WASHINGTON — As U.S. tanks surrounded Baghdad 14 months ago, an ardent group of war supporters in Washington toasted the success of an invasion they had done much to inspire, as commentators spoke of their virtual takeover of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Today, that same group, the neoconservatives, is itself under siege.
Many fellow conservatives have joined liberals in criticizing their case for the war. Rivals in the State Department and the Pentagon have taken charge of the U.S. effort in Iraq. And in a grave threat to their reputation, Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime favorite of neoconservatives, is enmeshed in an FBI investigation of alleged intelligence leaks that supplied secrets to Iran.
"As these events have come one after the other, they've been feeling more and more embattled," said a Republican Senate aide.
"Neocons" -- best known for advocating aggressive foreign and military policies -- are in the painful zone between distinction and disfavor in Washington. They are losing battles on Capitol Hill. Their principles have stopped appearing in new U.S. policies. And where neoconservatives were once seen as having a future in Republican administrations, the setbacks in Iraq could make it difficult for the group's leading members to win Senate confirmation for top posts in the future.
Fourteen months ago, Kenneth Adelman was one of the prominent neoconservatives who took part in a now-storied victory celebration at the home of Vice President Dick Cheney that was described in Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack."
Since then, Adelman acknowledged, the group's influence has declined, because "Iraq didn't turn out to be as promising as it was billed."
Adelman, a former Reagan administration official, said that although he supported the rationale for the war, he was torn about what had happened since. "I still have to sort it all out. I'm just not settled yet," he said.
Other neocons worry that the real trouble for them could begin if President Bush is not reelected and, among conservatives, the finger-pointing begins -- in their direction.
"Bush could end up looking like the worst president since Jimmy Carter because of Iraq, and people are going to say, 'You got us into this mess,' " said one Washington source who considered himself a neoconservative and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's going to be nasty and bitter and brutal."
While definitions vary, "neoconservative" generally refers to formerly moderate policy advocates who favor a hawkish and assertive foreign policy to implant democracy and American values abroad.
Neocons contrast with more traditional conservatives who are willing to deal with undemocratic regimes without necessarily changing them.
Neoconservatives have been especially focused on the Middle East, and they have argued that building democracy in the heart of the Arab world could foster reform throughout a troubled region.
Although Bush campaigned in 2000 on a platform that opposed nonessential nation-building missions, he moved sharply toward the neocon view after the Sept. 11 attacks. His administration includes a number of officials considered neocons, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz; Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for policy; and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.
Cheney shares many views with the neocons, but many analysts argue that because of his background and views, he is a traditional conservative.
Neoconservatives had been pushing the United States to oust Saddam Hussein for years, and they exulted in his fall. But they grew concerned when officials in charge of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq took steps the neocons did not favor.
One group of neoconservatives, including onetime Reagan Defense official Richard Perle, was unhappy that the White House didn't move more quickly to turn sovereignty over to Iraqis and put the country in control of dissidents such as Chalabi.
Other neocons, including William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and editor of the journal Weekly Standard, contended that the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had allowed security problems to spread by deploying too few troops.
In general, neocons felt as if "they had created a brilliant screenplay, and it had fallen into the hands of the wrong director," said one self-described neoconservative, borrowing a line from political satirist Bill Maher.
As the postwar problems deepened, many neocons found themselves in the strange position of criticizing the White House, while being blamed in various quarters around the world for provoking the war. An antiwar group in Brussels created a shadow international tribunal that convicted the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think tank founded by Kristol, for war crimes.
"It's not fun to be accused of war crimes," said Gary Schmitt, the center's executive director.