Sidelined by their failed predictions for Iraq and U.S. President George W Bush's efforts to reassure voters he is not a warmonger, prominent neo-conservatives and their Christian Right allies are nonetheless trying hard to prepare the ground for future U.S. adventures in the Middle East.
Echoing increasingly threatening noises from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, neo-cons are calling for Washington to undertake covert action, at the very least, to oust what some of them call the ''terror masters'' in Tehran as part of a more general ''World War IV'' against alleged Arab and Islamic extremism.
Some neo-cons are even complaining that if Bush had been serious about the ''war on terrorism,'' he should have taken on Iran after Afghanistan, rather than Iraq.
''Had we seen the war for what it was, we would not have started with Iraq, but with Iran, the mother of modern Islamic terrorism, the creator of Hezbollah, the ally of al-Qaeda, the sponsor of Zarqawi, the longtime sponsor of Fatah and the backbone of Hamas'', wrote part-time Pentagon consultant Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) this week.
His article also reprised an argument he first made three years ago -- that the Iranian people were already rising up against the mullahs and needed only a little nudge from Washington to succeed.
Neo-conservatives are also busy stoking tensions with Syria, even amid indications that Washington and Damascus are feeling their way toward some kind of ”modus vivendi” that may even include joint military patrols along the latter's porous border with Iraq.
Last week they heard from a Syrian exile, Farid Ghadry, who apparently aspires to become the Ahmed Chalabi -- the neo-con boosted leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress whose standing in Washington plummeted after it was alleged he passed secrets to Iran -- of his homeland.
In addition to lobbying for the pending Syria Liberation Act (SLA), which would commit the U.S. government to ''regime change'' in Damascus, Ghadry charged that the government of President Bashir Assad was building ''a new colony of terrorism'' for youths in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
The neo-conservatives, who led the charge to war in Iraq, have steadily lost influence over U.S. policy in Baghdad since a year ago, when U.S. troops found themselves welcomed by a serious and growing insurgency rather than the flowers and sweets the neo-cons had predicted.
At the same time, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was reported to have told unhappy war hawks in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the two neo-con strongholds, that Bush's re-election prospects would be greatly enhanced if there was ''no war in '04.''
Led by arch-realists Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage, the State Department gradually wrested control over policy towards Syria and Iran. With U.S. troops bogged down next door, a policy of confrontation, as advocated by neo-cons, not only risked another war, the realists argued, but could also invite more damaging efforts by both Damascus and Tehran to destabilise Iraq.
Wary engagement with both countries has thus become official policy. The recent visit by a high-level U.S. delegation to Damascus and the invitation of European and Arab allies and Iraq's neighbors to attend a U.S.-sponsored meeting on Iraq in Tehran later this fall mark hard-fought advances in the State Department's agenda.
But while the neo-cons may be down, they are by no means out. As more than one foreign-policy analyst has noted, no neo-con within the administration has resigned or been fired, despite their responsibility for the Iraqi quagmire and public calls by even some senior Republican lawmakers and retired military officers that they be ousted.
Some analysts have argued the neo-cons remain in place only because their departure now would amount to an admission by the administration -- and thus Bush himself -- that serious mistakes had been made. In this view, Bush would purge them in a second term, as he continued along the State Department's ''realist'' line.
But a growing number of observers, particularly in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are coming to the conclusion that the neo-cons may actually enjoy greater influence if Bush wins re-election.
In just the last few days, for example, an article, 'The State Department's Extreme Makeover,' published by online magazine 'Slate' and attributed to an ''anonymous'' veteran foreign service officer, made precisely this argument.
It is in this context that neo-cons' recent efforts to focus their fire on Syria and Iran, in particular, should be seen.
Ghadry spoke at an all-day symposium co-sponsored by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a predominantly neo-conservative lobby group set up in August, and by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a group created two days after the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, whose views largely mirror those of Israel's ruling Likud Party.
On FDD's board of advisers are prominent neo-cons and Iraq war boosters, including former Defence Policy Board (DPB) chairman and Ledeen's sidekick at AEI, Richard Perle; AEI fellow Jeane Kirkpatrick; and former CIA Director James Woolsey, who also co-chairs the CPD.
Joining them are 'Weekly Standard' Editor Bill Kristol, whose own 'Project for the New American Century' (PNAC) first named Iran and Syria -- as well as Iraq and the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- as targets of the ''war on terrorism,'' in an open letter published just 10 days after 9/11.
The conference was addressed briefly by telephone by former Secretary of State George Shultz, the group's new co-chair, while Woolsey announced that former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had agreed to head an international chapter.
Keynoters for the symposium, titled ''World War IV: Why We're Fighting, Whom We're Fighting, How We're Fighting,'' included Woolsey, who has long spoken of the fight against ''Islamo-fascism'' -- defined as including ''the mullahs of Iran,'' the Ba'athist parties of Iraq and Syria, and ''the Wahhabis,'' of which the al-Qaeda terrorist group is a part -- as the equivalent of a world war.
On hand was Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose participation appeared not only to provide an official sanction of the radical agenda, but also to confirm that the neo-con faction within the Bush administration is alive, kicking and unashamed despite the quagmire in Iraq.
Neo-conservative godfather Norman Podhoretz, who has also used ''World War IV'' as his favored description for the challenges Washington faces in the Near East, in particular, made a rare public appearance.
He called Israeli tactics in the occupied territories a ''model for how to fight this kind of war'', and asserted that ''Iran is unquestionably on the agenda'' of a second Bush administration.
"I have no doubt that we're going to have to do it and do it fast," he declared, noting there were "many different instrumentalities'' at Washington's disposal for dealing with the mullahs and their nuclear program.
Podhoretz, whose son-in-law Elliott Abrams is the Middle East director on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, also offered a sweeping vision of what the region might look like when the United States triumphed.
Stressing the long-held Likud view that the nations of the region were artificial creations forged out of the defeated Ottoman Empire, he suggested, "what was done in the aftermath of World War I can be undone in World War IV."
Two days later, FDD helped convene the Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy to elaborate a foreign policy towards the region by several dozen mostly sectarian groups, including the American Coptic Association, the American Maronite Union, the Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom, the Assyrian American National Federation, the Chaldean National Congress, the American Middle East Christian Association, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa and the Washington Kurdish Institute.
Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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