PREEMPTION….A couple of months ago a conservative acquaintance suggested to me that the best thing that ever happened to America was Watergate. After all, he said, Watergate led to the election of Jimmy Carter, and it was only Carter’s uniquely horrible presidency that allowed Ronald Reagan to be elected in 1980. Without Watergate and Carter, there would have been no Reagan.

Likewise, I wonder if George Bush will end up being the best thing ever to happen to American liberalism. Bushian excess has energized liberals, of course, but more important may be that in the same way that liberals dejectedly gave up on Carter toward the end of his presidency, conservatives seem to be losing heart over Bush in his final year too. Increasingly, even the most hawkish conservatives are unwilling to drain their credibility further by dredging up pretzel twisting defenses for Bush’s obvious incompetence and cluelessness.

We’ve already heard moaning and groaning from such conservative stalwarts as George Will, Bill Kristol, David Brooks, Robert Kagan, and many others (helpfully collected here by Matt Yglesias ? just search for “Disgruntlement Watch”), and the latest example comes from Gary Schmitt, executive director of PNAC, ground zero for hawkish neoconism. What makes his piece remarkable is that it’s billed as a defense of George Bush’s policy of preemption but still says the following:

For the foreseeable future, the Iraq war and its aftermath cannot help but put a hitch in the step of any president contemplating similar action….When the director of the Central Intelligence Agency next tells a president that the case regarding a country’s suspected weapons programs is a “slam-dunk,” one can assume that that assessment will be greeted with far more skepticism….The reality is that continuing troubles in Iraq will have an effect on presidential decision-making for years, especially when it comes to preemption and wars of prevention.

This is followed by a halfhearted explanation that preemption was never really a linchpin of Bush’s policies anyway and that plenty of other presidents have considered preemptive wars even if they didn’t actually follow through. So, you know, it’s not as big a deal as people think it is, and preemption is still part of the big picture.

It’s a far cry from the hawkish exhuberance of only a couple of years ago, especially for the head of a group like PNAC, but it’s either the best he could do or else the best he was willing to do. When even guys like Schmitt are too embarrassed to provide a full-throated defense of preemption, it gives you hope. Maybe in a few months we’ll be back to having a sane foreign policy after all.