The fall of the neocons

IRAQ – A BLOODY MESS

Bush sees the writing on the wall as worsening Iraqi crisis realigns political forces in the US.

IN THE autumn of his presidency, Mr George W. Bush finds his support falling away.

He has jettisoned, or has been abandoned by, his core constituency of neoconservatives, the group of hardline right-wingers he gathered around him in his first term, who fashioned a new view of foreign policy and the United States’ place in the world.

They believed that as the world’s sole superpower, the US should not shy away from using its military might to put things right in the world, as they saw it.

Vice-President Dick Cheney and outgoing Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were often seen as the standard bearers of this ideology. Their influence has waned as the Iraq war has taken an ever increasing toll on US forces.

Dr Gary Sick, a former senior White House official, said of Mr Cheney: “He is increasingly isolated and it is debatable whether he will have the same clout to push through hard-line policies.”

The departure of Mr Rumsfeld after the Republicans’ crushing defeat in the mid-term election drove the final nail in the coffin for the neoconservatives.

Mr Bush has moved to the centre, turning to his trusted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr Rumsfeld’s replacement Robert Gates, to chart a more realistic and pragmatic foreign policy.

Harvard professor Graham Allison, a leading international relations scholar, explained: “Clearly, the electoral defeat communicated to Bush in a way that he understands that Americans have rejected the war in Iraq that is an expression of neoconservative ideology.

“Claims that the US is winning in Iraq have no political credibility now.

“What this President knows or does not know about international relations is one subject. But he does know politics. And he has woken up to reality. He is in that reality zone now.”

The neoconservatives, on the other hand, continue to show supreme indifference even if they are on the wane.

Mr Cheney still has the ear of Mr Bush and key allies such as National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

But most of the Vice-President’s allies have been sidelined. He is said to have been most badly affected by the loss of his chief of staff, Mr Lewis “Scooter” Libby, indicted in October last year for allegedly lying to prosecutors about his role in disclosing the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency operative.

Others, like former deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq war, have also left.

The few who remain hold mid-level appointments in the White House, and State and Defence departments. Several others exercise clout outside government through public commentary.

But if the neoconservatives were once firmly behind the President, they are now among his harshest critics.

In the latest Vanity Fair magazine, some who championed the campaign for invading Iraq, including former Pentagon officials Kenneth Adelmann and Richard Perle, chastise Mr Bush for his handling of the war.

Mr Perle said: “Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad.”

Mr Bush thus finds himself with fewer and fewer friends.

This happens with every American leader towards the end of his second and final term, but for Mr Bush, there is an extra edge of bitterness given the failed Iraq venture.

In his first term, he seemed more eager to identify ideologically with Mr Ronald Reagan, the much loved conservative president who got America going economically and stood up to the Soviet Union militarily, than with his father, Mr George H.W. Bush.

The senior Bush, president from 1989 to 1993, promoted a realist school of conservatism. He cultivated personal ties with world leaders and worked to manage the international system during the collapse of communism.

Both father and son had differences initially over the direction to take on Iraq. But now, there are several signs that the younger Bush is veering towards his father’s views, at least on some issues.

One is his support of a study group co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker to find a way out of the Iraq quagmire.

Mr Baker served under the senior Bush and is a longtime friend. He was also a key legal strategist in Mr George W. Bush’s victory in the disputed 2000 presidential election.

Another sign is the appointment of Mr Robert Gates, who was CIA director under the elder Bush, as Mr Rumsfeld’s successor.

Mr Gates had been a member of the 10-member Iraq Study Group and is a close friend of Mr Baker.

Dr Sick, who worked with Mr Gates in the White House during the Ford and Carter administrations, said that his nomination as Defence Secretary marks a moment of real change for the current government.

“He represents a completely different brand of political action than the neoconservatives,” he said.

Mr Gates’ worldview dovetails with that of Dr Rice, who has put her stamp on foreign policy in the President’s second term as much as neoconservatives did in the first.

Her preferred option is a multilateral approach to the world’s problems. With her nemesis Mr Rumsfeld out of the way, Dr Rice has outlasted most of her principal rivals. Only Mr Cheney can rival her influence over the President now.

And if she succeeds in building a partnership with Mr Gates, the remaining neoconservatives will find themselves in bigger trouble.

The worsening situation in Iraq has realigned political forces in the United States. The centre now holds the upper hand in the 2008 presidential election.

Mr Bush appears to have seen the writing on the wall.

With two years left in office, he realises it is time to try for a new beginning.

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