The Washington Times

My frequent NPR sparring partner E.J. Dionne had a very interesting column in The Washington Post on Friday, one that took up the case of his neoconservative friends, among whom I count myself.

“I agree with them,” Mr. Dionne wrote, “that the spread of democracy is good for both the United States and the world. I believe there are appropriate uses for U.S. military power … But I fear that my neocon buddies have embarked on a project in Iraq that risks sabotaging the very ideas and policies they cherish … As a practical matter, I think my friends should be furious at the Bush administration over the way it has handled Iraq … For neoconservatives who believe in the robust use of American power, President Bush’s Iraq venture now threatens to be their Waterloo … But they have thrown in their lot with the administration on the theory that if Bush loses, all they consider important in foreign policy will be lost. I’d implore them to think about the likelihood that so much of what they think matters will be utterly discredited if our country stays on its current course.”

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge Mr. Dionne’s commitment to the “spread of democracy” as a good thing for “the United States and the world” as well as his embrace of U.S. military power when deployed appropriately. Too many members of his party these days (and not a few Republicans as well) seem to be withdrawing into a cocoon. Some seek a hasty return to the “realist” school of foreign policy, according to which what goes on inside the borders of another country is something about which the United States can and should be indifferent. In this view, the promotion of democracy is foolish and dangerous. To my mind, and clearly to Mr. Dionne’s, this studied indifference to the fate of hundreds of millions of people is callous and reckless.

Others, and here the cocoon is more solidly Democratic, despise American power as a malevolent force and see any American expression of faith in universal ideals such as freedom and democracy as arrogance. This tendency has been a staple of the American left for two generations. It’s well exemplified in John Kerry’s 1972 Senate testimony in opposition to the Vietnam War (if not in Mr. Kerry’s current views campaigning for president) and in the Howard Dean wing of the Democratic Party today.

Once this campaign is over, I have no doubt that neoconservatives supporting Mr. Bush and such Democrats as Mr. Dionne will once again be working together – albeit with plenty of disagreement – in support of the ideals we share and in opposition to the cocoonists. But as of now, there is indeed a campaign on. And politics is, among other things, about picking a side.

If I could have all the good things about the Bush administration and none of the bad things, I’d be a happier man. As a practical matter, such a prospect never presents itself. It’s the package.

Which does indeed take us to Mr. Dionne’s observation that neoconservative support for him is based on the theory that if Mr. Bush loses, all we “consider important in foreign policy will be lost.” That’s a bit of an overstatement in two ways: First, it doesn’t adequately reflect the genuine appreciation and admiration for Mr. Bush that I think most neoconservatives feel. Second, if Mr. Bush should lose, I for one have no intention of saying “all is lost.” My convictions on these matters are sufficiently robust to withstand an electoral defeat and keep fighting, and I am hardly alone.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dionne is right. There are things the Bush administration has said and done in which neoconservatives have an ownership stake. These include the embrace of American power in the 2002 National Security Strategy; the doctrine that in certain cases one must use force to prevent or preempt a gathering threat; the rhetorical commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy; a practical commitment, having overthrown bad and dangerous regimes, to do everything we can to replace them with something decent; and perhaps above all, the position that September 11 called for a response of high seriousness, which this administration delivered.

One supports Mr. Bush, if not in pursuit of the electoral vindication of these views, then at least to avert what will certainly be described by the cocoonists, dare I say including most Democrats, as their repudiation. Iraq is not Waterloo, not necessarily, and in any event, not yet. I would like to see the mission accomplished, and I think that outcome is more likely under the man who committed us there in the first place, not least for having prematurely placed himself before the banner proclaiming “mission accomplished.”

About all of the administration’s mistakes, there is much to say. But it need not be said in a fashion that lends itself to the repudiation of Mr. Bush that some of Mr. Dionne’s other friends are seeking.