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E.J. Dionne Jr.

'Conservative' World Order?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page A27

I am blessed with a lot of conservative friends. Many of them fall into that now-controversial category "neoconservative."

In addition to liking these folks, I respect their creed. Conservatism teaches us useful things: an appreciation of tradition, family and religion; a wariness of great big plans to improve the world; and an attentiveness to the unintended consequences of well-intended actions.

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It may sound contrived, but my affection for conservatives and conservatism has a lot to do with why I'm so frustrated over the political choices these friends of mine are making.

I agree with them that the spread of democracy is good for both the United States and the world. I believe there are appropriate uses for U.S. military power. While our country has not always used its power wisely, our role in defeating the Nazis and Soviet communists vindicates the idea that the United States has been a force for good.

But I fear that my neocon buddies have embarked on a project in Iraq that risks sabotaging the very ideas and policies they cherish, in part because they did not consider those unintended consequences they so often advise us liberals to think about.

As a practical matter, I think my friends should be furious at the Bush administration over the way it has handled Iraq. The idea that our country had the capacity to transform Iraq into a thriving democracy was always a reach. But if we were going to make this enormous effort, the conservative thing to do was to assume from the beginning that it would be hard.

That's why it's astounding -- and un-conservative -- that we went in with the arrogant assumption that we are so good and our ideals were so right that even if we tried to do this with too small a force, everything would turn out fine. How could conservatives ignore the military professionals who rightly insisted that we needed many more troops to pull off such an ambitious endeavor? Isn't prudence, as the first President Bush used to remind us, a conservative virtue?

If my conservative friends were going to go out there to transform the world -- a big and seemingly liberal objective -- they needed to be honest and prepare the American people for a long and difficult struggle. They should have insisted that the effort be paid for and not depend on enormous budget deficits thrown onto those future generations that they so often invoke. The conservative thing to do was to prepare for the worst, not to assume the best.

For neoconservatives who believe in the robust use of American power, President Bush's Iraq venture now threatens to be their Waterloo. Americans who initially doubted the benefits of this war gave Bush (and the neocons) the benefit of the doubt. If this venture bogs down in a long, violent and ambiguous struggle because of poor planning, unrealistic assumptions and know-it-all leadership, doubts about the use of U.S. military power will grow. An Iraq syndrome will replace the Vietnam syndrome we were supposed to have overcome. That will be the ultimate in unintended consequences.

And, by the way, is this policy really rooted in a commitment to the spread of democracy? In light of President Vladimir Putin's recent moves, it's not hard to imagine that my conservative friends would pose this question if a Democrat were in the White House: Who lost Russia? Yet hasn't the current administration shown a remarkable tolerance for Putin's steady march toward authoritarianism?

As recently as Sunday Bush had described Putin as "a man who I admire." Maybe that explains why we let slide Putin's brazen efforts to use government power to intimidate and undermine his opposition. Hey, Putin supported Bush and flat taxes, so the guy must be great. This is the same Putin who earlier this week, in the name of fighting terrorism, took the final steps toward turning his regime into dictatorship-lite. Finally, on Wednesday, Bush expressed his concern about decisions "that could undermine democracy in Russia." It would have been nice to hear those words earlier.

I know that many of my conservative and neocon friends despise what's happening in Russia and privately bemoan the mistakes Bush has made. But they have thrown in their lot with the administration on the theory that if Bush loses, all they consider important in foreign policy will be lost. I'd implore them to think about the likelihood that so much of what they think matters will be utterly discredited if our country stays on its current course.

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