WHAT is a conservative in the United States today? For some years now most of us have tended to assume that a conservative is a person who supported Ronald Reagan in his rise to power, and in his exercise of it.
This is no longer sufficient.
For example, Linda Chavez, who ran, unsuccessfully, for the Senate seat being vacated by Charles Mathias of Maryland, has spoken out vigorously (in the Washington Post) against the activities of Col. Oliver North, formerly of the National Security Council staff, whom President Reagan calls a ``national hero.''
According to Mrs. Chavez, ``Olie North is no conservative.''
``There is a world of difference,'' she says, ``between conservatism and the kind of gung-ho radicalism that allows no obstacle to be put in the path of achieving one's ends.''
``Zealots have no place in democratic governments, for they threaten the very institutions they claim to want to protect.''
Mrs. Chavez is a self-declared conservative. She served at the White House as an undersecretary to the President during the first Reagan term. In the opinion of civil rights groups who worked against her candidacy in the Maryland election, she well deserves the conservative label. She says she approves of supporting the contras in Nicaragua, but not illegally.
Putting no obstacle in the path of achieving one's ends is another way of saying that the ends justify the means. Mrs. Chavez puts the label of zealot on those who take this road. A more traditional definition would be ideologue.
Protestants and Roman Catholics were ideologues back in the days of the religious wars of the 17th century. They slaughtered each other, singing joyous hymns while so doing, in the name of their rival religions. To both, the ends justified the means.
The most tenacious purpose in Reagan foreign policy over the entire six years of his presidency has been to overthrow the Sandinista regime. The affair of the laundered money from Iran reaching the contras in Nicaragua in defiance of the expressed will of the Congress is not the first instance of defying, skirting, or violating the law in pursuit of this goal.
The first recorded instance was the mining of the sea lane approaches to the harbors of Nicaragua. Under international law such mining is legal in a declared war when due notice of danger has been given to neutrals. There was no declaration of war. Sen. Barry Goldwater, certainly a political conservative, broke with the administration over the mines, calling them ``illegal.'' The facts are not in question. The mining was done by the CIA.
The immediate question in Washington is whether President Reagan knew about the laundering of money from Iran for contra use. He has denied such knowledge. It is technically important whether he actually authorized or knew about this operation. This is what Congress will do its utmost to determine.
But in one sense it does not matter whether Mr. Reagan had personal knowledge of the diversion of funds. His desire to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua is well known throughout the federal establishment. Anyone involved in helping the contras could take it for granted that he had presidential approval. It was a known purpose that was pursued before the congressional ban on guns to contras, and it has gone on since. We are learning the details. There was no hiatus in the supply of guns after the ban.
In Mrs. Chavez's words, ``Laws may have been broken; certainly the will of the majority of Congress was subverted.''
The doing of this, with or without specific authorization by the President himself, is an act of both zealotry and ideology. It has nothing to do with conservatism. It could be called an act of imperialism, but US imperialism (beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War) has nothing to do with the philosophy of US conservatism. Sen. Robert Taft was opposed to all such things (including the Truman doctrine and the ``cold war'').
Ronald Reagan is a radical activist in foreign policy, not a conservative.