WASHINGTON — Back in the early part of the Iraq war I was intrigued that Anthony Lake, who had been a national security adviser to President Clinton, held this perspective on the foreign policy debate between President Bush and his Democratic critics: That this policy conflict was really between conservatives and radicals and it was the Democrats who had emerged as the conservatives and the Republicans who had become the liberals, or "radicals."
Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. elicited that from Mr. Lake in a November 2003 interview. It was part of Lake's assessment of his own Democratic Party's ideological position in resisting the president's forced injection of democracy into Iraq.
Mr. Dionne wrote in that column that the Democrats had been in a box ever since the Iraq debate began because, for many years, they had been identified with the policy of spreading democracy abroad that Mr. Bush had underscored in a speech at that time in which he said: "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
I talked to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana very briefly about that Dionne column at a Monitor breakfast soon after it was published. Senator Lugar laughed a bit as he told me about a fellow senator, a Democrat, who was struggling to come up with a party policy that would be more compatible with what Bush was doing in Iraq while still being critical of what Bush was doing there. Lugar clearly was bemused over the Democrats' efforts to work themselves out of this foreign-affairs ideological box.
During the presidential campaign, another Washington Post columnist, Jim Hoagland, succinctly described the foreign-policy differences emerging in the battle between the contenders this way: "John Kerry would change the situation. George W. Bush would change the world."
I well remember the foreign-policy conservatives of the 1930s and early 1940s. They were called "isolationists" and charged - often angrily - that President Roosevelt was wrongly pulling the US into the war in Europe. But this isolationist resistance ended suddenly with Pearl Harbor.
The country seemed to come together behind Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. But the Democrats never could accept the idea of democracy being spread in a forceful way by the US. So the policy difference grew: The conservative Democrats vs. the liberal Republicans. That's relatively speaking, of course, but still very real.
Incidentally, a number of readers have let me know that they think I was dead wrong last month for even suggesting that I thought I was viewing a little letup in the intensity of anti-Bush feeling in this country. I'm sure those readers would be upset at even the thought of Bush having taken on the mantle of the nation's liberal, internationalist leader.
But I'm seeing signs that influential Democrats and liberal critics in the media are beginning to acknowledge - at least by implication - that Bush is playing the internationalist role with increasing success.
At the Gridiron Dinner last month, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, once President Clinton's ambassador to the UN, was delivering one of the best speeches ever given at these yearly functions, when he pulled away from making humorous jibes about the administration and, turning to Bush a few feet away at the head table, said: "You did a good job in the Mideast."
And I recently heard the highly regarded former Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, say on TV: "Bush has changed the status quo in the Mideast."
Even The New York Times, still an adamant opponent of Bush's invasion of Iraq, cited hopeful developments in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon and made this grudging concession to Bush in a March 18 editorial: "...even the fiercest critic of George Bush's foreign policy would be insane not to want these signs of hope to take root." The editorial went on to say, "That would not excuse the waging of an unnecessary war ... but it could change the course of modern history. Grieving families would find the peace that comes with knowing that spouses, parents or children died to help make a better world."
• Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.