The neoconservative policymakers who helped spur George W. Bush toward war in Iraq may not be on the way out, but their influence is undergoing its greatest test since Sept. 11.
This week, Congress has grilled key promoters of the idea of transforming the Middle East, and spreading American values, through regime change in Iraq. Gone is the self-assuredness - some say arrogance - that typified Bush administration testimony through the end of "major hostilities." Gone, too, are claims that Americans would be greeted as liberators and then soon leave, or that Iraqi oil would quickly defray reconstruction costs.
Instead, Washington is witnessing a course correction on Iraq that signals a number of shifts with long-term repercussions, including:
• A wider door to the international community that includes acknowledgment of other countries' interests.
• Heightened congressional scrutiny exemplified by a tighter clutch on the purse strings and more aggressive oversight.
• Less ideology-driven policy, which, among other things, means moving more quickly to encourage Iraqi dominance of Iraq's affairs, even if the results aren't fully in America's image.
Whether the neoconservative dream of Iraq as a beacon of democracy to the region is fulfilled is still up in the air, and won't be determined in the short-term, analysts say. But a more pragmatic approach means the chances of that happening may be brighter, some experts believe.
"At last we're beginning to do what we did with Afghanistan and about Al Qaeda: We're highballing the challenge ahead," says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. It was a mistake for the administration to "low-ball" the challenge, he adds, because "it left them open to charges and exposed a fair amount of hubris. But the president's acknowledging [in his speech Sunday] that things aren't going well tells me that's going to change."
The clearest sign of such a change is seen in the administration's reaching out to the UN to get more troops and financial help from other countries. That effort shifts into high gear this weekend as Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with the foreign ministers of the four other members of the UN Security Council at a rare summit in Geneva.
The administration's shift began when things didn't go in postwar Iraq as the administration had anticipated: Troops were supposed to have begun coming home by now, while no guerrilla war threatening Iraq's security and stability was planned for.
The impact of that hit Congress this week, where Democrats and some moderate Republicans questioned planning for the postwar period. Some went so far as to suggest that certain policymakers - read primarily idealistic neoconservatives - pushed America to war by deliberately underestimating the postwar challenge.
One result is that in acting on the president's request for $87 billion for Iraq next year, Congress is expected to easily pass the $66 billion portion of the request for military action, since it translates into support for the 150,000 troops on Iraqi soil. But at the same time, some in Congress want to use the request for $21 billion for postwar reconstruction as a lever for extracting a clearer picture of the administration's strategy for winning the postcombat phase of the war. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts is proposing an amendment that would in effect hold that part of the bill hostage until more answers are provided.
Questioning Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - an architect of the administration's Iraq policy and the highest-ranking official from the neoconservative forces in Washington - Senator Kennedy said, "You and other officials in the administration responsible for this war were warned [by intelligence experts that they should expect major resistance to US occupation], yet you put tens of thousands of American troops in harm's way without adequate planning." He added, "I'm going to be interested in how this could have happened. Who's accountable?"
Criticism wasn't limited to Democrats. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine said Bush "has to lay out a plan. We have to see what it will require.... Congress deserves to have a full accounting."
The implication that heads should roll is not expected to be taken up by the president. But the criticisms are shaking up neoconservatives both inside and out of the administration, who are laying the blame for Iraq's rough ride at other feet.
While neoconservatives aimed most of their prewar fire at Mr. Powell for persuading the president to take the case for war to the United Nations, now their target is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Unlike Mr. Rumsfeld, who might be called a realist conservative, the neoconservatives believe strongly in nation-building, and in particular in a version of nation-building that would make the world safer by making more of it like America.
Rumsfeld does not want to entertain the idea that Iraq might require more American troops. Such a prospect wouldn't square with his desire to "transform" the US military into a smaller force that would use technological superiority to win wars.
Neoconservatives had agreed that Iraq could be won with fewer troops than some military officers, such as former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, estimated would be necessary. But now in a postwar period that isn't going as they predicted, they insist more American troops should be dispatched - a prospect favored over the deployment of foreign troops, which would entail a watering down of America's control.
Writing this week in The Weekly Standard, a leading neoconservative publication, American Enterprise Institute analyst Tom Donnelly dubs Rumsfeld the "architect of defeat" for his refusal to increase troop levels in Iraq. "Now," he writes, "the kingdom may be lost for want of a nail."
The problem for neoconservatives is that their period of heightened influence may be fading. They "never had a grip [on policy]," says Ivo Daalder, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "What they had was a conjunction between 'neocons' and conservatives."
While Bush will never give up his goal of eliminating Iraq as a terror threat, he may back off from the dream of making Iraq a beacon of democracy.