By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A01
At a moment when his conservative coalition is already under strain over domestic policy, President Bush is facing a new and swiftly building backlash on the right over his handling of foreign affairs.
Conservative intellectuals and commentators who once lauded Bush for what they saw as a willingness to aggressively confront threats and advance U.S. interests said in interviews that they perceive timidity and confusion about long-standing problems including Iran and North Korea, as well as urgent new ones such as the latest crisis between Israel and Hezbollah.
"It is Topic A of every single conversation," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has had strong influence in staffing the administration and shaping its ideas. "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."
Conservatives complain that the United States is hunkered down in Iraq without enough troops or a strategy to crush the insurgency. They see autocrats in Egypt and Russia cracking down on dissenters with scant comment from Washington, North Korea firing missiles without consequence, and Iran playing for time to develop nuclear weapons while the Bush administration engages in fruitless diplomacy with European allies. They believe that a perception that the administration is weak and without options is emboldening Syria and Iran and the Hezbollah radicals they help sponsor in Lebanon.
Most of the most scathing critiques of the administration from erstwhile supporters are being expressed within think tanks and in journals and op-ed pages followed by a foreign policy elite in Washington and New York.
But the Bush White House has always paid special attention to the conversation in these conservative circles. Many of the administration's signature ideas -- regime change in Iraq, and special emphasis on military "preemption" and democracy building around the globe -- first percolated within this intellectual community. In addition, these voices can be a leading indicator of how other conservatives from talk radio to Congress will react to policies.
As the White House listens to what one official called the "chattering classes," it hears a level of disdain from its own side of the ideological spectrum that would have been unthinkable a year ago. It is an odd irony for a president who has inflamed liberals and many allies around the world for what they see as an overly confrontational, go-it-alone approach. The discontent on the right could also color the 2008 presidential debate.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is considering a bid for president, called the administration's latest moves abroad a form of appeasement. "We have accepted the lawyer-diplomatic fantasy that talking while North Korea builds bombs and missiles and talking while the Iranians build bombs and missiles is progress," he said in an interview. "Is the next stage for Condi to go dancing with Kim Jong Il?" he asked, referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the North Korean leader.
"I am utterly puzzled," Gingrich added.
Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan administration arms-control official who is close to Vice President Cheney, said he believes foreign policy innovation for White House ended with Bush's second inaugural address, a call to spread democracy throughout the world.
"What they are doing on North Korea or Iran is what [Sen. John F.] Kerry would do, what a normal middle-of-the-road president would do," he said. "This administration prided itself on molding history, not just reacting to events. Its a normal foreign policy right now. It's the triumph of Kerryism."
Not all conservatives subscribe to such views. Some prominent conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will, have been skeptical of the mission in Iraq and, in Will's case, much of the ability of America to build democracy abroad. In his syndicated column yesterday, Will referred to the neoconservative complaints in observing that the administration is "suddenly receiving some criticism so untethered from reality as to defy caricature."
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president listens to all these criticisms but believes that aggressive diplomacy is paying off by bringing other countries into his effort to isolate North Korea and Iran. "Some people are impatient with the pace of diplomacy," he said. "But the president believes it is important to have an all-out effort to solve these problems in a peaceful way."
GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, appear to be lining up closely with the president on foreign policy. It has not helped the neoconservative case, perhaps, that the occupation of Iraq has not gone as smoothly as some had predicted.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leading conservative who has clashed with the White House on spending and immigration, said Bush has "shown toughness and grit in advancing America's interests in the world."
Other lawmakers said it is unrealistic to expect different policies on Iran and North Korea given the complexities involved with forcing those countries to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
"There haven't been a lot of alternatives presented," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
In fact, it has been Bush's willingness to respond to criticism from the foreign policy establishment -- which has long urged him to do more to pursue a more "multilateral" diplomacy in concert with allies -- that has led to distress among many conservatives outside Congress, particularly the band of aggressive "neoconservatives" who four years ago were most enthusiastic about the Iraq war.
Bill Kristol and colleagues associated with his Weekly Standard have been agitating for several years about what they see as inadequate troop levels in Iraq, an incompetently managed war effort and a failure to move aggressively enough to defeat the insurgency.
For many neoconservatives, a final straw came with the U.S. decision to offer direct talks and potential benefits to Iran as an inducement to curb its nuclear program. There appears little confidence that Bush will be able to muster support for strong international action against Iran, including air strikes to take out nuclear facilities.
"They are starting to see multilateral talks as an end to themselves," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are fooling themselves to think it could lead to tough sanctions."
Kenneth R. Weinstein, head of the conservative Hudson Institute, seemed more forgiving, recalling "the fury of the right" at Ronald Reagan in his second term for engaging then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "Bush -- like Truman and Reagan -- is under attack from the left and the right," he said. "Given the laundry list of global challenges, the administration has had to make dozens and dozens of tough calls -- and overwhelmingly it's been right."