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Time for a debate within conservative movement

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted November 8, 2004

The re-election of President George W. Bush is a victory for conservatives and for America. Senator John Kerry is the most liberal member of the United States Senate. Especially in view of likely Supreme Court vacancies, our country will be far better off with a President who represents what most Americans believe.

However, now that the election is over, it is time for a serious debate within the conservative movement. It is a fact that certain elements within the Bush Administration, the so-called neo-conservatives, have taken America's foreign policy in directions that are very different from what conservatives have traditionally supported.

I will be the first to praise the neo-cons for their many past contributions to American conservatism. They played key roles in sustaining America's opposition to the Soviet Union in the latter stages of the Cold War. Without them our country might have made some sort of compromise that would have kept the Communists in power. Many of their positions on domestic issues reflect Free Congress Foundation's own work on cultural conservatism. I count many leading neo-cons as personal friends.

It is also true that the re-direction of American foreign policy toward utopian, Wilsonian goals began not under President George W. Bush but under President Clinton. The Clinton Administration started an unprovoked war against a country that did not threaten us, Serbia. In the name of democracy and human rights, NATO's air bombing campaign killed as many as 5,000 Serbian civilians and wrecked much of that country's economy and infrastructure.

However, in the year 2000, George W. Bush ran on a platform that renounced such adventures. He said, "I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you…I think the United States must be humble…in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." These statements reflected conservatives' traditional belief that America should go to war only in self-defense and should avoid unnecessary foreign entanglements.

Then, after 9/11, President Bush's views seemed to change. While our invasion of Afghanistan was a necessary response to al-Qaida's attacks on America, it is clear that America's attack on Iraq reflected a different agenda. Specifically, it reflected the neo-cons' belief that the whole world should be democratized on the American model, by force if necessary. That is a radical departure from what conservatives have stood for ever since Edmund Burke.

The consequences of the neo-cons' adventure in Iraq are now all too clear: America is stuck in a guerilla war with no end in sight, our military is stretched too thin to respond to other threats, and our real enemies, non-state organizations such al-Qaida, are benefiting from the Arab and Islamic backlash against our occupation of an Islamic country.

In coming months, I intend to work with other conservative leaders to bring about the debate over foreign policy and grand strategy that both our nation and the conservative movement clearly need. What should our foreign policy goals be if we are realists, not utopians? Should our grand strategy be offensive or defensive in a world where non-state, Fourth Generation war is spreading? Is our military oriented toward Fourth Generation war, or are we still focused on war with other states?

If President Bush's second term is to be successful, these questions must be addressed. As much as I admire the neo-cons and appreciate their past contributions, it is not clear that the strategic direction in which they have sent the country is correct. I am hopeful that the Bush Administration will welcome this debate and participate in it with an open mind. President George W. Bush's place in history may depend upon his having done so.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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