The neocon strategy paper, called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," 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 negotiations.
Under the "clean break," Israel would no longer seek peace through mutual understanding and compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Iraq's 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 urged President Bill Clinton to overthrow 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 for war and revenge.
Of course, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 had other motives besides Israeli security -- from Bush's personal animus toward Saddam Hussein to controlling Iraq's oil resources -- but a principal goal of the neocons was the projection of American power deep into the Muslim world, to strike at enemy states beyond Israel's military reach.
In those days of imperial hubris, the capabilities of the U.S. military were viewed as strategic game-changers. However, the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. conquest, relying on low-tech weapons such as "improvised explosive devices," dashed the neocon dream -- at least in the short run. The "real men" had to postpone their trips to Tehran and Damascus.
But the dream hasn't died. It just had to wait out four years of Barack Obama. In Campaign 2012, the neocons have returned to surround Mitt Romney, who like George W. Bush a decade ago has only a vague understanding of the world and is more than happy to cede the direction of U.S. foreign policy to the smart, confident and well-connected neocons.
The neocons also understand the need to manipulate the American people. In the 1980s, when I was covering Ronald Reagan's Central American policies, I dealt with the neocons often and came to view them as expert manipulators whose view of democracy was that it was okay to trick the common folk into doing what was deemed necessary.
So, the neocons learned to exaggerate dangers and exploit fears. They tested their skills out in Central America with warnings about how peasant rebellions against corrupt oligarchs were part of some grand Soviet scheme to conquer the United States through the soft underbelly of Texas.
When the neocons returned to power under George W. Bush, they applied the same techniques in hyping the threat from Iraq. They pushed baseless claims about Saddam Hussein sharing non-existent weapons of mass destruction with al-Qaeda, all the better to scare the American people.
The neocons faced some painful reversals when the Iraq War foundered from late 2003 through 2006, but they salvaged some status in 2007 by pushing the fiction of the "successful surge," which supposedly turned impending defeat into victory, although the truth was that the "surge" only delayed the inevitable failure of the U.S. enterprise.