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Bush's right flank balks at Iran saber-rattling

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush plans his strategy for dealing with Iran, amid growing alarm about both the advanced state of its nuclear program and the belligerence of its president, few Democrats are willing to take the military option off the table.

But the anti-Bush conservatives running the three-year-old American Conservative magazine are willing to do so. In a series of articles, the magazine has gone further than many liberal journals, both in rejecting the notion that force is necessary to deal with Iran and in arguing that Bush's foreign policy has helped create the crisis.

''States and the regimes that rule them want to survive, which means they are very sensitive to external threats to their security," wrote Christopher Layne in the April 10 issue, with a doctored photo on the cover, of Bush wearing a button declaring ''Invade Iran," upon which the editors scribbled ''Don't do it."

''The Bush Doctrine heightened Iran's sense of vulnerability, which resulted in an acceleration of its nuclear program," the article continued.

''In this respect, the administration's policy -- particularly President Bush's 'Axis of Evil' speech -- had the effect of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: It made US relations worse than they already were, and triggered a self-defensive reaction by Tehran," it said.

As the magazine pointed out, US relations with Iran were in fact warming during the 1990s, as younger Iranians sought closer ties to the rest of the world. But those yearnings led to a backlash by the mullahs running the country. And then Bush's declaration that Iran -- along with its enemy Iraq and distant North Korea -- formed an ''axis of evil" played right into the hands of Iran's anti-American hard-liners.

Thus, the Iranian nuclear program, which many Europeans had felt would be bargained away in exchange for better economic arrangements, became a national-security necessity -- the only way to block a US invasion. After the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected last year, Iran decided to resume enriching uranium.

In the United States, however, many people have taken Iran's refusal to give up its nuclear program as proof that Bush was right to raise the alarms four years ago. And many Democrats, still seeking their bona fides on national security, aren't quarreling with the notion of an axis of evil.

Instead, they're raising cautionary flags about whether to proceed to war, given the administration's many mistakes in Iraq.

Bush supporters say the Democrats are craven and opportunistic. Whether they are or not, they're setting up the same dynamic that cost them credibility on Iraq: In 2002, their reluctance to question the administration's depiction of the threat became an implicit endorsement of Bush's decision to take action. Thereafter, even their soundest criticisms seem needling, motivated as much by political opportunism as by national security.

Like the Democrats, conservative skeptics in Congress are afraid to push their criticisms too far; they, too, need to preserve their bona fides on national security. No one who hopes to win an election wants to be accused of ignoring or minimizing threats to the country.

The anti-Bush conservatives behind The American Conservative magazine have no such concerns, since few of them are politicians.

The founders include Patrick J. Buchanan, who left his pundit chair to run for president three times, but who has since grown increasingly comfortable taking principled stances that land him on the political fringe. The others behind the magazine are writers and thinkers accustomed to challenging the political winds.

Much of their support comes from the isolationist right, which is equally skeptical of global free trade, humanitarian missions, and Bush's efforts to promote democracy. Their guiding principle seems to be that the world is dangerous, and Americans dirty themselves whenever they venture overseas.

This attitude was almost certainly the target of Bush's warning about isolationism in this year's State of the Union address.

But the conservative critique of Bush's foreign policy isn't some fringe religion. It says that Bush was wrong to assert a link between the Sept. 11 attacks and state-sponsored terrorism, and that his bellicose statements about Iran, Iraq, and North Korea increased threats in places where they were already being contained.

Far better to track down the terrorists who are actually targeting the United States, while using diplomatic and economic levers to make it in countries' interests to give up their nuclear programs. In this view, democracy movements in Middle Eastern countries will have to develop from within.

The conservative case against Bush's foreign policy is firm and clear enough to raise the intriguing question of what might happen if Democrats struck the same notes themselves.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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