Are the neoconservatives "up" or "down" in the second Bush administration? Will their agenda of transformational regime change in the Middle East be dominant in Bush II, or will their influence be reduced?
The truth is that nobody knows except George W. Bush. And the fact that nobody in Washington can be sure who really has the president's ear on foreign policy illustrates the delicate balance -- and potential for internal conflict -- that will shape the president's second term.
Certainly Bush's two big speeches this year have embraced the ambitious rhetoric of the neocons. When the president talked in his inaugural address about America's global mission to spread liberty, and when he admonished Syria and Iran in his State of the Union address Wednesday night, he certainly sounded like the neoconservative in chief.
Bush even seemed to be putting down a neocon marker for regime change when he proclaimed: "And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
Yet there are reasons not to take these bold words entirely at face value. Behind the rhetoric, the changes of personnel in Bush II seem, in fact, to be turning Bush more toward the neoconservatives' rivals, the foreign policy school known as the "realists." At the State Department, Condoleezza Rice has been signaling that she wants to follow Colin Powell in the GOP foreign policy mainstream; meanwhile, the leading neocon at State, Undersecretary John R. Bolton, is expected to leave that post soon.
At the Pentagon, one of the most powerful of the neocon figures, Undersecretary Douglas Feith, will be leaving this summer for personal reasons. And at the National Security Council, Rice's successor, Steve Hadley, appears to be steering a pragmatic "realist" course. He authored an op-ed piece in The Post last Saturday about Iraq that eschewed grand rhetoric altogether in favor of a nuanced discussion of that country's fragile ethnic balance.
Richard Perle, the neocons' intellectual godfather, certainly doesn't see the second Bush administration as neoconservative territory. "Bush is very much himself," Perle says. The advice reaching the president, Perle contends, "is probably not advice that would align him with the neoconservatives. Most advice would be quite contrary to that -- advice from the CIA, the State Department, the NSC. He gets conventional wisdom from the bureaucracy."
What adds a sharp edge to the Bush II ideological debate is the fact that the FBI is continuing an investigation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which, like the neoconservatives, is strongly supportive of Israel. The investigation appears to have touched some prominent neoconservatives who are friendly toward AIPAC. Journalist Edwin Black discussed the fallout in a Dec. 31 article in the Forward newspaper, headlined "Spat Erupts Between Neocons, Intelligence Community." He described an apparent effort by the FBI to use the Pentagon official whose contacts with AIPAC triggered the investigation, Larry Franklin, in an unsuccessful "sting" operation to draw Perle into passing information to the neocons' favorite Iraqi leader, Ahmed Chalabi.
The FBI investigation has received surprisingly little publicity in the mainstream press, but it continues to rumble along. A prominent former government official with access to highly classified information told me this week that he was interviewed in late January by two FBI agents and quizzed about his luncheon meetings with Steve Rosen, AIPAC's director of foreign policy issues. He said he told the agents that he had never given Rosen classified information and that Rosen had never asked for it. The FBI investigation seemed, to this former official, to be largely a "fishing expedition."
The FBI has raided AIPAC's offices twice, most recently on Dec. 1, and at least four of its officials have reportedly been asked to testify before a grand jury. (AIPAC officials declined my request that they comment on the investigation. An FBI spokesman said the bureau couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation.) Meanwhile, I'm told that more than a half-dozen officials in the Bush administration who are apparently suspected of leaking classified information to AIPAC have had to retain defense lawyers.
"We do not want to cover up; if there was wrongdoing, let it be exposed. We are confident that there was none, and that the allegations will prove false," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a recent statement. But he cautioned, "Neither AIPAC nor the Jewish community will be cowed into silence."
The FBI probe is a reminder of the subterranean battles that often take place in Washington. Even in an administration that appears united on policy, bitter fights sometimes swirl beneath the surface. The one thing that's certain with this administration is that nobody truly speaks for it, in the end, except the president himself. And as Perle rightly says, "George Bush's presidency is a response to 9/11, not to neoconservatives." It's the president's show, but where he will take it is still anybody's guess.