Consensus Cracking, May Collapse

September 16, 1990|By Edward Alden | Edward Alden,Pacific News Service

With American military forces continuing to pour into the Persian Gulf region, the Bush administration is attempting to hold together a foreign policy consensus not seen since the pre-Vietnam era. But as pressures begin to build up from both sides of the American political spectrum, the left-right split on foreign policy that has bedeviled every president since Vietnam is rapidly reappearing.

While many among the liberal left initially supported the United States' intervention in the crisis, now they fear that the administration is too eager to abandon diplomacy in favor of a full-scale war with Iraq aimed at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

As Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., put it, "We must rapidly shift the primary burden to the U.N. and remind ourselves that our presence in the Persian Gulf cannot become America's war."

But many on the right fear just the opposite -- that President Bush will miss the opportunity to launch a military strike that could eliminate Iraq as a threat in the region.

"You don't point a gun at someone you don't mean to shoot," said Angelo Codevilla, senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. "If Saddam Hussein isn't killed or deposed, he will win." Prominent conservatives such as former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Sens. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., and Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., have similarly called for military action to overthrow Mr. Hussein.

The re-emergence of the split over foreign policy reflects the very different reasons liberals and conservatives had for their initial support of Bush policy in the gulf.

Mr. Bush's rapid intervention failed to trigger the denunciations common on the liberal left against every American military intervention since Vietnam. "We recognized that this was a different situation, that this looked like a plausible policy," said Daniel Ellsberg, former Pentagon official and longtime anti-war activist.

But as the military buildup goes on, warnings from the left are beginning to arise. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark has denounced the president's "precipitous self-appointment as policeman for the Persian Gulf." And the left-liberal Nation recently warned against engaging in "a new war of resources that replaces the old superpower cold war."

Yet others on the liberal left still cautiously back the intervention. Richard Barnet, co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said, "You had all the elements here of a classic aggression, and in my view it required a response, certainly an economic response, and I would argue a military response."

The support on the left for this U.S. intervention is paradoxical only for those who assumed that liberal anti-interventionism was isolationist. While the left has consistently called for smaller defense budgets, it has supported policies, such as President ,, Jimmy Carter's human rights campaign, that involved massive interference in the internal affairs of other countries. What the left has been suspicious of is the unilateral exercise of U.S. military power.

In the gulf crisis, President Bush did what liberals have long demanded -- he used the United Nations to organize collective opposition to an aggression that threatened global stability. Yet Mr. Bush's support from liberals remains extremely thin, wedded to a continued active role by the United Nations and to Mr. Bush's avoidance of unilateral military action.

The conservative coalition on the right that was held together for 40 years by the Soviet threat has already split over the issue of what interests are worth defending with military force. Pat Buchanan, former assistant to Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, has called for "uprooting the global network of trip wires planted on foreign soil to ensnare the United States in the wars of other nations."

Yet Mr. Buchanan's position is distinctly a minority position on the right. To most prominent conservatives, including Public Interest editor Irving Kristol, former Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., there is a clear and present danger to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf requiring the strongest U.S. response.

The gulf crisis demonstrates that the waning of the Cold War has not produced any significant resurgence of isolationism on the right, but rather a renewed faith in the value of military force. Just as they believed the Reagan military buildup was crucial in precipitating the Soviet collapse, many on the right today believe that only military strength -- and the will to use it -- can face down an aggressor like Saddam Hussein.

So as the left increasingly stresses diplomatic solutions and U.N. initiatives, the right is increasingly calling for military action.

"We must see the destruction of Saddam Hussein, his government and his ability to wage war," said Daniel Silverstein, a defense analyst at the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Edward Luttwak, a strategist at Georgetown's Center for

Strategic and International Studies, argues that diplomatic solutions being embraced not only by American liberals but also by the Soviet Union and many of the Arab states "would leave the Hussein problem intact."

Yet dealing with the "Hussein problem," if it means war with Iraq, will certainly rupture the domestic coalition on foreign policy that the Bush administration has so skillfully pieced together since it assumed office. Like the uneasy lull between American and Iraqi troops in the gulf region, the truce between liberals and conservatives will not survive the first shot.

Edward Alden, co-author of "Why We Need Ideologies in American Foreign Policy," is completing his doctoral degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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