A Chasm In Conservatism

How W. got power, got cocky, and got spanked by his own supporters


In many ways, the political power of conservatives in America today is at its height. Republicans—the moderates in their ranks reduced to insignificance—control the White House and both houses of Congress, and have a majority on the Supreme Court. Compared with just a decade ago, conservative influence in the media has grown by leaps and bounds as well, both in "traditional" venues such as television (with the advent of Fox News) and in new ones such as blogs.

Yet American conservatism today also seems more divided than ever. There is intense criticism of the Bush administration from neoconservatives who believe that the administration's foreign policy toward North Korea, Iran, and Syria is so dovish as to amount to appeasement. Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, tells The Washington Post, "I don't have a friend in the administration, on Capitol Hill, or any part of the conservative foreign policy establishment who is not beside themselves with fury at the administration." Meanwhile, also in The Post, veteran conservative pundit George F. Will castigates both the neoconservatives who arrogantly push the administration toward more misadventures abroad and the administration itself for naive rhetoric about democracy's spread.

Foreign policy, of course, is not the only area of division. The administration's strong push for a socially conservative agenda—including the attempt to amend the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriage on a federal level and thwart moves toward state recognition of same-sex relationships—as well as its intemperate spending habits have severely strained the conservative-libertarian alliance. (By libertarian, I do not mean Libertarian Party voters but people who generally want to minimize government intervention in the economic and the social arena.) The administration's cavalier attitude toward the troubling civil liberties issues raised by the War on Terror has further alienated libertarian-leaning conservatives.

The Bush presidency still has its strong defenders. Writing on his blog, leading conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt rips into conservative critics of the administration, lamenting that "some formerly clear headed have been reduced to cataloging woes and snarking out college-paper level taunts." His example of such an attitude? A post on the Belgravia Dispatch blog that notes the 6,000 deaths in Iraq in the past two months and satirizes attempts by administration supporters to minimize this toll.

Some of Hewitt's criticism of his fellow conservatives descends into cheap shots. Thus, he dismisses journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan's criticism of the administration on such issues as the treatment of detainees as nothing but spite over President Bush's anti-same-sex marriage stance (Sullivan, who is gay, is a leading proponent of same-sex marriage)—even though Sullivan has defended the administration on some controversial issues, including the stem cell research veto. Hewitt also suggests that other conservative critics are merely griping because they are excluded from the circles of power.

Hewitt and other administration defenders say that we are in a life-and-death struggle against radical Islamic terrorism; and that much is true. But there are growing and serious questions about whether the administration's policies have helped or hurt our cause in that struggle. The war in Iraq, which I supported with reservations—and which I still believe served the good cause of removing a vicious tyrant—has led to brutality and chaos with still unknown repercussions. (The most recent development is Turkey's plans to send forces into northern Iraq to eliminate Turkish Kurdish guerrilla bases, which may do great damage to the US-Turkish alliance.) Such questionable tactics as warrantless eavesdropping and curbing of terror suspects' access to courts have compromised our standing in the War on Terror—with no evidence of results that could not have been accomplished by different means.

Unlike many Bush critics on the left, I don't believe that this administration is made up of villains who want to rape the Constitution, slaughter and torture brown-skinned people in the Middle East, and reduce the American people to a mass of compliant sheep. It seems likely to me that Bush and many of those around him are motivated by good intentions. They believe that the fight against terror calls for desperate measures, and that American power can enable the spread of freedom abroad. But these good intentions have been coupled with an arrogance of power that may yet take us down the proverbial road to hell.