It can't be quite called a victory lap because the victories have been too scarce and the defeats too prominent. Instead, President Bush's remarks at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Thursday left the Washington Post's Dana Milbank marveling at the transformation of a president who, he observed, "seems to be a walking confession booth." Bush's appearance was part of his attempt to shape his legacy and restore his reputation by projecting a more accommodating, thoughtful image than that of the imperious Decider.
But it also marked a return to the think tank that provided a good deal of the intellectual firepower for his administration. Like Bush, however, the think tank itself seems to be undergoing some changes that are causing consternation in the ranks of neoconservatives. Just as Bush veered more toward the center in his second term on foreign policy, so AEI appears to be attenuating its commitment to the neoconservative credo. The neocon world has been rocked by recent events at AEI. Numerous neocons told me that a vicious purge is being carried out at AEI, spearheaded by vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies, Danielle Pletka.
There can be no doubting that change is afoot at AEI. Recently, Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht have departed AEI. Joshua Muravchik is on the way out as well. Other scholars face possible eviction. Both Muravchik and Gerecht are serious intellectuals who have published prolifically. Muravchik has never been as unbridled in his writings as some other neocons. To put it another way, he does nuance. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, for example, he wrote an article stating that perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev was a Menshevik even as other neocons such as Norman Podhoretz condemned Gorbachev. Muravchik's main mission has been to forward the democracy crusade. His first book criticized the human-rights policy of the Carter administration. His anticommunist views put him out of fashion in the Democratic Party and he never secured a position in the Clinton administration. I myself do not agree with his current endorsement of bombing Iran, but a recent piece in World Affairs, in which he gave a guarded endorsement to President Bush's foreign policy, underscored that he is not simply a cheerleader for the administration.
Muravchik has been at AEI for two decades. Gerecht has been there for a much briefer period, but he has written extensively and provocatively on intelligence matters. Gerecht is currently at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which, along with the Hudson Institute, where Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby and Douglas J. Feith are fellows, seems to functioning as something of a safe haven for neocons.
What do these developments actually add up to? They undoubtedly signal a splintering taking place in the neocon world. Pletka has been closely identified with neocon positions on Iraq and Iran. But now there is tremendous hostility toward her among neocons, who allege that, as a former staffer for Jesse Helms, who embodied more traditional Republican foreign-policy precepts, she is out to extirpate neocon influence at AEI. In this version of events, Muravchik was ousted for not being a true Republican. It would be very unfortunate if that were the real cause. What the conservative movement needs is ferment, not an ideological straitjacket-something that neocons have themselves sometimes tried to enforce.
The neocon movement will survive these changes. It will continue to stir up debate. Its real misfortune was to be able to exert power in the Bush administration, where officials such as Paul Wolfowitz and Feith made a hash of things. The notion of a liberated Iraq being the first freedom domino to fall in the greater Middle East was always a pipe dream. The strength of the neocons is to generate ideas, but whether they should actually be implemented is often another matter.
If neocon influence really is on the wane at AEI, however, it would signal the end of its domination over the think tank over the past several decades. Like Bush, AEI may be on the verge of trying to reinvent itself. The change that Obama promised during the campaign seems to be reaching Washington in unexpected places.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.