After several weeks of nearly unanimous public support for President Bush's moves in the Middle East, the administration's approach is beginning to stir dissent -- especially among political conservatives who are rediscovering their pre-Cold War aversion to foreign entanglements.
Opposition to the administration is confined so far to small minorities on the left and the right, and members of Congress, especially conservatives, have been reluctant to criticize the president in time of crisis.
But some of the leading articulators of conservative opinion, the policy intellectuals and commentators like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Patrick J. Buchanan, have been much freer in expressing doubts. These first hints of dissidence suggest that the president will eventually confront the same sort of domestic criticism that all his recent predecessors faced when they undertook long-term, foreign military commitments.
On the left, criticism has been slower to develop, but it is beginning. A small group of veteran opponents of American intervention, including former attorney general Ramsey Clark, have organized the Coalition Against Intervention in the Middle East to oppose Bush's policy.
The Nation magazine, a bellwether of left-of-center thinking, sharply criticized the administration in an editorial in its issue published today. The magazine labeled the administration's approach "naked imperial intervention" and compared the Bush policy to "many of Hollywood's disappointing summer blockbusters that started out big but shriveled after a few weeks."
Among the few traditional congressional critics of American interventionism to offer sharp questions about Bush's approach is Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is in a tough reelection fight. "Why do we always have to do it by ourselves?" Harkin asked an Iowa crowd during a campaign stop last week. "I don't believe America has to be the policeman of the world."
Criticism of foreign intervention from the left has been a staple of recent American politics, so what is most remarkable in the Middle East crisis so far has been the left's comparative silence. More striking is the right's vocalizing of opposition to the president's policies.
The rumblings against his approach arise from a broad-ranging debate among conservatives over how to define America's role in a world in which the Soviet danger has ebbed. At the root of the conservative debate, said Burton Yale Pines, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, is the fact that "conservatives are reluctant internationalists."
Pines noted that before World War II, the right wing led the criticism of America's global involvement and the creation of a large military, projects sponsored largely by liberals. Conservatives embraced a global role only after it became clear that American power was the one force that could check Communism. But now, said William Lynd, director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, "anti-Communism has been overcome by events."
With Communism dead, many conservatives insist that America's new role in the world must be based on a pragmatic definition of the national interest rather than on a lofty idealism that might encourage foreign "misadventures." This group includes many conservatives who have returned to their anti-interventionist -- or, in the word favored by their critics, isolationist -- roots.
Buchanan, the columnist and former Reagan White House communications director, has been among the leading voices for anti-interventionism. He presented his view most fully in an article in the National Interest magazine last spring provocatively entitled, "America First -- and Second, and Third."
Buchanan called for the eventual complete withdrawal of American troops from Europe and the Asian mainland and scoffed at the idea, popular among certain conservatives and liberals, that having routed Moscow, the United States should now undertake a global crusade for democracy. "How other people rule themselves is their own business," Buchanan wrote. "To call it a vital interest of the United States is to contradict history and common sense."
In the current crisis, Buchanan has praised the president for "superb" diplomacy and for "drawing a line in the sand" in support of Saudi Arabia. But he has raised a great many questions about the policy in his syndicated column, and in a telephone interview this week, Buchanan said Bush had "gone too far in terms of his rhetoric and too far in terms of his commitment."
"There's no interest so vital that we should consider using American ground forces to disgorge Iraq from Kuwait," he said. "Even if we were successful in getting Iraq out of Kuwait, that would launch a permanent troop and treaty commitment that I'm not sure this country can sustain. . . . It looks like an open-ended commitment."
Even more vocal in his criticism of Bush's approach has been Edward N. Luttwak, a foreign policy specialist at the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Where is the political basis for Americans to go out there and lay down their lives, eventually, if it comes to that, for oil that primarily goes to Europeans, Japanese and East Asians?" Luttwak asked during an appearance Tuesday on ABC News's "Nightline." "And where is the political basis to defend the regime of Saudi Arabia, which with the possible exception of Albania, is the most oppressive and reactionary and absolutist regime in the world?"
Another conservative, Tom Bethell, Washington editor of the American Spectator, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that, "It is hard to understand why Americans are supposed to become outraged -- and pay more at the pump -- because Kuwait's oil is now controlled by a tyrant in a military uniform rather than by oligarchs in traditional attire."
The ideological map of opinions on Bush's policy is complicated by the difficulty of casting approaches to Middle East issues in conventional left-right terms. Some of the conservative critics of Bush's policies, including Buchanan, also are critics of Israel and support friendlier relations with the Arab world. On the other side of the spectrum, many liberals who usually oppose intervention are strongly pro-Israel and therefore welcome a policy that would hurt Israel's most dangerous enemy, Iraq.
But the doubts about Bush's approach arise even among generally pro-Israel conservatives like Kirkpatrick, a former ambassador to the United Nations. The United States did not have "a distinct national interest" in the Persian Gulf, she said in a telephone interview, but shared a "very large international interest" with other nations. Under these circumstances, she argued, the United States should be "securing from other countries, whose interests in the gulf are at least as large as ours, a very substantial contribution."
"I just believe that our rich, smart allies ought to bear their share of the burden on problems where they have as much of a stake as we do," she said. Kirkpatrick added that while she had doubts about whether the United States should have committed itself so heavily to the gulf, "now we have such a major commitment that we must achieve our goals."
Paul Gigot, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal who supports Bush's policy and recently criticized the anti-interventionist right, said that the failure of many conservatives to support Bush's cause reflected lingering doubts about the president among some in the conservative movement. "If Reagan had done this, support would have been overwhelming," Gigot said. "One of the things at work here is conservative mistrust of Bush. The poor guy can't get the benefit of the doubt at all."
John O'Sullivan, editor of the National Review and an enthusiastic backer of a tough line against Iraq, said the outcome of Bush's policy could determine the course of the conservative debate over foreign intervention.
"What we're seeing is not so much a clear split on the right as an incipient split," O'Sullivan said. "The West can win this one, and if it does, the neo-isolationist instinct will be blunted."