A challenge for conservatives

Posted: Mar 26, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Since 1945, America's record of participating in the selection of other nations' regimes--from the Italian elections of 1948, to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, to the 1963 coup that killed South Vietnam's President Diem, to the removal of Noriega from Panama--is mixed. Now we are embarked on the promotion of reform throughout a complex region that is resistant to reform.

An Egyptian diplomat once said that Egypt is the only real nation in the Arab world, that the others are just ``tribes with flags.'' Certainly Iraq is a tribal society in which civil war may ignite in the wake of liberating forces. Remember what the thawing of the Cold War meant for Yugoslavia and Chechnya.

In 1915 the young Walter Lippmann wrote, ``When you consider what a mystery the East Side of New York is to the West Side, the business of arranging the world to the satisfaction of the people in it may be seen in something like its true proportions.'' But four years later Lippmann was with the American delegation at the Versailles Conference, one handiwork of which was Yugoslavia. A British diplomat at the conference scoffed at the diplomats ``cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.'' One piece of that particular cake became Iraq.

Sometimes American conservatism seems to suggest that freedom is defined merely by the absence of things--particularly, bad government measures. The radical inadequacy of that idea will be clear once Saddam Hussein's regime is destroyed. A free society is a complicated social artifact. It is in no small measure an artifact of government, which must create the laws and foster the mores that sustain markets, including a market for political power through a multiparty system.

The president has put the country on a necessary but problematic path favored by conservatives. Now conservatives should explain why conservatism, with its wariness about uncontrollable contingencies and unintended consequences, suggests that the coming triumphs will be more difficult and less complete than we wish.