ON A VARIETY of recent national security issues -- port security, Iran, Hamas, China -- President Bush has received as much criticism from conservative Republicans as from Democrats. After a first term in which Republicans were in lock step with their leader, why is the president having trouble with his right flank?
Three reasons. First, it is much easier to criticize a president from your own party when his approval rating is in the low 40s rather than the high 60s. When Bush’s numbers were high, his popularity papered over the GOP’s traditional ideological splits on foreign policy. Now, Bush lacks the political capital to prevent these rifts from resurfacing.
Second, conservatives disagree about foreign policy just as much as Democrats. At this point, the GOP is split between realists and neoconservatives. Realists, such as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, believe that the world is inherently unsafe, and that international institutions do little to solve this problem. They are pessimistic about meddling in the domestic politics of other countries and skeptical that ideas about liberal democracy can travel well beyond the West. This is why Bush, with Condoleezza Rice whispering in his ear, disdained nation-building during the 2000 campaign.
Neoconservatives, such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, agree with realists that the world is unsafe and that multilateral organizations are not of much use, but they disagree over what to do about it. Neocons believe that the United States has the power and the opportunity to spread democracy into the farthest regions of the globe. An expanding zone of democratic peace can bring with it another Pax Americana. This is why Bush, in his second inaugural address, averred: “Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.... Liberty will come to those who love it.”
What makes today’s atmosphere so perilous for Bush is that both sides of the Republican divide feel betrayed. The conservative realists outside the administration, who thought the pre-9/11 Bush was one of their own, were alarmed by the decision to invade Iraq. They expressed grave doubts about the war -- and it looks as if their fears were realized. The absence of a stable Iraq has hamstrung the White House in other areas where force might need to be an option.
Meanwhile, the neoconservatives have become disillusioned too, as Bush’s second-term foreign policy has failed to even remotely match the ambitious rhetoric of the second inaugural.
Finally, doctrinal disputes aside, Republicans like me are angry at Bush because he has frittered away one of the party’s greatest assets -- the belief that when it came to international relations, the GOP was the party of competence. Between 1965 and 2000, analysts gave Republican presidents better grades than Democrats in managing American foreign policy.
The latest public opinion polls, however, give congressional Democrats a new edge on national security issues. Which is not surprising given the administration’s failures at matters that should be routine -- interagency cooperation, contingency planning, congressional consultations, alliance management and so on.
In the eyes of his party, Bush’s biggest foreign policy sin is not his aims, or even his means. It’s that he has done the improbable -- he’s made the Democrats look like a credible alternative.