WASHINGTON. — Conservatism, having flourished like the green bay tree, is now large enough to have many branches. In fact, America's most important argument today is not between liberals and conservatives, but between two conservative factions traditional conservatives and imperial conservatives. It involves the Kurds.
Concerning the question of U.S. military intervention in Iraq's civil war, President Bush has the traditional conservative's wariness about uncertain undertakings, a prudent skepticism about the promiscuous minting of abstract rights and duties, and an inclination to anchor U.S. policy in the rock of U.S. national interests.
Today's imperial conservatives consider such thinking crabbed, mean-spirited and (adopting the language of liberal sensitivity-mongers) ''insensitive.'' They want America to do for the world what Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was supposed to do for America: Fix it.
The strongest voice urging the United States to shoulder imperial burdens on behalf of the Kurds is that of The Wall Street Journal, which has been consistent. Even last summer it envisioned a ''MacArthurian Regency'' in Baghdad, meaning, presumably, treating Iraq in 1991 as Japan was treated in 1945. But American suzerainty in Tokyo was preceded by total war (including saturation bombing, the last of it atomic) in pursuit of unconditional surrender, followed by occupation and constitution-making.
The Journal says the Kurds are fighting for ''our values.'' Perhaps the Kurds really want to establish social pluralism under government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers. Never mind the absence of any evidence of the social, institutional and moral preconditions for that. (The only democracy in the Middle East was brought to Israel from Europe.) But even if democratic aspirations exist among Kurds, that does not create an American obligation to facilitate them by forcibly rearranging a sovereign nation.
William Safire says Kurds seek only ''self-government, with cultural dignity respected, within the borders of an existing state.'' Oh, is that all?
Leave aside the ambiguities and permutations of self-government. Never mind the difficulties of decentralizing a unitary state toward federalism or confederation. (Moving from the other direction, from loose to close federation, is much less difficult, and even that cost America, in spite of its cultural homogeneity and traditions of civility, a horrendous civil war.) But note Mr. Safire's dependent clause, about ''cultural dignity.'' When Europe's ethnic minorities say that, they reach for their revolvers.
Many of today's imperial conservatives are speaking the language of a liberal over-reacher, Woodrow Wilson. His rhetoric about ethnic self-determination became a lever Hitler used to legitimize prying Sudeten Germans away from Czechoslovakia. When today's imperial conservatives that phrase should seem increasingly oxymoronic exhort U.S. intervention in the restructuring of Iraq, and equate respect for national sovereignty with making a fetish of ''legal niceties,'' radicalism has taken up residence in a new precinct.
The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot thinks, and thinks Edmund Burke would agree, that Kurds are owed an American defense of their rights. I brought Burke, conservatism's heavy artillery, into this conversation two weeks ago when I wrote that some Americans are departing from conservative prudence by advocating nation-building by America in Iraq. Burke, I said, knew nations to be complex organisms in which dictated rearrangements are apt to be overwhelmed by unintended consequences, particularly when the dictation comes from outside, from uncomprehending political cultures.
Mr. Gigot says Burke ''would be leading the fight'' against President Bush's ''neglect'' of the Kurds. As evidence, Gigot cites Burke's defense of what Gigot calls ''the Kurds of his own day,'' meaning ''the British subjects in India.'' The farrago of historical confusions becomes richer. Mr. Gigot says Burke's speeches impeaching Warren Hastings show that Burke would favor military intervention on behalf of the Kurds. Well, now.
Hastings was an officer of the East India Company, through which England had chartered rights and obligations regarding India's governance. India was becoming Britain's possession. Therefore, Burke said, England was obligated to govern decently. His complaint concerned ''oppression committed under the sanction of our own authority.'' Mr. Gigot evidently thinks the United States acquired comparable authority for how long? one wonders by bombing Iraq.
America, says Mr. Gigot, is obligated to help Kurds realize their rights to self-government. Beware, said Burke, of ''the delusive plausibility of moral politicians,'' those who praise rights or other concepts ''in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.'' They are unaware that circumstances give to every political concept ''its distinctive color and discriminating effect.''
Burke defended American colonists' resistance to London's infringement of their traditional ''inherited'' rights as Englishmen. He did not call for England to guarantee such rights, let alone ''natural rights,'' throughout India, where they had no ''pedigree'' (Burke's word).
Mr. Gigot suggests the relationship he thinks appropriate between the United States and Iraq, or at least the Kurds, when he quotes Burke on India: ''Great Britain entered into a virtual act of union with that country. . . .''
England was in India for another century and a half after Burke said that, until 1948, when England withdrew amid bitterness at home and bloodshed in India. Mr. Gigot, more than most imperial conservatives, suggests where his policy leads.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.