WASHINGTON — In the unending struggle over American foreign policy that consumes much of official Washington, one side claimed a victory this week: the neoconservatives, that determined band of hawkish idealists who promoted the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now seek to bring democracy to the rest of the Middle East.
For more than a year, since the occupation of Iraq turned into the Bush administration's biggest headache, many of the "neocons" have lowered their profiles and muted their rhetoric. During President Bush's reelection campaign, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the leading voices for invading Iraq, virtually disappeared from public view.
But on Thursday, Bush proclaimed in his inaugural address that the central purpose of his second term would be the promotion of democracy "in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" -- a key neoconservative goal. Suddenly, the neocons were ascendant again.
"This is real neoconservatism," said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar who has been a leading exponent of neocon thinking -- and who sometimes has criticized the administration for not being neocon enough. "It would be hard to express it more clearly. If people were expecting Bush to rein in his ambitions and enthusiasms after the first term, they are discovering that they were wrong."
On the other side of the Republican foreign policy divide, a leading "realist" -- an exponent of the view that promoting democracy is nice, but not the central goal of U.S. foreign policy -- agreed.
"If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a conservative think tank that reveres the less idealistic policies of Richard Nixon. "I hope and pray that he didn't mean it ... [and] that it was merely an inspirational speech, not practical guidance for the conduct of foreign policy."
A senior Bush aide who met with reporters Friday to explain the meaning of the speech waved away a question about its endorsement of neoconservative ideas. "I've never understood what that neoconservative label means, anyway," he said, refusing to be identified by name because, he said: "We should be focusing on the president's words, not mine."
But the aide went on to repeat, with emphasis, some of Bush's words that put democratization of other countries at the center of his foreign policy. "It is a top priority for his second term," the aide said. "He's raised the emphasis. He's raised the profile.... He's made it clear that he's going to turn up the pressure a bit. He's going to try to accelerate the process."
The administration would begin unveiling specific steps to increase the pressure for democracy in undemocratic countries, the Bush aide said, but he refused to describe any at this point.
At her confirmation hearings this week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice named six countries as "outposts of tyranny" that would get special attention from the second-term Bush administration: Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe.
On Friday, the senior official who briefed reporters said the administration also would be pressing friendly regimes to institute democratic reforms; he mentioned Russia, China, Pakistan and Egypt "as illustrations." Much of the pressure, he said, would be private rather than public, and the administration would be careful to avoid undermining a leader like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whom it counts as a democratic reformer.
Another senior official -- a prominent neoconservative who also refused to be named -- said Bush's theme reflected several "lessons learned" in the last 30 years. Chief among them, he said, was an argument that neoconservatives often made about the Soviet Union and, more recently, Iraq: that a central goal of the United States should be "systemic change" -- changing hostile states' regimes, not merely their policies.
Still, he cautioned, "A policy promoting democracy also has to be a realistic policy.... We have to consider ... what are the risks of overly rapid change? What's the downside?"
The definition of neoconservatism has been hotly debated in recent years as the neocon camp has grown in numbers and influence. One of the movement's fathers, Irving Kristol, once defined it -- in contrast to traditional conservatism -- as "forward-looking, not nostalgic ... cheerful, not grim." In domestic affairs, he wrote, neocons tend to accept the need for a strong federal government, not a weak one.
In foreign policy, they believe in a broad definition of the national interest, not a narrow one; they are more willing than most traditional conservatives to commit American power, including military power, to such causes as democracy and human rights.