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

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.

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.

Observers say it was a series of columns by classic conservative George Will that signaled the Republicans' foreign-policy war. Saying the administration's Iraq policy has been too "neo" and not sufficiently conservative, Mr. Will hammers his central point: As exceptional as America may be, it should not blindly believe it can overcome the force of culture in foreign places.

Others point to a battle of the books as a sign of a fight for foreign policy. On one side are titles like "Bush League Diplomacy: How the Neoconservatives are Putting the World at Risk," or "America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order"; on the other side is "An End to Evil," by neocon dean Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum.

In the latter, the authors warn that "the will to win [the war on terror] is ebbing." But that alarm bell is simply a "note of panic" that the neocon star is fading, says Stefan Halper, a GOP foreign-policy specialist and coauthor of "America Alone."

Active in three previous Republican administrations, Mr. Halper admits that his book's objective is to move neocons "to the periphery of power, where as a special interest group they belong."

But some conservative analysts say such a transformation in foreign policy is unlikely without fireworks. At a recent Washington conference, columnist Robert Novak, a traditional conservative, said a Bush loss could lead to a "volcanic moment" in US politics, with Republicans deciding what to do, for example, with the neocon influence - whose failure in Iraq will be blamed for the party's loss. Debate would also grow, he says, over the place of the Christian Right, which has championed the neocons' foreign policy.

There are signs that the battle is already on. For example, some senior administration officials now suggest that Powell, who was once assumed to be set on leaving office at the end of this term, might stay on at least through a transition period - on the condition that the neocon forces don't dominate foreign-policy decisions again. Such talk may be nothing but smoke signals from the White House, some say, because Powell, though damaged by his marginalization, remains popular with the public.

But others note that Powell does little to hide his distaste for Mr. Cheney's neocon-influenced foreign-policy staff, or for the civilian (and neocon-leaning) staff that has bloomed at the Pentagon.

Beyond politics however, some say the experience of 9/11 will keep the neocons alive. That means their detractors, both conservative and liberal, will have to offer more convincing scenarios for addressing terrorism if they want to dent the neocon appeal. (One idea that appears to be building bipartisan steam is the notion that the Iraq project erroneously diverted American attention from Al Qaeda.)

Yet even if Iraq has soured Americans on waging war to fell dictators and spread democracy, as surveys show, Toensing says other crises will arise - Iran, for example, already part of Bush's "axis of evil" - where the neocons' idealism and blunt calls to action will receive a warm audience.

"The Iranian crisis is going to arise sooner rather than later, and what the neocons say about it will resonate," he says. "Unless someone else can provide answers ... I will not be surprised at all if the neocons again have their day in the sun."

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