Neo-conservatism has many tenets, some of which are disputed. But its core principle is a rejection of therealist school of foreign policy that deals with regimes as they are. According to the neo-cons, a regime's outward behaviour is dictated by its internal character. The goal of foreign policy should be to transform - rather than accommodate - regimes that do not share America's freedom-loving goals.
That was known as the Tarnoff Doctrine early on in the Clinton Administration, and it was hooted off the stage by the very people who later came up with Wilsonian democratization as the US foreign policy goal---sort of matching the aggressive foreign policy with a figleaf justification. But now Realpolitik returns:
Last week's deals with Libya and Vietnam do not meet that basic criterion since all that has changed is their outward behaviour - Vietnam wants to engage in more trade and investment and Libya is co-operating in counter-terrorism. Both countries, like Iran and North Korea, remain dictatorships. Indeed both countries continue to be governed by the same regimes that originally turned them into pariahs - in Libya's case the same person. Neither shows any sign, rhetorical or otherwise, of embracing liberal democracy.
The new realism ensues from a recent revised manifesto of Bush aims and goals.
The difference can be seen inMr Bush's first National Security Strategy, published in 2002, which promised an aggressive campaign of democratisation (as well as the controversial doctrine of military pre-emption). In the second NSS document, issued two months ago, democracy promotion was just one among a number of competing foreign policy goals. Without quite admitting to it, the Bush administration implicitly concedes that the rapid democratisation of Iraq has created more problems than it has solved.
The dancing may have stopped, but the melody lingers on:
Yet the battle between realists and idealists is not fully played out - and America being America, it never will be. Outside the administration the two are being synthesised into mushy amalgams, such as "realistic Wilsonianism". Within it, however, there is an unresolved debate over whether to negotiate directly with Iran on its nuclear programme or to give priority to removing Tehran's mullahs.
On this, the Bush administration has been sending conflicting signals: last week Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, backed the diplomatic efforts of America's three main European partners. The previous month, Mr Bolton, now US ambassador to the United Nations, shot down the same proposal. That tussle will probably continue.
Looks like the Condification of US foreign policy may be moving out ahead of the Bolton-Wolfowitz crew in the sculling on the Potomac. But the FT's DC chief Edward Luce has a final word to the mullahs:
Iran, meanwhile, which has better claims to being a democracy than either Libya or Vietnam, can reflect on one thing: you can be a pariah in US eyes, you can even get the better of it in conflict. But when, as they probably will, America's priorities change, it may, on pragmatic grounds, happily welcome you back into the fold - even if you have nuclear weapons. Just ask Pakistan.