Among the celebrants at the dinner was Defense Secretary Cheney, who took note of how the Washington press corps was genuflecting before a popular war. Referring to the tribute, Cheney noted in some amazement, "You would not ordinarily expect that kind of unrestrained comment by the press."
A month later at the White House Correspondents Dinner, the U.S. news media and celebrity guests cheered lustily when General Schwarzkopf was introduced. "It was like a Hollywood opening," commented one journalist referring to the spotlights swirling around the field commander.
Neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer lectured the few dissidents who found the press corps' groveling before the President and the military unsettling. "Loosen up, guys," Krauthammer wrote. "Raise a glass, tip a hat, wave a pom-pom to the heroes of Desert Storm. If that makes you feel you're living in Sparta, have another glass."
Like other observers, the neocons had seen how advanced U.S. technology had changed the nature of warfare. "Smart bombs" zeroed in on helpless targets; electronic sabotage disrupted enemy command and control; exquisitely equipped American troops outclassed the Iraqi military chugging around in Soviet-built tanks. War was made to look easy and fun with very light U.S. casualties.
The collapse of the Soviet Union later in 1991 represented the removal of the last obstacle to U.S. hegemony. The remaining question for the neocons was how to get and keep control of the levers of American power. However, those levers slipped out of their grasp with Bush-41's favoritism toward his "realist" foreign policy advisers and then Bill Clinton's election in 1992.
But the neocons still held many cards in the early 1990s, having gained credentials from their work in the Reagan administration and having built alliances with other hard-liners such as Bush-41's Defense Secretary Cheney. The neocons also had grabbed important space on the opinion pages of key newspapers, like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and influential chairs inside major foreign-policy think tanks.
The second game-changing event took place amid the neocon infatuation with Israel's Likud leaders. In the mid-1990s, prominent American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for the campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu and tossed aside old ideas about a negotiated peace settlement with Israel's Arab neighbors.
Rather than suffer the frustrations of negotiating a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem or dealing with the annoyance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the neocons on Netanyahu's team decided it was time for a bold new direction, which they outlined in a 1996 strategy paper, called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm."
The paper advanced the idea that only "regime change" in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary "clean break" from the diplomatic standoffs that had followed inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Under this "clean break," Israel would no longer seek peace through compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Saddam Hussein who were supportive of Israel's close-in enemies.
The plan called Hussein's ouster "an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right," but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of "regime change."
But what the "clean break" needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel's highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel's economy from such overreach would have been staggering.
In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the "clean break" plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which lobbied President Clinton to undertake the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a "no-fly zone" which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion of Iraq appeared out of the question.
The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush's ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind a political climate across America favoring war and revenge.