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Cracks appear in consevative consensus { September 23 2003 }

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Cracks Appear in America's Conservative Consensus
Financial Times | September 23, 2003

The spectacle of pro-war "neo-conservatives" savaging Donald Rumsfeld - the United States defence secretary they had hailed as the architect of military victory in Iraq - has set chat-shows buzzing and delighted opponents of the Bush administration.

Recriminations over the Pentagon's failure to plan for the complexities of post-war Iraq, combined with the public's shock at the cost, have also led to questions over the future direction of US foreign policy.

With a presidential election just over a year away, has the administration of President George W. Bush got the stomach not just to last the course in Baghdad, but also to stick to its grand plan of "transforming" the Middle East and beyond, taking pre-emptive military action if needed?

Euphoria at the rapid fall of Baghdad led Mr Bush to leap into the Israeli-Palestinian fray, and senior officials to brandish threats at Syria and Iran. A key argument of the neo-conservatives was that removing Saddam Hussein would give the US more leverage on all three key fronts in its "war on terror".

But senior officials concede that the contrary has happened. Iran's hardline clerics have consolidated their position. Syria has ignored US threats over its support for Palestinian militants. The Israeli-Palestinian "road map" has stalled.

In March, as war began, William Kristol, a prominent neo-conservative ideologue, welcomed a "new world order in the Middle East". In a recent interview with the Financial Times, however, he spoke of the need to "adjust to realities", as the administration faced problems in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Nonetheless, he believes: "There has been no fundamental rethinking of the Bush doctrine."

As editor of the Weekly Standard, Mr Kristol is spearheading the attacks on Mr Rumsfeld. Articles also target the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority. "My problem with the Bush doctrine is that it has never been backed up with sufficient resources or a well-thought through strategy," Mr Kristol says.

"What sets the neo-cons apart from normal, conservative Republican opinion is that we are not with them in their dislike of nation-building," he explains, placing Mr Rumsfeld in the latter category.

"Deep down, Rumsfeld may think 'let's kill more of the bad guys and get out of there'. I don't think [national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice and Bush see it that way."

Ms Rice and Mr Bush went through their personal transformation with the attacks of September 11 2001, Mr Kristol says. What happened in far-flung corners of the world did matter after all.

Four years earlier, the "transformationists" had already formed their Project for the New American Century, chaired by Mr Kristol. In 2000, they published a strategy paper that set the goal for the 21st century: "Preserve pax Americana", with the US dominating a post-cold war world.

Members of PNAC and allies later filled top posts in the Bush administration.Even if the neo-cons are correct and the Bush administration is not losing its strategic compass, it appears that the US is groping for a more defined, but not over-hasty, exit strategy in Iraq.

Common ground has emerged between neo-conservatives and "liberal transformationists", including Colin Powell, secretary of state, who believe more in evolutionary change. Both agree the Iraqis are not ready to assume authority.

Because of this rare convergence, and the White House view that Iraq is making progress, it is unlikely the US will grant real concessions this week in the search for a new UN Security Council resolution.

Returning to the UN, officials say, was more of a response to domestic pressure.

Aggressive regime change as a policy may no longer seem so appealing, but two senior officials told the FT that Syria and Iran would be wrong to conclude that the US is distracted by Iraq.

"The neo-cons' wings have been clipped," says a former senior official close to the hawks. "But they still wield influence."

Mr Kristol and other neo-cons have a long-term vision. Their analogy is the cold war. In the words of Ms Rice, theirs is a "generational commitment".

Mr Kristol says: "Bush, like Harry Truman, expected to be a domestic policy president and has turned into a foreign policy president. We will see how history judges him."

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