to communicate; amid the grim war news, they say, it's not enough for him to simply keep insisting that "we're making progress" and that "freedom is on the march."
Robinson, the Reagan speechwriter, says: "When you ask people to take casualties, you really have to bring them along. Franklin Roosevelt, on radio, explained things in great detail. Churchill was in the House of Commons every day, providing great detail. We're not getting that from this president. I don't get it."
But Lowry suggests a reason: Bush "tends to get impatient with the process of arguing his position."
The pro-war conservatives will predominate, at least until it's clear whether conditions on the ground improve in the wake of the first Iraqi elections. They still have cachet in the corridors of power; after all, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was summoned by Bush aides late last year to help craft the inaugural speech, then lauded the finished speech as "impressive" on Fox News.
But Christopher Preble, a Navy veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who directs foreign policy at the conservative Cato Institute, cites the ongoing downside - an average of two slain soldiers a day, and $2 billion a week - and offers this warning to the president:
"Conservatives were sold on the assumption that it wouldn't be long and costly. Now we're paying for it in taxpayer dollars and paying with our lives. ... He can talk about doing other things - (curbing) abortion, reforming Social Security - but the war is where the rubber meets the road. If he truly feels he has a mandate for this, he's in for a rude awakening."
© 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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Milton Frihetsson, 17:10


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