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Rumors of the Neocons' Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

June 16, 2004|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for The Times.

Neoconservatism is finished. According to the conventional wisdom, the Pentagon's top neocons, like Paul D. Wolfowitz, Douglas J. Feith and William J. Luti, have been discredited by the insurgency in Iraq, by Abu Ghraib and by growing public discontent with the war. The United Nations has been invited back -- begged, really -- while the organization's chief opponent, Richard Perle, has been marginalized. The exposure of Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi as a charlatan, and possibly as an Iranian spy, has delivered the knockout punch. The neocons have lost President Bush's confidence, it seems, and will be abandoned if he wins a second term.

That's the way the story goes, anyway. In Washington, it is widely believed, easy to understand and fun to pass along. But it is also wrong.

Although it is certainly true that the neoconservatives have had to beat a number of tactical retreats, they have not lost the war for Bush's mind. Quite the contrary; that's just wishful thinking by their enemies on both the left and right.

For one thing, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made no fundamental revisions in foreign policy. Sure, they've made a few modest concessions to Europe and the U.N. on Iraq. But the basics remain unchanged: Bush isn't bailing out of Iraq, and more than 100,000 U.S. troops will remain there for at least another year.

Rather than tone down his rhetoric, Bush has adhered to the twin neoconservative themes of promoting democracy abroad and aggressively employing U.S. military power. "If [the Middle East] is abandoned to dictators and terrorists," he said June 2, "it will be a constant source of violence and alarm, exporting killers of increasing destructive power to attack America and other free nations."

Nor has Bush wavered in his support of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an ally of the neocons. The president has insisted that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat be sidelined. He has slapped sanctions on Syria and pushed to isolate Iran. If this is moving away from neoconservatism, what would an embrace look like?

No doubt neoconservatives have been put on the defensive in recent months. When I met Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, for an interview at his home recently, he was eager to discuss the attacks on him and his neoconservative associates. Sitting in his library surrounded by stacks of Commentary magazines and books on the British empire and the Middle East, Feith stated that his critics "are being shabby with the facts, cherry-picking evidence -- doing things they're accusing us of."

But Feith was adamant in saying that the neoconservatives had not been sidelined. They remain influential, he said, and will remain so as long as ideas remain important in the administration. "Bush is not some empty vessel that we're pouring this stuff into. He's [been] underestimated the way critics underestimated Reagan."

The truth is that, currently, the neocons are the only ones with any ideas in the administration. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell bridles at any drafts from his speechwriters that he considers too theoretical. Feith, by contrast, filled his office with neocon intellectuals.

So far, no neoconservative has been thrown overboard. Despite charges that his homemade intelligence network at the Pentagon relied on bogus intelligence from Chalabi, Feith remains firmly in place at the Defense Department. David Wurmser, the architect of the pro-Chalabi strategy, is Cheney's Middle East advisor now. Mark Lagon, a neoconservative who worked for Jeane Kirkpatrick, has been promoted at the State Department. A host of younger neocons remains embedded in other agencies.

If Bush loses the election, a bloodbath will ensue; neoconservatives will be cannibalized by traditional conservatives and by their rivals at the State Department and elsewhere. But if Bush wins and the GOP retains its Senate majority, they will continue to rise. Neoconservative pit bull John Bolton, an undersecretary of State, might well head the CIA. Their main targets in a Bush second term: Syria and Iran.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservatives, recently wrote in the Weekly Standard that neoconservatism is "enjoying a second life" under Bush. Foes on the right and left may be eager to bury, not praise, the neoconservatives, but the obsequies are entirely premature. If Bush remains president, the neoconservative moment isn't over. It's just begun.

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