WASHINGTON, Jul 17 (IPS) - Seeing a major opportunity to regain influence lost as a result of setbacks in Iraq, prominent neo-conservatives are calling for unconditional U.S. support for Israel's military offensives in Gaza and Lebanon and "regime change" in Syria and Iran, as well as possible U.S. attacks on Tehran's nuclear facilities in retaliation for its support of Hezbollah.
In a Weekly Standard column entitled "Our War", editor William Kristol Sunday called Iran "the prime mover behind the terrorist groups who have started this war" which, he argued, should be considered part of "the global struggle against radical Islamism."
He complained that Washington recently has done a "poor job of standing up and weakening Syria and Iran" and called on President George W. Bush himself to fly directly from the "silly (Group of Eight) summit in St. Petersburg... to Jerusalem, the capital of a nation that stands with us, and is willing to fight with us, against our common enemies."
"This is our war, too," according to Kristol, who is also a founder and co-chairman of the recently lapsed Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
"All of us in the free world owe Israel an enormous thank-you for defending freedom, democracy, and security against the Iranian cat's-paw wholly-owned terrorist subsidiaries Hezbollah and Hamas," echoed Larry Kudlow, a neo-conservative commentator, at the Standard's right-wing competitor, The National Review.
"They are defending their own homeland and very existence, but they are also defending America's homeland as our frontline democratic ally in the Middle East," according to Kudlow who, like Kristol and other like-minded polemicists, also named Syria, "which is also directed by Iran", as a promising target as the conflict expands.
The two columns are just the latest examples of a slew of commentaries that have appeared in U.S. print and broadcast media since Israel began bombing targets in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah's fatal cross-border attack last Wednesday. They appear to be part of a deliberate campaign by neo-conservatives and some of their right-wing supporters to depict the current conflict as part of global struggle pitting Israel, as the forward base of western civilisation, against Islamist extremism organised and directed by Iran and its junior partner, Syria.
This view was perhaps most dramatically expressed by former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday when he described the conflict as "the early stages of... the Third World War."
The effort to frame the current round of violence as part of a much larger struggle -- and Israel's role as Washington's most loyal front-line ally -- recalls the neo-conservatives' early reaction to the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Just nine days after 9/11, Kristol and PNAC -- whose charter members included Vice President Dick Cheney, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and half a dozen other senior Bush administration officials -- released an open letter to Bush that called for the U.S. to retaliate not only against al Qaeda and Afghanistan, but also against Israel's main regional foes, beginning with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yassir Arafat.
In addition, the letter advised, "any war against terrorism must target Hezbollah. We believe that the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these state sponsors of terrorism."
"Israel has been and remains America's staunchest ally against international terrorism, especially in the Middle East," the letter asserted. "The United States should fully support our fellow democracy in its fight against terrorism."
While the Iraqi and Palestinian components of PNAC's agenda were soon adopted as policy and essentially achieved, neo-conservative hopes that Bush would move on Hezbollah -- as well as Syria and Iran -- eventually stalled as U.S. military forces became bogged down in an increasingly bloody and costly counter-insurgency war in Iraq.
As the situation in Iraq worsened, neo-conservative influence in and on the administration also declined to the benefit of "realists" based primarily in the State Department who favoured a less aggressive policy designed to secure Damascus' and Tehran's cooperation in stabilising Iraq and strengthen the elected Lebanese government of which Hezbollah was made a part.
In that context, the current conflict represents a golden opportunity for the neo-conservatives to reassert their influence and reactivate their Israel-centred agenda against Hezbollah and its two state sponsors.
"Iran's Proxy War" blazed the cover of this week's Standard, which also featured no less than three other articles, besides Kristol's editorial, underlining Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas and the necessity of the U.S. standing with Israel, if not taking independent action against Tehran and/or Damascus as recommended by Kristol himself.
A major theme of the new campaign is that the more-conciliatory "realist" policies toward Syria and Iran pursued by the State Department have actually backfired by making Washington look weak.
"They are now testing us more boldly than one would have thought possible a few years ago," wrote Kristol. "Weakness is provocative. We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak," he went on, adding that, "(T)he right response is renewed strength," notably "in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran (and) consider(ing) countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities."
The notion that U.S. policy in the region has become far too flaccid and accommodating is echoed by a number of other neo-conservatives, particularly Michael Rubin, a prolific analyst at the hard-line American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and protégé of Cheney confidante, former Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle.
In a companion Standard article, Rubin qualified recent State Department policy as "All talk and no strategy" that had emboldened enemies, especially Iran, to challenge Washington and its allies.
In another article for the National Review Monday, bluntly titled "Eradication First", elaborated on that theme, arguing diplomacy in the current crisis will only be successful "if it commences both after the eradication of Hezbollah and Hamas, and after their paymasters pay a terrible cost for their support."
"If... peace is the aim, it is imperative to punish the Syrian and Iranian leadership," he wrote.
Above all, according to the neo-conservatives, the U.S. position in the region is now inextricably tied to the success or failure of Israel's military campaign.
In yet another Standard article, titled "The Rogues Strike Back: Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah vs. Israel", Robert Satloff, executive director of the hawkish, pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that "defeat for Israel -- either on the battlefield or via coerced compromises to achieve flawed ceasefires -- is a defeat for U.S. interests; it will inspire radicals of every stripe, release Iran and Syria to spread more mayhem inside Iraq, and make more likely our own eventual confrontation with this emboldened alliance of extremists." (END/2006)