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
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
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
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)