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."
There's a whiff of Jew-baiting in some of the criticism of neoconservatives, too. Many neocons are Jewish, but many are not. Similar criticism was leveled against FDR when many Jews made up his brain trust and his New Deal was derided as the "Jew Deal." Some neocons are Catholics, others are evangelical Protestants. When Bill Bennett, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and theologian Michael Novak go to the synagogue, it's not to read the Torah. They're going there to make a speech.
Deriding the Bush foreign policy as "Wilsonian" is simplistic, too. Many neocons think Woodrow Wilson was na? to think the League of Nations would save the world. Neither is the United Nations, its modern reincarnation, inspiring. Most neocons support "coalitions of the willing" to depose dictators who threaten American security and world order. Neocons are not "soft Wilsonians" like former President Jimmy Carter, writes Max Boot, but "hard Wilsonians" who want Americans to lead others without foolishly relying on them. Neocons wouldn't have had an impact on the thinking of the president but for Sept. 11. He campaigned for his first term against "nation building."
Condoleezza Rice, whose essay is included in "The Neocon Reader" though she isn't usually identified as a neocon, says that the bombing of the Twin Towers ended a long transitional period that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, changing American vulnerabilities, realities and opportunities. Yuri Ushakov, Russian ambassador to the United States, pleads for understanding that the road to democratic institutions in his country is a bumpy one. You don't have to be a neocon to hope that when the president meets President Putin in Bratislava, he talks about smoothing out some of those bumps.
A neocon, in Irving Kristol's famous quip, is "a liberal who was mugged by reality." Today reality has mugged as all.