As the Bush Administration gets involved in the Middle East conflict, its ranks are sharply divided on policy between moderates who support mediation and the Powell trip and hawks who back Israel's military action and oppose negotiations at this stage.
A group of conservatives, or neo-conservatives as they are generally known, signed a letter to President Bush asking him to remain steadfast in his support of Israel amid a sea of tyranny, intolerance and hatred. "You have declared war on international terrorism," says the letter. "Israel is fighting the same war."
The President has not answered, says one of the signers, Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century. But then his response is not expected.
What has arrived are various replies from lesser figures in the Bush Administration, some cheering the letter, others not. "Typically, what you get is a lot of feedback from people within the administration, commenting, complaining or supporting your efforts because in typical fashion most administrations have divided opinions about most issues," Mr. Schmitt said. "It keeps the debate alive, and it also helps shape the debate among reporters and people on the hill."
Some of the approving replies came from neo-conservatives in the administration who would undoubtedly have signed the letter if they had been outside government. Press reports have expressed surprise at the ability of the neo-cons to get policy making positions, since some of them have been quite critical of the President.
One of the letter signers, Marshall Whittman, told the Washington Post, perhaps partly tongue-in-cheek, that an entire neo-con cell had infiltrated the White House despite its reputation for tight control. He is amazed.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is the number one rival of the neo-cons, but Mr. Schmitt concedes he is presently on top. "Once the President committed to sending Secretary of State Powell to the region, then it is almost inevitable that the secretary is going to wind up driving the actual content of the trip," he said. "So I am not surprised that Secretary Powell's views on the Middle East the mediation effort have come to dominate and define how his trip is taking place."
This can quickly change, adds Mr. Schmitt, if the Powell trip fails. Then the President might think better of his efforts at mediation and return to full support of Israel's military policy. But he says neo-cons remain somewhat skeptical of the President's inclinations.
For good reason, says John Voll of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Since there is no consensus on policy, the President fails to lead.
"Therefore, the Powell trip is simply an affirmation that the United States needs to pay attention," he said. "But I do not get the impression that President Bush has given significant instructions to Powell as opposed to having the secretary of state go simply to see what the situation is."
Professor Voll says the neo-conservative view has gained prominence because of its stark simplicity. That resonates with a President who says in the war on terrorism you are either for us or against us.
"The neo-conservatives are so convinced of the absolute ability of the United States to be the sole superpower that they are willing to say we do not even need our European allies to get things done that we want to have done," he said. "So it is this blindness to the interconnected nature of global politics that I think is causing some real problems."
Blind or not, the neo-cons keep coming, a high State Department official told the New Yorker magazine. "These guys are relentless," he said. "Resistance is futile."
They have the advantage of a coherent, if narrow view, writes the New Yorker. Secretary Powell tends to think case by case. The conservatives have outflanked him, says the magazine, by thinking big. They envision a new world order, that given the U.S. interventions they have in mind, will not be all that orderly.