Standing By Bush

By Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/08/06):

The Post reported recently on Page One that "President Bush is facing a new and swiftly building backlash on the right over his handling of foreign affairs" ["Conservative Anger Grows Over Bush's Foreign Policy," July 19]. Judging by those quoted, the current backlash is centered among neoconservatives, until now Bush's most ardent foreign policy constituency.

A few weeks earlier, Richard Perle, one of the most respected neocons, had penned a scathing critique of Bush's Iran policy [Outlook, June 25]. I myself may have contributed to the overall impression of neocon disillusionment by decrying the administration's flaccid response to a wave of repression by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak [op-ed, June 27].

But for neocons or any other conservatives to turn against George W. Bush would be a terrible mistake. Presidents invariably disappoint their strongest supporters. Their powers are limited, and they must cope with Congress, public opinion, unwieldy agencies and, where foreign policy is concerned, other nations that can help or hinder us. The results never match the elegance of the policies formulated by people like me, who grapple only with editors.

Neocons and other conservatives revere the memory of President Ronald Reagan now. But at the time, we weren't satisfied. "To say that neoconservatives [are] disappointed . . . understates the case to an incalculable degree," Norman Podhoretz, editor of the neocon flagship Commentary magazine, lamented about Reagan's foreign policy in 1982.

Reagan's anti-communist actions toughened in the years that followed, leading to victory in the Cold War. But on terrorism they remained equivocal. In 1983, when Hezbollah blew up our Beirut embassy and followed with a suicide bombing that killed 220 Marines, the president ordered our forces to abandon their peacekeeping mission and slink away unavenged. In his second term, Reagan committed the sin of appeasement, trading arms to Tehran for U.S. hostages.

The contrast between Reagan's courage toward the "evil empire" and his faintheartedness toward Middle Eastern terrorists underscores the magnificence of Bush's achievement in marshaling our country for a war against terrorism. Middle Eastern terrorists had been coldly murdering Americans for three decades, but from Nixon through Clinton, no president dared face the issue head-on. The fight promised to be too nasty, and it required a strategy for changing the politics and psychology of the Middle East, for which there was no guidebook. So each administration had contented itself with shaking a symbolic fist or issuing some subpoenas while leaving the problem to metastasize.

This led to the Sept. 11 attacks, putting Bush to the test. Liberals said we should continue to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. Others would have attacked al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and left it at that. In contrast, Bush set forth the enormous goal of destroying terrorist groups; cutting off government support for terrorists, if necessary by regime changes; and engineering a new culture in the Middle East by means of democratization. This was a plan to warm the hearts of neocons, embodying ideas for which we had long been arguing (and giving rise to inflated tales of neocon influence, even though few neocons served in the administration).

The necessity for such a far-reaching strategy was brought home again last week by the revelation of another vast terrorist plot involving scores of British and Pakistani Muslims with apparently tenuous links to al-Qaeda. The diverse and seemingly endless supply of such volunteer killers suggests the depth of the challenge we face.

Bush's pursuit of a fundamental solution was especially courageous because he knew it could not all be achieved within the span of his presidency, thereby courting public impatience. But his courage has held.

When Israel was attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, two tentacles of the international terrorist jihad, much of the rest of the world responded in knee-jerk fashion, chastising Israel's reaction as "disproportionate." But Bush insisted on supporting Israel's attempt to break the terrorist sword hanging over it.

None of this is to say that Bush's performance, including the campaign in Iraq, is above criticism by conservatives -- or liberals. I worry, for example, about whether he is conceding too much to our U.N. Security Council partners regarding Iran. But if he is going to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities -- as I believe he will have to do and will not shrink from doing -- his position will be strengthened by having exhausted every diplomatic possibility. I worry, too, about indulging North Korea. But no president can tackle every problem at once.

Bush has taken on the one problem that is by far most important, and he has done it with remarkable perseverance. He led our nation into a war that is both just and necessary and that he knew could not be finished on his watch -- a thankless undertaking. For this he deserves unflagging support from neocons and other conservatives, and indeed from all Americans.