Tribal Warfare on the Right

Henry R. Nau, a professor at George Washington University, served in the Ford and Reagan administrations and is author of "At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy." This article is extracted from a larger piece that will appear in the winter issue of National Interest.

This is yet another postelection analysis of the partisan forces that nearly toppled a conservative wartime president. Don’t worry, though. This one’s not about the liberal platoons led by Joe Lockhart, Michael Moore or Janeane Garofalo, but rather the conservative camps whose internecine squabbling threatened the president’s victory.

In Camp 1, conservative realists, such as Brent Scowcroft, attacked President Bush’s policies for splitting the NATO alliance and chasing after democratic rainbows in the barren sands of the Middle East.

In Camp 2, conservative internationalists -- the notorious neocons -- including Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama, quarreled about the urgency of the terrorist threat and the need for international approval.

In Camp 3, conservative nationalists, such as Pat Buchanan, deplored the Cold War reflex to defend feckless allies and called for homeland and missile defenses to defeat terrorism.


Foreign policy wars among conservatives are not new. In the 1970s, neocon Ronald Reagan blasted realists such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for preserving rather than defeating the former Soviet Union. But peace among conservatives is possible -- so long as all camps recognize the contributions each makes to their common cause.

All conservatives believe that threats arise from disparities in power, especially when that power is wielded by countries that do not support freedom in their own societies. To protect freedom in countries where it exists, therefore, a global balance of power is necessary. Without it diplomacy and moral example are, in the words of Frederick the Great, “like music without instruments.”

That doesn’t mean legitimacy flows from force. It flows from freedom -- and international institutions are too often compromised, if not dominated, by countries that are less than free at best, tyrannies at worst -- institutions such as the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have veto power.

It is not weapons of mass destruction per se that threaten the U.S., but the nature of the societies or groups that seek such weapons. Britain has nuclear weapons and no one is concerned. But fundamentalist societies and groups that reject Western freedom pose a threat that, although not specific and imminent -- like the Cold War threat -- is global and immanent. No tanks and artillery bristle at the border of Central Europe, capable of striking within the hour. Instead terrorist cells lurk throughout the fabric of global society, capable of striking in any spot at any hour. The new threat offers less warning time than the intercontinental missiles that defined the Cold War.

For conservatives, therefore, the terrorist danger looms larger than it does for many liberals. It is not simply a “criminal matter” to be dealt with by intelligence and police forces.

The likelihood that authoritarian or totalitarian regimes (such as North Korea) and failed regimes (such as Afghanistan under the Taliban) may help terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction is the most serious threat. Waiting until one has proof that such weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists is foolhardy.

Conservatives disagree, however, over how to prosecute the war that Al Qaeda declared on the United States on Sept. 11.

Neoconservatives advocate the most muscular strategy, one that encourages the U.S. to act without allies if necessary through flexible “coalitions of the willing.”


Realists would prefer to use existing alliances and patiently reorganize them to deal with new threats.

Nationalists expect allies to do more on their own and seek to keep U.S. forces at home, where America is still protected by two broad oceans. These disagreements are actually helpful.

Neocons want to fight the war most aggressively, that is, as far away from America’s shores as possible.

Nationalists want to fight it most defensively, that is, as close to home as possible.


The two groups ultimately temper one another, and their views, taken together, generate a conservative engagement strategy that is more selective. As Krauthammer has argued, such a strategy advocates U.S. intervention when the situation is strategic and a change in the political direction of a state or region toward democracy may be decisive.

Iraq was just such a case of both strategic and political significance: It supported terrorists in the same region from which Al Qaeda originates; it maintained contacts with Al Qaeda (although the 9/11 commission found no proof of collaboration or, it should be added, the absence of collaboration); it attacked neighbors twice in a region that is critical for world oil supply; it had used and, based on the best intelligence at the time, sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction; it defied the United Nations for 12 years; it had a brutal regime and a leader who wantonly destroyed his own people; and regime shift in a more humane political direction could change the region decisively.

North Korea and Iran do not meet all of these conditions and are unlikely to do so unless they attack neighbors and brazenly defy the U.N. over a long time.

The realists, who call for intervention at a threshold between those suggested by neocons and nationalists, do not necessarily represent a happy medium. Although they intervene primarily for strategic or alliance interests, they intervene for insufficient reasons.


Americans will not support for long a Middle East intervention that embraces authoritarian regimes to assure the flow of oil. They did support the Cold War, but that was because it was a fight against the repressions of communism -- higher purpose was important.

So the realists’ impulse to drive neocons out of the conservative camp is ill advised. Don’t forget that Reagan, top neocon bar none, transformed conservatism from a “remnant” into a majority by insisting that foreign policy was about more than geopolitics or stability. Modern conservatism is about the future of freedom, not the past of unchanging geography and culture. The surest way for conservatives to become a minority again is to forget this Reagan legacy.

But neocons also need realists and nationalists. Foreign policy is still the art of the possible, not the desirable. We cannot impose democracy in every cultural situation. We can urge it and offer the example of our own democracy. But if democracy means anything, it means home-grown. We have to take the risk that some cultures will reject it.

What is most puzzling about neocons is not that they believe democracy is potentially possible anywhere, but that they believe we can export it without the help of our democratic allies.


But what is the use of spreading democracy if we can’t get along with existing democracies -- such as France, which is often a pain in the neck but usually is there for the U.S. when really needed (during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example). We may have to act at times without allies, but we don’t need to celebrate those occasions. Differences among democratic allies are difficult -- but bearable because they are ultimately beneficial.

So are differences among conservative foreign policy camps. What is not bearable is for conservatives as a whole to succumb to indifference, as nationalists are prone to do, or to intolerance as neocons are prone to do, or to cynicism as realists are prone to do.

Conservatives need each other in foreign policy, especially when they consider the liberal alternative. They have to make peace if foreign policy in the second Bush administration is to succeed.




Snapshots of the Conservative Camps


What they’re reading: Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky’s new book “The Case for Democracy,” which argues that the world is “divided between those who are prepared to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it.” Sound familiar? Sharansky met with President Bush and Middle East advisor Elliott Abrams on Nov. 11 to discuss his book, which Bush is reading.


Favorite president: Ronald Reagan

Most hated president: Jimmy Carter

Favorite countries: Israel and Taiwan

Most hated country: France


Favorite U.S. war: all of them, except ...

Least favorite war: Persian Gulf War, because the first President Bush didn’t go to Baghdad

Favorite word: unilateralism

Favorite part of the country: Manhattan


Where they buy their suits: Barneys



What they’re reading: Former journalist Anatol Lieven’s “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism,” a denunciation of messianic neoconservatism. Lieven declares, “America keeps a fine house, but in its cellar there lives a demon, whose name is nationalism.”


Favorite president: Richard Nixon

Most hated president: Woodrow Wilson

Favorite war: Persian Gulf War, because the first President Bush didn’t go to Baghdad

Least favorite war: Vietnam


Favorite country: Britain

Most hated country: none

Favorite term: balance of power

Favorite part of the country: Ohio


Where they buy their suits: Brooks Brothers



What they’re reading: Pat Buchanan’s “Where the Right Went Wrong: How the Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency” and the late Sen. Robert Taft’s 1951 “A Foreign Policy for Americans,” which decries interventionists who “are inspired with the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas abroad as recent administrations have desired to enforce at home.”


Favorite president: Andrew Jackson

Most hated president: Bill Clinton

Favorite war: Mexican-American War

Least favorite war: all the rest


Favorite country: none

Most hated country: everyone else

Favorite term: unilateralism

Favorite part of the country: Georgia


Favorite clothing store: Syms

-- Jacob Heilbrunn