WASHINGTON--Now, when the country needs the chastening sobriety that should be conservatism's contribution to the national conversation, it has been getting a whiff of something oxymoronic--conservative triumphalism. There has been much breezy confidence that the war will be painless and the aftermath--replacing Iraq's regime--easy. This has made the public susceptible to mood swings.
Unrealism in the public--the military has shown none of it--about war is an understandable byproduct of the ease of the 100-hour ground war in Kuwait in 1991. And of the Kosovo campaign in which there were no NATO combat deaths. And of the applications of new technologies to the projection of American power. Furthermore, because this is a war of choice--a wise choice, but a choice--those who were eager for the choice to be made had an incentive to minimize expectations of inevitable unpleasantness.
In fact, the war is going well. Just one week into a distant war against a durable dictatorship buttressed by interlocking instruments of terror, U.S. forces have moved more than 300 miles toward the capital. Iraq is not a ``failed state'' like Yugoslavia, or like Afghanistan where, Gen. Wesley Clark believes, the Taliban was ``the most incompetent adversary the United States has fought since the Barbary pirates.'' Yet this war is demonstrating the astonishing U.S. military flexibility, mobility, speed and precision. The oil fields have been saved. The war is on schedule toward certain victory. Yet two consequences of all combat--confusion and casualties--have stirred a disproportionate public unease.
It is the conservatives' vocation to prepare the public to be comfortable with imperfection. Imperfection is a concomitant of political audacity and the president's foreign policy is doubly audacious. He believes the nation's security depends on taking sides, not in a ``clash of civilizations,'' but in a clash within a civilization, that of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East. And he believes that America must--peacefully and with multilateral help, if possible--become the arbiter of which nations may possess nuclear weapons.
These objectives of a conservative president are very defensible. But if conservatives are to defend them, they must heal conservatism's schizophrenia. For decades conservatism has advocated a strong, ambitious, confident, power-projecting government in foreign policy, but government demure, modest and chastened in domestic policy--government that is more interventionist in South Vietnam than in the South Bronx. Conservatives' foreign policy confidence should be leavened by their domestic skepticism about controlling events.
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