It's been a rough season for neoconservatives, the group that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since the attacks of September 11. They've been largely run out of the Bush administration, beset by infighting, and mocked by a foreign-policy establishment that hailed their power just a few years ago. Last month was particularly brutal. They looked on helplessly as Democrats took both houses of Congress. They had to grit their teeth when President Bush met with Washington dealmakers James Baker and Lee Hamilton, whose bipartisan group is charged with extricating America from the mess the neocon-influenced policy created in Iraq. Then, insult to injury: they watched their cold-war nemesis in Central America circa 1986, Daniel Ortega, rise again to be president of Nicaragua.
The neocons are reeling, but they're not dead yet. A few stalwarts are digging in their wing-tips. And there's already a small backlash against the backlash. At the State Department, supposedly the bastion of realism, some officials are sounding defiant. "There are a lot of people throughout the ranks who believe in the democracy agenda," says one senior official who would only discuss policy issues anonymously. "If the result of the Baker report is that we have to make any deal necessary ... to get out of Iraq, I don't think that's going to fly." Their hopes, and the hopes of neocons everywhere, may rest on the shoulders of Elliott Abrams, the number-two official at the National Security Council--who remains in charge of promoting democracy in the Middle East, a linchpin of the neocon agenda.
Abrams, who declined an interview request from NEWSWEEK, has his work cut out for him. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Abrams handles the Middle East, though not Iraq. Earlier this year, Abrams pushed for an $85 million expansion of TV and radio programming beamed into Iran to gently promote regime change. Now, toppling the mullahs might be off the table. The same goes for the policy of pushing reforms on Arab allies like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who has kept a key opposition figure in jail for more than 11 months and scaled back rights. Michael Gerson, who served until recently as Bush's speechwriter (and who is now a NEWSWEEK contributor), says Abrams must be troubled by the swing. "People who support the democracy agenda are deeply concerned that Mubarak is significantly backtracking," Gerson says. And Abrams has to cope with the fallout of his push for Palestinian elections--the rise of Hamas, and the breakdown of the peace process. But Abrams has one powerful advantage. "Bush has enormous regard for him," says a senior administration official who would not speak about their relationship on the record. "One, because he knows Elliott is keeper of the flame. And also, he's the only one who doesn't draw any attention to himself." (Abrams has been somewhat press-shy ever since he admitted to withholding information from Congress about the Iran-contra affair two decades ago; he was later pardoned.)
The biggest dogfight is still ahead: whether to cut a deal with regimes like Iran, North Korea and Syria. Bush's approach has been to counter threats from oppressive regimes by trying to change them. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and the punditocracy's best-known neocon, says it's hard to imagine the president turning his back on all that. "I think Bush is the last neocon in power," he says. "The truth is, it was always Bush."
Kristol acknowledges the neoconservatives are turn-ing on each other. Francis Fukuyama, the "End of History" sage, has broken with the neocons publicly and believes that they are discredited. Richard Perle, the former Pentagon adviser, now says he probably wouldn't have invaded Iraq at all (Perle refused to talk to NEWSWEEK). Kristol dismisses what he calls the "confessional mode" of his old friend Perle. But Kristol also believes the infighting is natural. "Every intellectual group, every political group, goes through a period of mini crackup and reassembles in slightly different ways," he told NEWSWEEK. "For a group that's discredited, an awful lot of people are spending an awful lot of time discrediting us." Kristol's allies are looking to Abrams to pick up the pieces.