Of course, Bush-43 had to first attack Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda maintained its principal base, but he then quickly pivoted to the neocons' desired target, Iraq. Besides being home to the already demonized Saddam Hussein, Iraq had other strategic advantages. It was not as heavily populated as some of its neighbors yet it was positioned squarely between Iran and Syria, two other top targets.
In those heady days of 2002-2003, a neocon joke posed the question of what to do after ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- whether to next go east to Iran or west to Syria. The punch-line was: "Real men go to Tehran."
But first Iraq had to be vanquished, and this other agenda -- restructuring the Middle East to make it safe for U.S. and Israeli interests -- had to be played down, partly because average Americans might be skeptical and because expert Americans might have warned about the dangers from U.S. imperial overreach.
So, Bush-43, Vice President Cheney and their neocon advisers pushed the "hot button" of the American people, still frightened by the horrors of 9/11. The bogus case was made that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of WMD that he was ready to give to al-Qaeda so the terrorists could inflict even greater devastation on the U.S. homeland.
The neocons, some of whom grew up in families of left-wing Trotskyites, viewed themselves as a kind of a "vanguard" party using "agit-prop" to maneuver the American "proletariat." The WMD scare was seen as the best way to stampede the American herd. Then, the neocon thinking went, the military victory in Iraq would consolidate war support and permit implementation of the next phases toward "regime change" in Iran and Syria.
The plan seemed to be working early, as the U.S. military overwhelmed the beleaguered Iraqi army and captured Baghdad in three weeks. Bush-43 celebrated by landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and delivering a speech beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
However, the plan began to go awry when neocon pro-consul Paul Bremer -- in pursuit of a neocon model regime -- got rid of Iraq's governing infrastructure, dismantled much of the social safety net and disbanded the army. Then, the neocon-favored leader, exile Ahmed Chalabi, turned out to be a non-starter with the Iraqi people.
An armed resistance emerged, using low-tech weapons such as "improvised explosive devices." Soon, not only were thousands of American soldiers dying but ancient sectarian rivalries between Shiites and Sunnis began tearing Iraq apart. The scenes of chaotic violence were horrific.
Rather than gaining in popularity with the American people, the war began to lose support, leading to Democratic gains in 2006. The neocons salvaged some of their status in 2007 by pushing the fiction of the "successful surge," which supposedly had turned impending defeat into victory, but the truth was that the "surge" only delayed the inevitable failure of the U.S. enterprise.
With George W. Bush's departure in 2009 and the arrival of Barack Obama, the neocons retreated, too. Neocon influence waned within the Executive Branch, though neocons still maintained strongholds at Washington think tanks and on editorial pages of national news outlets like the Washington Post.
New developments in the region also created new neocon hopes for their old agenda. The Arab Spring of 2011 led to civil unrest in Syria where the Assad dynasty -- based in non-Sunni religious sects -- was challenged by a Sunni-led insurgency which included some democratic reformers as well as radical jihadists.
Meanwhile, in Iran, international opposition to its nuclear program prompted harsh economic sanctions. Though President Obama viewed the sanctions as leverage to compel Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program, some neocons were salivating over how to hijack the sanctions on behalf of "regime change."
However, in November 2012, Obama's defeat of neocon favorite Mitt Romney and the departure of neocon ally, CIA Director David Petraeus, were sharp blows to the neocon plans of reclaiming the reins of U.S. foreign policy. Now, the neocons must see how they can leverage their continued influence over Washington's opinion circles -- and hope for advantageous developments abroad -- to steer Obama toward more confrontational approaches with Iran and Syria.
For the neocons, it also remains crucial that average Americans don't think too much about the why behind the disastrous Iraq War, a tenth anniversary that can't pass quickly enough as far as the neocons are concerned.