If George W. had lost in November, the neocons and the foreign-policy initiatives they espoused, specifically taking the war on terror to Iraq, would have been blamed. Big time, as Dick Cheney would say.
If the Iraqi elections had not been such a stunning success, with men and women walking through the early-morning darkness to get in line to cast their ballots with pride, excitement and disdain for the threats of mayhem by the insurgents, the neocons would have been blamed for that, too.
If George W. should return home from Bratislava without giving Vladimir Putin a polite piece of his mind about the Russian denial of freedom of speech, human rights and reluctance to do something about nuclear proliferation in Iran, the neocons would be among his loudest critics. They wouldn't be alone.
Pressure has been building from both right and left for the president to challenge President Putin, and it's the neocons who have pushed the hardest. They can feel especially gratified that in Brussels he urged the Russian government to "renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law." Promoting freedom everywhere, after all, was the theme the president's inaugural address.
"Neocons like me," says Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, "are unhappy with the fact that, really, in Bush's first term, Russia is the one major place where there's been democratic reversal." The president's appeal to "neocons like me" suggests a collective attitude toward administration policies, but the term neocon - Washington shorthand for neoconservative - has as many shades as Cher has hair colors, and with varying degrees of success.
Economist magazine defines neocons with the back of the hand, describing them as "a small cabal of intellectuals - 'conservative ideologues' . . . scornful . . . of idealistic multilateralism." European critics blame them for messianic zeal, imperial designs and the war in Iraq, and a lack of a realistic assessment of where democracy can actually flourish.
But a cabal they are not, nor are they conspirators. In "The Neocon Reader," edited by Irwin Stelzer, a sense of what's "old" about the "neos" comes clear, as various writers trace the roots of political thinkers as different as John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Columnist David Brooks exaggerates only a little when he says, "If you ever read a sentence that starts with 'neocons believe,' there is a 99.4 per cent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue."
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