President Bush's nomination of Robert Gates to be secretary of defense and other recent administration moves have raised concerns and even open disdain among some members of the "neo-conservative" wing of the Republican Party, the president's most ardent war supporters.
The neo-cons say installing Gates, a career CIA analyst who served as the agency's director for two years under President George H.W. Bush, takes the administration one step closer toward repudiation of the once hailed "Bush Doctrine."
"What's happening here is essentially the end of the administration as we've known it," said Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy and neo-conservative commentator.
"Pretty clearly, it signals a return to the 'Bush 41' policy," said Kenneth Timmerman, who heads the Foundation for the Democracy of Iran, which he founded in 1995 with other prominent neo-conservatives.
Gaffney and Timmerman both say Gates and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is chairing the congressionally commissioned Iraq Study Group, represent the "old guard" and the status quo of the past. The ISG is poised to release a package of recommendations to Congress for U.S. actions in Iraq.
Gates was a member of the ISG until resigning last week as a result of his nomination. He was replaced by former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who succeeded Baker under President George H.W. Bush.
They add that Gates and Baker are pushing for more open dialogue with Bush's declared enemies, Iran and Syria, in order to clear the way out of Iraq. For neo-conservatives — defined by their support for democratizing the Middle East through military intervention and regime change — this is akin to waving the white flag or donning a bull's eye.
"The president had said he was changing the old way of things and was now going to put freedom at the center of American foreign policy instead of stability and accommodation," said Timmerman, author of Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran. "With the old guard coming back, they would put stability and accommodation at the center of foreign policy, and not freedom."
Gates is closely linked to the so-called "realist" clique of former officials that includes Baker, President George H.W. Bush's National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. All three former officials have publicly aired reservations about invading Iraq and the ensuing war.
Gates and Brzezinksi also co-chaired a 2004 independent task force that issued the report "Iran: Time for A New Approach." It recommends the United States engage in direct, sustained talks with Iran.
"With not only the ascension of the Democrats in Congress, but of the Baker-Scowcroft-Gates team, it will morph the Bush foreign and security policy in essentially unrecognizable ways and that's what really concerns me," Gaffney said.
But others say they are taking a wait-and-see approach before writing off the president as a "realist" convert.
"The situation all along has been that President Bush is the neoconservative-in-chief here. The democracy agenda has come from him … and I don’t think there is any evidence that he's been pulling away from that," said Fred Kagan, a foreign policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Kagan said he believes Rumsfeld blew the war by not thinking long-term and refusing to put more forces on the ground in Iraq — a common complaint of war critics.
"I certainly think it was a good thing for Rumsfeld to move on — now the task is for everyone to help Gates to rethink and come to a fundamental conclusion," he said. However, Kagan said if "Gates is going to become captive" to realist ideas, particularly on Iran and Syria, "it could be a problem of another variety. It's too soon to tell."
Michael Rubin, another AEI Middle East scholar, said he believes when Gates gets into office and has access to all the intelligence regarding the conditions in Iraq, particularly what he believes is the meddling of Iran, he will be a "realist mugged by reality."
"Any shift in policy is going to come from the White House," not the Pentagon, Rubin added.
A Shift in Outlook?
On Monday, Bush met with the 10-member Iraq Study Group, which is issuing its recommendations next month. The ISG also met individually with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden.
Bush said he is comforted to know that the group is committed to success in Iraq, but he did not want to prejudge the ISG's recommendations.
"We had a really good discussion. I'm not sure what the report is going to say. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I believe this: I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security, but for the security of the Middle East, and that I'm looking forward to interesting ideas," he said.
In the meantime, Democrats who will soon have the majority on Capitol Hill are looking for an avenue out of Iraq. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, the next head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he thinks Democrats have the votes to issue a resolution asking the president to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and send a strong message to the Iraqis that "our presence there is not open-ended."
"We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," Levin said.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the United States must turn to Iraq's neighbors for help in ending the violence there.
"Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt. It's their problem more than it is our problem," Reid said.
But Bush also met Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and said for now any direct talks with Iran are off the table, though Syria could be a different story.
"If the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verifiably suspend their enrichment activities," Bush said.
"We would like to see some progress toward peace from the Syrians," he added.
The president's comments notwithstanding, the United States may not require Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment before the two countries can talk about violence in Iraq, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
"We believe that these are separate issues," McCormack said.
End of an Era?
Neo-con commentator Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and frequent columnist for the National Review, said "realists" are defined by accommodation with Middle East despots and playing a balancing act with friend and foe in the region to keep the peace.
In a recent column, Hanson blamed the Baker clique, in part, for providing a breeding ground for today's terrorists.
"I don’t see how the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s and early 1990s policies in the Middle East — selling arms to Iran, putting troops in Lebanon and running when they were hit, cynically playing off Iran against Iraq, selling weapons to any thug in the Middle East, giving a black check to the House of Saud, letting the Shiites and Kurds be massacred in February-March 1991 — were anything other than precursors to the events of 9/11," Hanson said in a recent column.
Outside of the neo-conservative set, foreign policy observers say they are convinced the Gates nomination coupled with high expectations for the ISG, puts the administration at an important crossroads in foreign policy.
Military strategist Harlan Ullman said he doesn’t believe the Bush administration is going to make any radical shifts in policy because Bush is still convinced Iraq remains the central front in the War on Terror.
However, Ullman, who coined the phrase "shock and awe," the term co-opted by the Pentagon to describe the bombing campaign of Iraq in March 2003, said it's time for the neo-cons to go off somewhere and "commit political suicide.
"These people jeopardized American security," he said. "My advice for Bush is to stay as far away from the neo-cons as possible."
Tony Sullivan, a conservative thinker and director of Near East Support Services, a geo-strategic consulting firm, said the facts on the ground make it nearly impossible for Bush not to incorporate some of the Iraq Study Group's findings as a way to get the United States out of the war in Iraq.
Sullivan said he believes the neo-conservative strategy led the country into what is now an "unwinnable" situation in Iraq, and Rumsfeld's resignation was "very, very bad news for the neo-cons."
But he said not to count out neo-cons just yet. "I think they have enormous staying power, and will pull out all sorts of techniques to preserve themselves and their influence," said Sullivan.
Rubin and others say the neo-conservative influence over war policy has been greatly exaggerated, and they had little to do with what happened in Iraq after the invasion. Rubin largely blamed incompetence by the Pentagon, the State Department and even the White House for myriad failures there.
"The National Security Council, the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) leadership and the State Department, were all neo-con-free zones," Rubin said. "Which begs the question … are we paying the price for neo-con decisions or realist decisions?"
Kagan insists neo-cons held only "second and third tier positions" in the government during the run up to the invasion and afterwards. Many prominent members of the administration's ranks at the time are no longer with the administration. They include: former Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith and former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee Richard Perle.
Other neo-cons have since bumped up their status. David Wurmser, special assistant to John Bolton at the State Department at the start of the war, is now a deputy assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney. Elliott Abrams, now deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, was special assistant to the president and director of the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs.
But no neo-conservatives are on the Iraq Study Group, said Rubin, who quit an advisory panel for the group because he felt the project was weighted against supporters of Bush's current policies.
As defense secretary, Gates is likely to listen to his former fellow ISG members and task force friends, suggested Jim Pinkerton, a columnist and policy official in the first Bush administration.
"Gates presents a clear shift," said Pinkerton, a FOX News contributor. "He is a protégé of Brent Scowcroft, and a task force partner with Zbigniew Brzezinski, two leading 'realists' who opposed the Iraq war so strongly that they became a kind of two-man 'axis of evil' in the eyes of neo-conservatives. Gates doesn't necessarily share the views of (Scowcroft and Brzezinski), but he has spent enough time with them to make the neo-cons nervous."