Emboldened by the U.S. military victory in Iraq, neoconservatives and their allies in Congress are mounting a preemptive campaign against the U.S. plan to implement a so-called road map for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell laid the groundwork for a planned trip to the Middle East in early May, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- increasingly identified as a neoconservative spokesman -- unleashed a blistering attack Tuesday on the State Department and, by implication, on Powell. He characterized the latest Mideast peace plan as "a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the president's policies."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) also has inveighed against the road map, calling it "a confluence of deluded thinking between European elites, elements within the State Department bureaucracy and a significant segment of the American intellectual community."
In a March 12 speech at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, DeLay, referring to the road map, said: "The Israelis don't need to change course. They don't need to travel the path of weakness as defined by the neo-appeasers."
A strongly pro-Israel letter expressing similar sentiments is being circulated during the congressional recess among lawmakers of both parties and had gained 262 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, according to congressional aides. Its authors say they intend to send the letter to Bush.
Gingrich made his remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has provided much of the ideological underpinnings of the Bush administration.
The former speaker, a senior fellow at the institute, said that after "six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success," the State Department is "back at work pursuing policies that will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory" in the region.
Gingrich urged the administration to "take on transforming the State Department as its next urgent mission." The U.S., he said, "cannot lead the world with a broken instrument of diplomacy."
The White House later rejected Gingrich's advice, strongly defending both the department and Powell. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said they simply "carry out the president's directions, and they do so very ably and professionally."
The dispute is about more than the hope of pro-Israel forces that they can block any attempt by the White House to pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians.
It also reflects a bruising debate within the administration -- intensified by the quick military victory in Iraq -- about how muscular U.S. foreign policy should be and the extent to which the United Nations and other international organizations should influence -- or constrain -- U.S. actions around the world.
The debate is focused at the moment on the Middle East, where neoconservatives see the quick U.S. victory in Iraq opening up the potential for remaking the region. But it is also raging over other trouble spots, including North Korea.
During the run-up to the Iraq war, President Bush announced his intention of unveiling the Middle East road map once Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's prime minister-designate, forms his Cabinet and its members take office.
Bush made that commitment, at least in part, as a concession to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his strongest ally on the war, who was concerned that Washington's failure to aggressively pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was enraging the Arab world.
As outlined in media reports, the plan details a series of reciprocal steps that Israel and the Palestinians would take leading up to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Neoconservatives take issue with the fact that it is a collaborative effort with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
Calling that arrangement a State Department "invention," Gingrich described it Tuesday as "a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the president's policies procedurally by ensuring that they will consistently be watered down and distorted by the other three members."
Underlying such antagonism is the belief among many administration hawks, especially in the Pentagon, that Russia, France and Germany stymied U.S. efforts to obtain U.N. support for forcefully disarming Iraq.
"For us to invite them into a quartet is an absolute defeat before the process even begins," Gingrich said.
As a part of the new peace initiative, the Bush administration intends to press Israel to ease its crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
During an April 14 meeting at the White House, both Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, delivered that news to Dov Weisglass, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who had brought to the White House Sharon's many reservations about the plan.
In an effort to present a united front, Rice included other senior administration officials whom Israel considers more sympathetic, among them Elliott Abrams, a top National Security Council advisor on the Middle East; I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney; and Douglas J. Feith, who is undersecretary of Defense for policy.
But Rice reportedly told Weisglass that the administration would make no changes to the road map before it was unveiled.
In his comments at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich spoke of Bush and the State Department representing what Gingrich called "two worldviews in conflict about foreign policy."
The State Department, Gingrich said, "is a worldview of process, politeness and accommodation," while Bush's world view is one of "facts, values and outcomes."
Gingrich also denounced Powell's plan to stop in Syria on his Middle East trip. Both Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have accused Syria of providing military supplies to Iraq and harboring senior Iraqi officials who fled Baghdad.
"This is a time for America to demand changes in Damascus before a visit is even considered," Gingrich said. "The visit should be a reward for public change -- not an appeal to a weak, economically depressed dictatorship."
On Sunday, Bush told reporters during a visit to Ft. Hood, Texas, that Syria was "beginning to get the [U.S.] message."
At the White House, Fleischer defended the administration's now- softened approach toward Damascus.
"The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, and we intend to use those diplomatic relations to good purposes, to further America's goals in the region," Fleischer said.
At the State Department, a senior official suggested that a desire for the limelight was behind Gingrich's harsh remarks.
"I'm sure he wants to reorganize us as effectively as he reorganized the Congress," the official said, referring to the GOP "revolution" that Gingrich ushered in, which petered out several election cycles later amid a sea of political acrimony.
Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, said the U.S. foreign policy establishment could benefit from constructive criticism.
But she disagreed with Gingrich's charge that the State Department and Powell are departing from White House thinking.
"I am not a believer in the idea that somehow the State Department hijacked the president's brain," Pletka said.