After months on the defensive because of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the neo-conservative hawks responsible for the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive warfare were quietly jubilant over the weekend following Libya's climb down over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and other significant gestures by Iran and Syria.
The Libyan leadership's decision to abandon its weapons programme was a vindication, they said, of the long-standing argument that invading Iraq would give other countries an unambiguous signal of what they could expect if they pursued positions of defiance towards the United States.
The assertion of US military might, Pentagon advisor and noted hawk Kenneth Adelman told The Washington Post, "scares the bejesus out of rogue dictators" - and the breakthrough with Libya proved it.
It has been a morale-boosting few days for the neo-cons. The capture of Saddam Hussein last weekend was followed first by an Iranian agreement to allow surprise United Nations inspections of its nuclear facilities, then by an announcement by Syria that it had seized $23.5m (£13m) apparently intended for al-Qa'ida and that, in turn, by Muammar Gaddafi's undertaking to dismantle Libya's biological and chemical weapons programmes under international supervision.
"It's always been at the heart of the Bush Doctrine that a more robust policy would permit us to elicit greater cooperation from adversaries than we'd had in the past when we acquiesced," said Richard Perle, another noted hawk, also in an interview with The Washington Post. "With the capture of Saddam, the sense that momentum may be with us is very important."
There may be plenty of room to disagree with the hawks' arguments, not least because of their inconsistent attitude towards United Nations weapons inspectors (rubbished on the eve of the Iraq war, now central to the successful oversight of the Libyan and Iranian deals). There is the question of who should take credit for what, since the Iranians appear to have been talking to the Europeans - hardly neo-con favourites - rather than the Americans. And it is unclear, too, how the US tough line might reap similar dividends with North Korea, the pariah state closest to the actual production of nuclear weapons.
In domestic political terms, the hawks have moved into the ascendant, at least for the moment, and pushed their critics and adversaries back onto the defensive. President Bush made the clear link between the flexing of US military muscle in Iraq and the latest diplomatic windfalls when he said on Friday: "These actions by the United States and our allies have sent an unmistakable message to regimes that seek or possess weapons of mass destruction."
The field of would-be Democratic challengers said little or nothing about the Libyan breakthrough over the weekend, in stark contrast to the aftermath of the Saddam capture, when Howard Dean, the front-runner, said he did not think the arrest had any beneficial knock-on effects for US security, and his adversaries scrambled for positions somewhere between his and the Bush administration's.
The raw assertion of American power has always been key to the neo-cons' calculations on Iraq, much more than the given justifications for war regarding WMD or the need to rid the world of a brutal dictator. They, together with key political figures including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, put it at the forefront of a new global security structure they began formulating after the first Gulf War in 1991. It was central to the so-called Project for the New American Century, the blueprint for the Iraq invasion written in 1997.
Mr Perle said yesterday: "It's nice to have a good week every once in a while."Reuse content