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In foreign-policy battles, are neocons losing their hold?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2004


Secretary of State Colin Powell is on a roll. In a kind of nose-thumbing at neoconservatives' "America first and alone" ideology, the Bush administration's leading protagonist of multilateralism is displaying the power of diplomacy over confrontation.

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There he is in Sudan with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, urging the Sudanese government to rein in militias and end a humanitarian crisis. Next, he's in Asia, conducting the highest-level meeting that's been held in two years with a North Korean official.

Such initiatives - following President Bush's own "month of summits" in June - have some observers speculating that the "neocons" and their black-and-white views of the world are on the outs in the White House.

But others, among them some mainstream conservatives, say this may be only a setback - and not a fatal one - for neoconservative ideology with its emphasis on "good" vs. "evil" and military force. A battle is under way, they say, for the future of GOP foreign policy - something akin to conservatives' feuds over the administration's spending habits.

"The gloves are off and the battle is joined for the soul of the Republican Party," says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy expert and self-described "realist" at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

The prize both sides are fighting for is the direction that foreign policy would take, should Bush win reelection in November. Some say the shock of Iraq - unstable, resistant, and requiring many more US troops for longer than promised - has permanently turned the administration away from the neoconservatives' rosy picture of US intervention.

But others point to neonconservatives' high positions in the Pentagon and the White House, and to the unprecedented number of young neoconservatives on Vice President Cheney's foreign-policy staff. That, they say, means the neocons are only lying low until the Iraq storm passes.

"One writes the obituary of the neocons at one's own peril," says Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report in Washington. Noting that "people make policy," Mr. Hulsman says that "if you look at the people staffing the administration, they have changed remarkably little given the debacle in Iraq." And he says the key to who has won the battle will emerge in the days after the November election, when one party is analyzing its loss as the other makes staffing decisions.

On the Republican side, the debate will be between neocons who believe - like Weekly Standard editor William Kristol - that while the idea of waging war to reform Iraq was correct, the implementation was flawed; and the realists who fault the idea itself. Those include people like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the meantime, many analysts say talk of a neocon twilight is premature.

That's "not simply because ... they have the ear of some very well-placed people in the White House," says Mr. Toensing, "but because their ideas resonate with the American public."

The neocons post-9/11, he continues, have been especially successful at highlighting the link between terrorism and a lack of democracy, particularly in Arab and Islamic countries. The next leap - from an action being merely "good" to seeming an imperative for US security - makes sense to many Americans, he adds.