Jubilant over President George W. Bush's re-election
victory just two months ago, neoconservatives who played a leading role in shaping
the radical trajectory of U.S. foreign policy after the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks appear increasingly divided on key issues and uncertain of their position
in Bush's second term.
All are on board for the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, and military strikes against
suspected Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran from getting a bomb.
But they cannot seem to forge a consensus on U.S. military strategy in Iraq,
whether to demand greater military spending than the Bush administration appears
comfortable with, or whether to back a policy of engagement with Iran prior
to a military strike.
They are also worried about key appointments to second-term foreign policy
positions, particularly that of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to
serve as Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice's deputy, as well as
other appointments to senior posts in the State Department.
But the biggest blow to their unity and sense of purpose to date has been the
deep split that has developed within their ranks following the death of Palestinian
leader and "arch-fiend", Yassir Arafat.
The emergence of a "moderate" successor in Palestinian Authority
(PA) president-elect Mahmoud Abbas, coupled with his initial embrace by both
the Bush administration and a realigned Israeli government seemingly determined
to carry out its plan to disengage from Gaza by the end of this year, has drawn
harsh criticism from hard-line neoconservatives.
These include Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and Center
for Security Policy (CSP) chief Frank Gaffney, who fear that both Bush and Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon are moving down a "slippery slope" that will
put Israel's security in serious jeopardy.
They doubtless saw a ray of light in the announcement Friday by Sharon cutting
all ties with the PA until it "take(s) the necessary steps to curb and
stop terrorism," in retaliation for the killing of six Israelis and wounding
of five others by Palestinian militants at a checkpoint Thursday.
The split in neocon ranks, of course, mirrors that which has taken place between
the less-ideological elements in Israel's Likud Party, such as Sharon and Deputy
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and its more-extreme elements who have long opposed
any Israeli retreat from the occupied territories for theological or nationalistic
Because Israel's security is so central to the neoconservative worldview,
the split between the hard-line neoconservatives, who are closely aligned with
Likud's extremists, and their more pragmatic brethren, such as Rice's top Middle
East aide, Elliott Abrams, who lean more to Sharon and even Olmert, deeply threatens
its unity and ideological coherence.
These developments are surprising in many ways given the jubilation of the
neoconservatives over Bush's election victory and subsequent decision to drop
Secretary of State Colin Powell in his second term.
Within days, prominent neocons, such as Danielle Pletka, a Middle East specialist
at Neocon Central, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and their fellow-travelers,
such as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
John Bolton, were being touted for top spots at the State Department and the
National Security Council.
Meanwhile, hard-liners like Gaffney and AEI's Michael Ledeen and David Frum
were drawing up lists of new candidates for "regime change," including
Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, and even Venezuela.
Since then, a number of unanticipated developments appear to have deflated
their confidence. Indeed, by early this week, Frum, a former Bush speechwriter
who co-authored a book last year with AEI's Richard Perle, the hub of Washington's
neocon network, was positively sullen over news of the latest appointments and
recent statements on Iran and Syria by Bush himself.
The clearest of these developments, of course, was the continued deterioration
of the U.S. position in Iraq despite the leveling of Fallujah in late November,
which neoconservatives of all hues had confidently declared would mark a turning
point in the war.
The prediction just last week by Gen. Brent Scowcroft (ret.), national security
adviser to Bush's father and former President Gerald Ford, that Iraq was headed
toward "incipient civil war," regardless of how the Jan. 30 elections
turn out marked the final break of a long-time Bush loyalist and mainstream
Republican with the neoconservative foreign policy. But it also served as a
dramatic reminder about how disastrously wrong the pre-war predictions by the
neocons have turned out to be.
Scowcroft's statement, which came in a session in which another venerable foreign-policy
graybeard, Zbigniew Brzezinski, offered an even more pessimistic forecast of
imperial decline, quickly became the talk of the town an exclamation point
for the Establishment's accumulating horror over the lack of light at the end
of the Iraqi tunnel.
While prominent neocons pooh-poohed the old guard for agreeing with "the
left," their crouch has become ever more defensive and sullen.
With the insurgency as vigorous as ever, many neoconservatives began rubbing
salt in old wounds, reviving complaints that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
had failed to deploy a large enough force, either during the invasion or now,
with elections pending. Others revived arguments that the fatal mistake was
in not relying more heavily on Iraqis themselves, both now and at the time of
Indeed, Rumsfeld has now become another major point of contention among neoconservatives
with some, like the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and Donald Kagan,
claiming that he should have been fired long ago for bungling the occupation,
and others, such as Perle and military historian Victor Davis Hanson, rushing
to his defense.
Meanwhile, Gaffney, who has defended Rumsfeld, offered the unkindest
cut of all this week in the Washington Times, calling proposed administration
cuts in missile defense and other big-money military programs to pay for the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "Kerry-like" a reference to the
defeated Democratic contender for the presidency and far short of what
is needed to maintain U.S. global supremacy, which lies at the heart of the
hawks' strategic vision.
Another nasty fight over Iran policy also blossomed in the neoconservative-dominated
Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), which, while united in accepting the
necessity of ultimately "taking out" Tehran's presumed nuclear-weapons
program, found themselves deeply divided over whether to first "engage"
Tehran by fully backing European initiatives to move straight to the "regime-change-by-any-means-necessary-possible"
The result, an unwieldy compromise made possible by the intervention of former
Secretary of State George Shultz, did little to heal the breach.
Meanwhile, neoconservative hopes that Rice would either "straighten out"
or permanently marginalize the State Department so as not to obstruct the hawks'
second-term agenda, as Powell and his team tried to do during the first term,
have largely been dashed with the appointment of Zoellick a protégé
of both Scowcroft and former Secretary of State James Baker and the likelihood
that NATO Amb. Nick Burns, another Atlantic-oriented realist, will take the
number three post.
Worse for the neocons are reports that the regional assistant secretaries
of state, including the Near East bureau which neoconservatives had hoped would
go to Pletka or someone of her ilk, will be dominated by career diplomats.
Bolton, whom the hawks had hoped would be named Rice's deputy, will not be
promoted to any strategic position outside of Vice President Dick Cheney's office,
which already is overflowing with neoconservatives.
"Unsupported by a clear-eyed deputy like Bolton," wrote a worried
Frum last week, "there is a very real risk that the department will run
her, rather than the other way around."