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By Dana Milbank and Jonathan Weisman, Washington Post Staff Writers
After three years of sweeping actions in both foreign and domestic affairs, the Bush administration is facing complaints from the conservative intelligentsia that it has lost its ability to produce fresh policies.
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The centerpiece of President Bush (news - web sites)'s foreign policy -- the effort to transform Iraq (news - web sites) into a peaceful democracy -- has been undermined by a deadly insurrection and broadcast photos of brutality by U.S. prison guards. On the domestic side, conservatives and former administration officials say the White House policy apparatus is moribund, with policies driven by political expediency or ideological pressure rather than by facts and expertise.
Conservatives have become unusually restive. Last Tuesday, columnist George F. Will sharply criticized the administration's Iraq policy, writing: "This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts." Two days earlier, Robert Kagan, a neoconservative supporter of the Iraq war, wrote: "All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now."
The complaints about Bush's Iraq policy are relatively new, but they are in some ways similar to long-standing criticism about Bush's domestic policies. In a book released earlier this year, former Bush Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill described Bush as "a blind man in a room full of deaf people" and said policymakers put politics before sound policy judgments.
Echoing a criticism leveled by former Bush aide John J. DiIulio Jr., who famously described "Mayberry Machiavellis" running the White House, O'Neill said "the biggest difference" between his time in government in the 1970s and in the Bush administration "is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl [Rove], Dick [Cheney], [Bush communications strategist] Karen [Hughes] and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics."
Michael Franc, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said the criticism by O'Neill, Will and Kagan has a common thread: a concern that the administration is "using an old playbook" and not coming up with bold enough ideas, whether the subject is entitlement reform or pacifying Iraq. Conservative intellectuals "are saying, 'Don't do things half way,' " he said.
"It's the exhaustion of power," said a veteran of conservative think tanks who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Ideology has confronted reality, and ideology has bent. On the domestic side, it has bent in terms of the expansion of the government embodied in the Medicare prescription-drug law. On the foreign policy side, it has bent because of what has transpired in the last few weeks in Fallujah."