By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent
The neo-conservative dream faded in 2006.
Iraq was meant to be the showcase for a New American Century
The ambitions proclaimed when the neo-cons' mission statement "The Project for the New American Century" was declared in 1997 have turned into disappointment and recriminations as the crisis in Iraq has grown.
"The Project for the New American Century" has been reduced to a voice-mail box and a ghostly website. A single employee has been left to wrap things up.
The idea of the "Project" was to project American power and influence around the world.
The 1997 statement (written during the administration of President Bill Clinton) said:
"We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."
Among the signatories were many of the senior officials who would later determine policy under President George W Bush - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and Lewis Libby - as well as thinkers including Francis Fukuyama, Norman Podheretz and Frank Gaffney.
The neo-conservatives were called that because they sought to re-establish what they felt were true conservative values in the Republican Party and the United States.
They wanted to stop what they felt were the isolationist tendencies that had developed under President Clinton, and even under the pragmatic President George Bush senior.
They saw the war in Iraq as their big chance of showing how the "New American Century" might work.
They predicted the development of democratic values in a region lacking in them and, in that way, the removal of any threat to the United States just as the democratisation of Germany and Japan after World War II had transformed Europe and the Pacific.
Since so much was pinned on Iraq, it is inevitable that the problems there should have undermined the whole idea.
"Neo-conservatism has gone for a generation, if in fact it ever returns," says one of the movement's critics, David Rothkopf, currently at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, and a former official in the Clinton administration.
"Their signal enterprise was the invasion of Iraq and their failure to produce results is clear. Precisely the opposite has happened," he says.
"The US use of force has been seen as doing wrong and as inflaming a region that has been less than susceptible to democracy.
"Their plan has fallen on hard times. There were flaws in the conception and horrendously bad execution. The neo-cons have been undone by their own ideas and the incompetence of the Bush administration.
"George Bush is about the last neo-conservative standing, Cheney as well maybe. Bush is not an analytical person so he just adopted the neo-cons' philosophy.
"It fitted into his Manichean, his black and white view of the world. After all, he gave up his dissolute youth and was born again as a new man, so it appealed to his character."
The fading of the dream has led to a falling-out among the neo-conservatives themselves.
Richard Perle had once argued for going to war in Iraq
In particular, two leading neo-conservatives, Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, attacked the Bush team in Vanity Fair magazine. Both had been on a Pentagon advisory board. Both had argued for war in Iraq.
In an article called "Neo Culpa", Richard Perle declared that had he known how it would turn out, he would have been against it: "I think now I probably would have said: 'No, let's consider other strategies'."
Kenneth Adelman said: "They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era.
"Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."
Donald Rumsfeld "fooled me", he said.
He declared of neo-conservatism after Iraq: "It's not going to sell."
Defence and counter-attack
Other neo-conservatives defend their record, arguing strongly that the original idea had an effect, and pressing the point raised by Perle and Adelman that it was the execution of the idea not the idea itself that was wrong.
Gary Schmitt used to be a senior figure at the "New American Century" project. Now he is director of strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and he says the project has come to a natural end.
"When the project started, it was not intended to go forever. That is why we are shutting it down. We would have had to spend too much time raising money for it and it has already done its job.
"We felt at the time that there were flaws in American foreign policy, that it was neo-isolationist. We tried to resurrect a Reaganite policy.
"Our view has been adopted. Even during the Clinton administration we had an effect, with Madeleine Albright [then secretary of state] saying that the United States was 'the indispensable nation'.
"But our ideas have not necessarily dominated. We did not have anyone sitting on Bush's shoulder.
So the work now is to see how they are implemented. Obviously it makes life difficult with the specific failure in Iraq, but I do not agree with Richard Perle that we should never have gone in.
"I do argue that the execution should have been better. In fact, I argued in late 2003 that we needed more troops and a proper counter-insurgency policy."
Indeed, not all neo-conservatives have given up all hope in Iraq.
The AEI, which has become the natural home for refugees from the American Project, is promoting an article entitled: "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq".
The article calls not for a withdrawal of US troops but for an increase. President Bush's decision is expected in early January.