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November 2, 2006

The Neocons' Nadir?

by Jim Lobe

Less than a week from midterm elections that are expected to bring at least one house of Congress under Democratic control, neoconservatives, whose foreign policy ideas dominated most of the first half of the administration of U.S. George W. Bush, are having a hard time.

Not only do they stand to lose a number of steadfast supporters in both the House and Senate, particularly the one senator, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose constant warnings against "Islamofascism" popularized one of their favorite expressions.

But a clear Democratic victory will also almost certainly increase pressure on the administration to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and make it more difficult to rally support for military action against Iran – a top neoconservative priority – in the two years left to Bush's presidency.

"A Democratic Congress will make it much harder for the hawks [on Iran]," noted Kenneth Pollack, a former senior Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now with the Brookings Institution.

Moreover, the war in Iraq, for which the neoconservatives were the loudest and most effective champions, has proven such an albatross for Republican candidates this year that, even if the party manages to hold on to the Senate, support among its rank-and-file there for maintaining an open-ended commitment in Iraq or for a new adventure in Iran is likely to be very weak.

So many Republican candidates have been distancing themselves from the White House, on Iraq, in particular, that Bush himself was finally forced to abandon his three-year-old "stay-the-course" mantra last week.

Worse, some of the neoconservatives former allies have publicly turned on them with a vengeance. Former Secretary of State Al Haig, a strong supporter of going to war in Iraq, shocked many here two weeks ago when he told a widely-viewed CNN Sunday talk show that the war had been "driven by the so-called neocons that hijacked my party."

He referred by name to Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute and the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and former Deputy Defense Secretary (now World Bank President) Paul Wolfowitz, as well as the editorial-page writers of the Wall Street Journal.

Probably the capital's single most influential hard-line neoconservative, Perle himself appears to have become increasingly pessimistic and sour on trends within the administration over the past several months. "I think we have an administration today that is dysfunctional," he complained to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week, although he was very careful not to blame Bush himself.

It certainly must not have helped his spirits when even Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile whose cause both Perle and Wolfowitz – not to mention the Wall Street Journal editorial page which, as recently as last May proposed the Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader whose party had not won a single seat in last December's elections as interior minister – tirelessly championed since the mid-1990s, called for the administration to open talks with Iran as the way to begin extricating itself from Iraq.

"Iran and Turkey, both powerful neighbors of Iraq, must be involved in the process to help Iraq's security situation improve and its democratic process and economy develop," Chalabi told the Associated Press from his home in London last weekend.

That kind of talk is anathema to neoconservatives here who see Iran as an existential threat to Israel and who had hoped that the U.S. military conquest of Iraq in 2003 would serve as a prelude either to destabilizing the Islamic Republic or taking direct military action against it.

For much of the past two years, neoconservatives both inside and outside the administration have also repeatedly accused Tehran of itself destabilizing "liberated" Iraq and fomenting violence against U.S. troops there.

Yet Chalabi's view that gaining Iran's cooperation – through either direct talks or in the context of regional negotiations – in stabilizing Iraq is a sine qua non for U.S. disengagement is increasingly accepted among the policy elite here. They include senior Republicans, such as former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Lugar, as well as top Democratic lawmakers, most recently the front-runner for the party's 2006 presidential nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

They, in turn, have been encouraged by public remarks over the last two months by former Secretary of State James Baker and by reports that the bipartisan, congressionally-appointed task force that he co-chairs, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), will recommend that Washington directly engage both Iran and Syria, as well as other regional players, in stabilizing Iraq.

"I believe in talking to your enemies," he said last month after meetings with Damascus' foreign minister and Tehran's UN ambassador, who reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Baker's words and activities set off a storm of protest by Perle's associates at the American Enterprise Institute, notably Michael Ledeen, who called the former secretary's approach "active appeasement," and Michael Rubin, who warned that "Baker's cold realist calculations may surrender Iraq to Iranian suzerainty."

Many analysts here believe that the combination of next week's election results and the ISG's final report, which will probably be released in January, will produce powerful momentum toward major policy changes of the kinds advocated by Republican "realists" in the Middle East that Bush, more isolated than ever and a lame duck to boot, will find very difficult to resist.

Already, according to Pollack, "the situation in Iraq is getting so bad that [senior administration officials] more and more see [that] they need Iranian assistance in Iraq. … I don't think the hawks are in the driver's seat right now."

Despite these trends, however, some neoconservatives have not given up hope and argue that if, as they believe, current diplomatic efforts to freeze Iran's nuclear program do not succeed, Bush is determined to attack Iran before the end of his term.

In a cheerful memo to his "fellow neoconservatives," on "how to save the neocons" published in the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine, another American Enterprise fellow, Joshua Muravchik, argued that "prepar[ing] to bomb Iran should be a top priority for the movement in the next two years."

"Make no mistake, President Bush will need to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office," he wrote. "We need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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