Less than a year later, many of them became key Bush campaign policy advisers, calling themselves "The Vulcans," after the Roman God of fire and metalworking. And after Bush's election, many more became top administration advisers.
The Vulcans Get Their Chance
In November 1999, my Washington Post colleague John Lancaster and I visited the American Enterprise Institute to interview Perle, who was an obscure but influential policy wonk. He was among a small group of advisers put together by the Bush campaign with the help of Cheney and Shultz to bring the candidate up to speed on foreign affairs and military matters.
We interviewed almost all of the advisers in this group, either on the record or on background, and filed one of the first news stories about the Bush foreign policy team. Of the eight principal Vulcans we identified in our story, at least half of them contributed to the intellectual capital of PNAC. It was an early story -- Bush hadn't even won the GOP nomination yet at the point -- and it was full of good details about the composition and ideological leanings of this group. But we missed some important angles that, in retrospect, would have shed contextual light on Bush's response to the terrorist attacks that came less than a year into his first term.
Yet even then, their importance to Bush was clear. The Texas governor didn't hide the fact that he had little foreign policy experience. The Vulcans were there to bring him up to speed. In an interview with Vulcan Dov S. Zakheim, a Reagan-era Pentagon official, he surprised us with an anecdote that he said demonstrated Bush's capacity to sublimate his ego and build knowledge from the ground up. In one early meeting, he said, the man who would become president asked, "What do we need an army for?"
Even had 9/11 never happened, it's reasonable to assume that the neocons would have pressed for an attack of Iraq at some point in Bush's first term, given that they pressed Clinton -- a president with whom they had no formal relationship-to do the same thing a few years earlier.
"The first situation where the employment of this doctrine was advocated was in Iraq, to put a regime in place favorable to U.S. policies in the Middle East," Harry Petrequin, a former faculty member of the National War College and neocon critic, wrote in an October column in the Asheville Citizen-Times. "In 1998 they presented this thesis to the Clinton administration as the basis for the projection of U.S. power in that unstable region. It was rejected, much to the chagrin of Cheney and his associates.
"When Cheney became vice president he saw to it that many of the principal authors of that document along with their disciples were given positions of responsibility within the Department of Defense, State Department, and the White House, whereby the 'Project for a New American Century' could be implemented."
Were the Neocons Right?
Recent weeks have seen elections in Iraq and within the Palestinian Authority, nascent movements toward political liberalization in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a democratic uprising against Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
Are these events the payoff of a decade-long push by American Neoconservatives? And will Neoconservatives use that justification to pursue their strategy of "benevolent hegemony" even further?
In an interview with U.S.-sponsored Middle Eastern Radio Sawa, Bolton spoke as Baghdad fell about his hopes for the future. "We are hoping that the elimination of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would be important lessons to other countries in the region, particularly Syria, Libya, and Iran, that the cost of their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high," he said.
But after Baghdad fell, U.S. forces have faced stiff opposition in Iraq and struggled to create a permanent constitutional democracy there. The stock of neoconservatism suffered, before rebounding again in the early months of this year.
David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece praising neocon Wolfowitz. In it, Wolfowitz looks ahead to the "echoes" of the recent elections in Iraq. But he also says the use of force in Iraq was "exceptional."
Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a former RNC spokesman, said the primary thing that sets the neocons apart is a willingness to put their money where their mouth is.
"The view that Saddam Hussein needed regime change was a view that the so-called neocons held, but hardly exclusively," May said. "The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 was signed by Clinton and endorsed by Gore."
True enough. But the Iraq Liberation Act was not a declaration of war. It was a statement of principle backed by a strategy of pouring money into the armed opposition movement. Pursuing the course of near-unilateral war is a huge difference.
The strategy of military intervention accomplished the Clinton administration's goal of removing Hussein. And the Neoconservatives have been the most enduring proponents of military intervention -- originally to spread America's moral hegemony, regardless of any impending threat.
The critics of neoconservatism argue that the pre-occupation with military power will eventually defeat the very objective they pursue.
Zogby, of the Arab American Institute, told me in an interview last week that the president's supporters are getting way ahead of themselves, ignoring the challenges caused by the Iraqi invasion and occupation. He said the military presence had radicalized Arab moderates throughout the region and turned them into anti-American zealots. Even if democracy emerges, it could be so perverted it barely resembles Western prototypes, he said.
Zogby argues that the hope of future benefits won't outweigh the damage being done today. "Those who have the luxury of ideology without having to deal with the reality will often make judgments about the long view without the attention to how many people have to die in the process," Zogby said. "Was the old regime a good one? No. But could we have found a way to nurture [Iraq] into a new reality? We'll never know because we went directly from containment to war with nothing in between."
Fawaz Gerges, a noted Middle East scholar from Sarah Lawrence University, agrees with Zogby's criticism, but he's willing to give Bush some credit. The changes in the Middle East are happening in spite of what happened in Iraq. The seeds of democratic change have been percolating for nearly two decades, he argues.
"Although most of the credit should go to the progressive and democratic forces in the region itself that have been struggling against pro-Western rulers, the Bush administration deserves some credit -- not for invading Iraq, but for the promotion of democracy in the region," Gerges said. "I think it would be highly misleading . . . to draw a causal link between the American invasion of Iraq and the new democratic currents that are sweeping through Muslim lands."