Charles Richardson writes:

Under pressure of the
continuing conflict in Lebanon, the split in the American right over
Middle East policy is becoming even more pronounced.

Last week
it was George F Will, accusing the neoconservatives of having lost
touch with reality. Now an even bigger gun has joined in: as The Australianreports, William F Buckley, founder of National Review
and through it a large chunk of modern conservatism, has attacked the
Bush administration’s record. “If you had a European prime minister who
experienced what we’ve experienced (in Iraq) it would be expected that
he would retire or resign”, Buckley told CBS News.

Buckley is in
his 80s, but his voice still carries enormous weight. In the 1960s, he
more than anyone turned American conservatism away from its
isolationist, nativist roots in favour of engagement in the Cold War.
He also reconciled many conservatives to big government, at least when
it came to defence spending.

As a result, the conservative
movement became more hospitable to converts from the left for whom
foreign policy was the main interest.
These became the
“neo-conservatives”, who used the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to
argue for an aggressive American military effort: first against the
Soviet Union, later (after a period flailing around looking for an
enemy) against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.

Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times,
summarises neocon views: “Their ultimate analysis of the Middle East
was, to my mind, a largely persuasive one. It was that decades of
propping up Arab dictatorships and kleptocracies in return for cheap
oil was no longer a viable foreign policy.”

But the weakness of
the neocon position was that it chose to promote democracy by
undemocratic means – by armed intervention in defiance of international
law and world opinion. That undermined the project from the start, and
almost guaranteed that when the Arab masses finally got the chance to
express some democratic choice – in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian
territories – they would opt for the most violently anti-American and
anti-Israeli parties.

The majority of the neocons are
unrepentant; they no longer talk so much about democracy, but they are
still demanding military escalation.
As Michael Gawenda reported yesterday, “Neoconservatives don’t do nuance”. But the increasing
untenability of this position has given ammunition to the traditional
conservatives who want to abandon support for liberal ideals and return
to foreign policy “realism” – as did Bush himself, before he became

Sullivan continues: “And so the past few years have
witnessed a dramatic encounter between neoconservatism and
conservatism, between certainty and doubt, between ideology and
pragmatism. Iraq remains the great crucible of this encounter – because
it shows that well-intentioned actions can have unintended

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey