There's no question whom Richard Viguerie wants to see in the White House for the next four years. A founding father of the modern conservative movement, he is foursquare behind President Bush despite what he regards as undue influence from one wing of the GOP, the neoconservatives. In this, Viguerie reflects a hallowed Republican Party tradition: Mute policy differences and unite at election time.
But for Viguerie and other conservative leaders, maintaining that discipline this year is harder than usual. The Republicans' united front masks a growing struggle sparked by the president's hawkish and ambitious foreign policy--one that may burst into the open soon after the polls close, whoever wins. "Most conservatives are not comfortable with the neocons," Viguerie says. He decries the neocons as "overbearing" and "immensely influential. . . . They want to be the world's policeman. We don't feel our role is to be Don Quixote, righting all the wrongs in the world."
Viguerie's disquiet is widely shared by veteran conservative activists, who are increasingly blaming neoconservatives for placing Iraq at the center of the war on terrorism. "I'm hearing more discussion about foreign policy and the direction of the country than I have heard probably in the last 35 years," says Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
Heart and soul. The second thoughts on Iraq are re-exposing old ideological fault lines among GOP factions--Wall Streeters, Main Streeters, budget balancers, libertarians, and neoisolationists--that see their own policy priorities jeopardized. The fight within the GOP, Viguerie predicts, "will dwarf what took place in the '60s and '70s" --between the Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller wings of the party and later between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. "It's going to be early on November 3 that the battle starts for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and it's not going to be neat and clean," vows Viguerie, who's known for revolutionizing direct-mail fundraising on behalf of conservative candidates.
Bush loyalists like Viguerie, Weyrich, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform are worried about the soaring costs of suppressing the Iraqi insurgency and the war's impact on delaying conservative economic initiatives to cut taxes and the size of government, privatize Social Security, and expand free trade. "Bush has a choice: He can be a part of the redefinition of the party, or he can step aside," says Keene. "The neocons have had some inordinate influence and made some serious mistakes."
Some conservatives feel Bush acted hastily on Iraq and needlessly shed allies who had stood with the United States on Afghanistan, mushrooming the costs borne by Washington. Some question his switch on nation building: As a candidate in 2000 taking a traditional conservative view, he rejected it; as president, he has plunged into it in Afghanistan (which last week held its first presidential elections) and Iraq. Others are dismayed by "mistakes," such as assertions based on faulty or misused intelligence on Iraqi weapons. "If Bush loses, the pragmatists will blame it on Iraq," says John Pitney, an expert on GOP politics at California's Claremont McKenna College.
Some conservatives rue the lost opportunities and the polarization from the war. "Iraq ate up half of the first term," frets a key Republican strategist who consults with the White House. He adds, "This is like being the president during Vietnam, not at the end of World War II."
Some of that debate is already bubbling to the surface. GOP Sens. Richard Lugar (chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Lincoln Chafee have bemoaned aspects of Iraq policy. Much of the criticism, though, has a broader thrust: Traditional foreign-policy realism is reasserting itself. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a possible presidential candidate in 2008, appears to be sketching out a realist's alternative, emphasizing rebuilding battered alliances and "an appreciation of [U.S. power's] limits." In contrast to Bush's Wilsonian rhetoric about an American calling to spread freedom and democracy, Hagel warned in Foreign Affairs that "foreign policy must not succumb to the distraction of divine mission." He told the Washington Post that the GOP "has come loose of its moorings."
Lightning rod. There are other fissures in the party of Ronald Reagan. Some Wall Street Republicans dislike unconservative deficit spending and favor the sort of internationalism practiced by Bush's father. A few have slacked off on raising funds for Bush. Libertarians, along with neoisolationists like Patrick Buchanan, oppose what they see as Bush's post-9/11 proclivity to intervene abroad.
The lightning rod for much of the unhappiness is the loose movement of thinkers and policymakers known by the shorthand "neocons." Favoring boldness in asserting American values, they supplied most of the intellectual architecture for the Iraq war, for the Bush doctrine of pre-empting potential threats, and for considering "regime change" in rogue states. For years, neoconservative stars such as Richard Perle, former head of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, and Douglas Feith, the No. 3 official at the Pentagon, had been advocating Saddam Hussein's ouster. Toppling Saddam, neocon thinking went, was the key to unlocking a shift toward democracy in the Mideast. Four days after 9/11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neocon strategist, urged Bush at Camp David to target Iraq in the first phase of the war on terrorism. Bush opted to defer, but not abandon, that aim. Says former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, "The neocons were organized. They had intellectual content. Bush was not totally captured by it but tends in that direction." Some observers go further. "They provided coherence for a lot of elements in Bush's thinking," the late James Chace, a professor of international relations at Bard College, said shortly before his death this month. "The president is a neocon."
Whatever the case, the neocon movement has traveled a long way indeed: from historical roots in the anti-Stalinist left to the Henry "Scoop" Jackson wing of the Democratic Party and then, for many, on to become Reagan Republicans. The Bush administration has vaulted neocons into positions of unprecedented authority in the Pentagon, Vice President Cheney's office, the National Security Council, and even Colin Powell's State Department. Outside of government, neoconservatives have promoted their views through think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, publications like the Weekly Standard, and advocacy groups like the Project for the New American Century.
While they have no agreed doctrine, neoconservatives see America's unrivaled military power as a force for good and want to unleash it on sources of totalitarian evil--today, seen primarily as Islamic and Arab extremism. Neocons are often called Wilsonian (for the idealistic President Woodrow Wilson) for their emphasis on spreading democracy, especially in the Mideast. Compared with traditional conservatives, neocons are more inclined to favor unilateral force and less concerned with attracting international support.
But the neocons now find themselves in a fight for their place in the Republican Party--and in a second term, should Bush win. Former Reagan administration official Stefan Halper and former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke, in a widely discussed book called America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order, charge that Bush's foreign policy was hijacked after 9/11, leading to a "betrayal of both Republican and conservative principles." Francis Fukuyama, a former State Department official in the administration of Bush's father, assailed some fellow neocons and Bush's Iraq policy in a National Interest article. He argued that Bush overlooked the need for international support to build a sense of "legitimacy" for the Iraq invasion, antagonized many by announcing a pre-emption strategy, and "went into Iraq with enormous illusions about how easy the postwar situation would be." Conservative columnists like George Will, Robert Novak, and William F. Buckley Jr. are stoking the fire. Will recently complained that ideology is crowding out facts in Bush's Iraq nation building. "This administration needs a dose of conservatism without the [neo] prefix," he wrote.
Rising doubts. Behind the scenes, movement conservatives are disputing neocon ideas as well. Says Alfred Regnery, publisher of the American Spectator and numerous conservative books, "The administration got sold a little bit by the neocons. . . . We should return to a traditional, strong Republican foreign policy: We go to war only as a last resort, and we're not in the business of building nations." Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, says the administration needs to "finish up the job in Iraq." However, Schlafly says, "we don't think we can be the policeman of the world." She describes herself as "not a fan" of Wilsonian policies: "All this talk of democracy in Iraq is kind of ridiculous," she argues. "What's real-ly important is that they have governments that are friendly to the United States."
Weyrich also has doubts about the neocons and Iraq policy. "They were very much on the ascendancy at the beginning of the administration, but they have been tarnished," he says. Weyrich and other conservative leaders met with Bush earlier this year in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. He says that Bush rejected the realist posture adopted by his father in choosing not to occupy Iraq. "He said I want you to understand I'm not my old man," Weyrich recalls. Weyrich, however, believes "we have to get out. . . . I hate to agree with John Kerry on anything because he's a gold-plated phony. But we have become a tremendous recruiting ground for al Qaeda." Some of Weyrich's opinions skirt uncomfortably close to Kerry's attacks on Bush as being disconnected from realities on the ground in Iraq. If Iraq's transition "doesn't work, we'd better face that and not just dig a hole that's deeper and deeper," says Weyrich. "I hope he [Bush] doesn't believe his own rhetoric."
Inside the administration, senior officials suggest the neoconservatives are losing ground on policy toward Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And Powell, who has spent much of his tenure in infighting with hawks, recently joked about "right-wing loonies" in a staff meeting when a subordinate referred to "left-wing loonies" in Cuba.
Has the neoconservative moment passed? "Neoconservatives feel under attack," says Kenneth Weinstein, chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute, an important outlet for neocon policy ideas. Says one, who would not be identified by name: "The neocons are being blamed . . . . No one wants to take the fall for what's happened in Iraq--not the neoconservatives, not the CIA, not the State Department, not the Pentagon."
Suspect leaks. Some neocons also sense an invidious undercurrent in which "neocon" is a code word for Jewish; Buchanan has asserted, for instance, that neocons are doing Israel's bidding. Their anxieties were deepened by the news leak that the FBI is probing a Pentagon analyst in Feith's office for allegedly passing a secret document to Israel through a Washington-based lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The analyst, Larry Franklin, and AIPAC deny any wrongdoing. Other leaks, too, are seen as efforts to discredit Bush and the neocons: for example, on CIA warnings of post-invasion resistance that were played down by pro-war officials. "This is political warfare," says a neocon analyst.
Under fire, neoconservatives out of government are regrouping. This summer saw the rebirth of the Committee on the Present Danger--the third incarnation of a group first launched in the 1950s and restarted in the 1970s to promote a hard line against Soviet communism. Norman Podhoretz, one of the movement's leading thinkers, laments the darkening mood of "gloom and doom," in particular the "newborn pessimism among supporters" of the Iraq war. "Things have gone not badly, not disastrously, but triumphantly," he declared at the group's inaugural conference last month. The group posits that the United States now faces another existential threat and has dubbed the struggle "World War IV," the Cold War being World War III. The group's chairman, former CIA Director James Woolsey, says its rebirth recognizes that "people are to some extent choosing up sides. . . . Get the job done or go back to the '90s" --before 9/11 and Bush's pre-emption doctrine. "A number of critics have a nostalgia for an earlier era," he warns. But with a toxic mix of Arab and Islamist totalitarianism, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorists, he says, "those days are gone with the wind."
Woolsey predicts "the long war of the 21st century" will last decades. The fight between neocons and other cons might last just as long.