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Those Who Sought War Are Now Pushing Peace

Neoconservative thinkers believe the U.S. should use diplomatic and economic pressure.

April 17, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From the people who most enthusiastically promoted the war in Iraq, the message now is peace.

Or at least a pause in hostilities.

Even as President Bush and his aides are talking tough about Syria, the neoconservative foreign policy thinkers who provided much of the intellectual justification for the war with Iraq are talking down the possibility of further military action in the Middle East -- at least in the near term.

"I just don't think there is a tremendous appetite on the part of most people for endless military operations, even among people who think things turned out reasonably well in Iraq," said Aaron L. Friedberg, a neoconservative professor of international affairs at Princeton University.

This restrained tone has surprised some because almost all of the leading neoconservative intellectuals have portrayed the Iraq war as just one chapter in a larger struggle against Islamic extremism. But in a flurry of articles and statements since the fall of Baghdad, many of those same thinkers are contending that the next steps should involve diplomatic and economic pressure, not military force.

"We are in a regional struggle and ... it is impossible to win the war on terrorism so long as the regimes in Syria and Iran remain in power," Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, wrote earlier this week. "The good news is that both are vulnerable to political attack."

Force Still a Factor

Even so, most leading neoconservatives argue that the United States cannot rule out the use of force if Iran and Syria don't reform, and critics argue that such views will eventually produce a drumbeat for more wars in the region.

"The logic of their position suggests there will come a time where military force becomes the means to achieve the end they seek because as you threaten regimes -- and we are certainly threatening the Syrians -- the credibility of that threat depends on your willingness to fulfill it," said Ivo Daalder, a national security aide under President Bill Clinton.

The neoconservatives are a loose, but distinctive, network of hawkish foreign policy thinkers active in Republican circles. Those outside the administration tend to cluster at the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard, a magazine edited by GOP strategist Bill Kristol, and the Project for the New American Century, another think tank Kristol organized in 1997.

There is a Web site,, devoted to advancing their political perspective. The site defines neoconservatism as being "committed to cultural traditionalism, democratic capitalism, and a foreign policy promoting freedom and American interests around the world."

Neoconservatives with top jobs inside the administration include Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy Defense secretary; John R. Bolton, undersecretary of State; Lewis Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney; and Elliot Abrams and Zalmay Khalilzad, who have key responsibilities for Middle East policy at the National Security Council.

Whether inside or outside of government, the neoconservatives typically argue for aggressive U.S. leadership to shape the international order and confront global threats -- with allies if possible, but alone if necessary.

Long before the 2001 terrorist attacks, the New American Century's founding statement of principles called for a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity" that would promote democracy abroad and "challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values."

Voices of Doubt

Inside the GOP, this approach faces resistance from both moderates committed to international alliances and conservative "realists," who worry that the neoconservative vision of remaking the world will lead America into unsustainable military and nation-building commitments. The latest issue of the National Review, an outpost of "realist" conservative thinking, noted in a headline, "You can't spell 'messianic' without mess."

Most observers agree that neoconservative influence inside the administration soared after the Sept. 11 attacks because their long-standing call for aggressive action against hostile regimes -- particularly Iraq -- dovetailed with Bush's desire to take the offensive against terrorists and states that might support them. Increasingly, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush himself have echoed neocon arguments.

"It's not a case where the neocons suddenly seized the mind of the president, but rather where the president came to the same conclusion they did because of Sept. 11," said one senior Republican Senate aide who closely follows these debates.

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