Jim Lobe:

Jubilant over President Bush’s re-election victory just two months ago, neo-conservatives who played a leading role in shaping the radical trajectory of US foreign policy after the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks appear increasingly divided on key issues and uncertain of their position in Bush’s second term.

All are on board for the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, and military strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Teheran from getting a bomb. But they cannot seem to forge a consensus on US military strategy in Iraq, whether to demand greater military spending than the Bush administration appears comfortable with, or whether to back a policy of engagement with Iran prior to a military strike. They are also worried about key appointments to second-term foreign policy positions, particularly that of US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to serve as Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice’s dep-uty, as well as other appointments to senior posts in the State Department. But the biggest blow to their unity has been the split that has developed within their ranks following the death of Palestinian leader and “arch-fiend”, Yassir Arafat.

The emergence of a “moderate” successor in Palestinian Authority (PA) new president Mahmoud Abbas, coupled with his initial embrace by both the US and a realigned Israeli government seemingly determined to carry out its plan to disengage from Gaza by the end of this year, has drawn harsh criticism from hard-line neo-conservatives. These include Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and Centre for Security Policy chief Frank Gaffney, who fear that both Bush and Ariel Sharon are moving down a “slippery slope” that will put Israel’s security in serious jeopardy.

They doubtless saw a ray of light in the announcement Friday by Sharon cutting all ties with the PA until it “take(s) the necessary steps to curb and stop terrorism”, in retaliation for the killing of six Israelis and wounding of five others by Palestinian militants at a checkpoint Thursday. The split in neo-con ranks, of course, mirrors that which has taken place between the less-ideological elements in Israel’s Likud Party, such as Sharon and Deputy PM Ehud Olmert, and its more-extreme elements who have long opposed any Israeli retreat from the occupied territories for theological or nationalistic reasons. Because Israel’s security is so central to the neo-conservative worldview, the split between the hard-line neo-conservatives, who are closely aligned with Likud’s extremists, and their more pragmatic brethren, such as Rice’s top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, who lean more to Sharon and even Olmert, deeply threaten its unity and ideological coherence. These developments are surprising in many ways given the jubilation of the neo-conservatives over Bush’s election victory and subsequent decision to drop Secretary of State Colin Powell in his second term.

With the insurgency as vigorous as ever, many neo-conservatives began rubbing salt in old wounds, reviving complaints that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had failed to deploy a large enough force, either during the invasion or now, with elections pending. Others argued that the mistake was in not relying more heavily on Iraqis, both now and at the time of the invasion. — IPS