Paleocons lighten up: President Bush is not a neocon

Posted: Sep 06, 2003 12:00 AM

Inevitable post-war problems in Iraq have given some in the antiwar coalition -- liberals, paleoconservatives and Libertarians -- new vitality and increased anxiety. Their opposition was undeterred by our resounding military victory and, if anything, is even more strident than it was before the war.

 But here I want to focus on the opposition of the paleoconservatives (think of Pat Buchanan -- no disrespect intended) because of a recent column I read by one of its foremost pundits. Generally speaking, the paleocons were opposed to the war primarily because they oppose excessive foreign entanglements and don't perceive Iraq as a threat.

 But even more important, they think that President Bush is a neoconservative -- a reckless, nation-building warmonger hell-bent on making the world safe for democracy and the Middle East safe for Israel. They point to certain major players in and close to the Bush administration as card-carrying members of this ideology and couple that with Bush's Axis of Evil terminology and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and voila: Bush is a neoconservative.

 To the contrary, I think the paleocons' assumptions about President Bush and his war effort are in error and thus at least part of the reason for their opposition is based on their misunderstanding of Bush's motivations. A few characteristics in common with neoconservatives does not make President Bush one of them. If he's not, then the paleos ought to lighten up on him a bit.

 Bush, I think, does not fall into any of the above categories. For purposes of America's War on Terror -- as opposed to certain domestic policy issues -- the president is closer to a mainstream conservative -- except for his approach toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

 Contrary to liberal talking points, President Bush did not plan this comprehensive war against the "Axis of Evil" before 9-11 and use it as an excuse to justify his preplanned "imperialism." But for 9-11, I dare say, there would be no full scale, comprehensive War on Terror. Obvious, you say? I agree, but not to many of Bush's opponents.

 Again, the rap against neoconservatives is that they are imperialists who want to export democracy by force and prop up Israel at almost any cost. In other words, they are intermeddling nation builders with a strong pro-Israel bent.

 But President Bush did not have a grandiose foreign policy agenda prior to 9-11; the event itself shaped what was to become his driving vision. He is on a mission to eradicate terrorist threats against the United States. It has nothing to do with nation building and little to do with Israel. If it did, he wouldn't have shocked conservatives by proposing an independent Palestinian state. He wouldn't apply a different standard to Israel's defense against terrorism. Moreover, his identification of the Axis of Evil nations was not a result of any nation-building obsession, but his belief that certain rogue nations represent an imminent threat to the United States.

 But the president's opponents are convinced that being a died-in-the-wool neocon, he is just warming up with Iraq and plans to hopscotch throughout the Middle East, then elsewhere, on his gleeful road to making the Middle East safe for Israel, and the rest of the world safe for democracy (translation: satellites of the American Empire).

 It may surprise you to know that there are those of us out here (I'd call us mainstream conservatives) who are hawkish against terrorism and bullish on Israel, yet not interested in creating an American empire. Our guiding principle is protecting America's strategic national interests. If that means we sometimes have to attack other nations, even preemptively, so be it. We are far from being isolationists, but we are just as far from being imperialists.

 If I'm correct that President Bush more closely resembles us mainstream conservatives here, then I think it's safe to say that he isn't looking to conquer other countries for sport -- or even to make them safe for democracy or Israel. He isn't even looking to take on the other two Axis of Evil countries: North Korea and Iran.

 Rather, he's focused on going after anti-American terrorists and their supporters and enablers -- just as he's told us from the beginning. That could lead us into Iran, North Korea or even Saudi Arabia (though our curious relationship with Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether).

 Bush's opponents -- at least the paleocons -- would have much less anxiety about him if they understood that he really isn't a neoconservative. He's a neo-antiterrorist.