The Guardian last Saturday tried to explain the decision by George W Bush and his advisers to reverse their previous policy and demand that Ariel Sharon pull Israeli troops out of the West Bank:
'The US was taken aback by the speed at which the bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict triggered unrest across the Arab world. It led to threats from Egypt and Jordan to break diplomatic ties with Israel, potentially unravelling the most important diplomatic gains in the Middle East over the past generation.'
How else did the Bush administration expect the Arab world to react to the sight of Israeli tanks storming through Ramallah and Bethlehem? By dancing in the streets waving the Stars and Stripes? Yet the people who advise Bush are very far from being fools. Behind the recent oscillations in US foreign policy lie the influence of a group of right wing Republican intellectuals high up in the Bush administration.
Most held office under previous Republican presidents between 1981 and 1993-Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. Their sponsors are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, vice-president and defence secretary respectively in the present administration. While he was defence secretary under Bush Sr in the early 1990s, Cheney authorised a strategy document.
It argued, in the words of one of his advisers, that the US should be 'willing to use force if necessary' to 'preclude the rise of another global rival for the indefinite future'. The document's main author was Paul Wolfowitz, who is now US deputy defence secretary.
On the very day of the attack on the World Trade Centre Wolfowitz argued that the US should respond to 11 September by 'ending states' such as Iraq.
It looks as if Wolfowitz and his allies have won. Nicholas Lemann wrote recently in the New Yorker, 'All the indications are that Bush is going to use 11 September as the occasion to launch a new, aggressive American foreign policy that would represent a broad change in direction rather than a specific war on terrorism.'
Signalled in Bush's 'axis of evil' speech of 29 January, this policy involves in particular launching a full scale invasion of Iraq, and allowing Sharon to unleash the Israeli Defence Force against the Palestinian Authority. This strategy is strongly backed outside the administration by an influential network of right wing intellectuals.
They contemptuously reject the argument put forward by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Bush can only build up the coalition he needs to attack Iraq by getting Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. As the right wing Wall Street Journal put it recently, 'the path to a calmer Middle East now lies not through Jerusalem but Baghdad.'
Ex CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht, who now works for the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute, dismisses the idea that Israeli butchery in the occupied territories infuriates the Arab masses. 'Arabs only respect strength,' he says.
'The tougher Sharon becomes, the stronger our image will be in the Middle East.' This right wing network even criticised their ally Cheney when he toured the Middle East last month to reassure Arab leaders. William Kristol and Roger Kagan called the trip 'amateur hour in American diplomacy'.
Some of the gang are willing to question one of the basic assumptions of US foreign policy since the Second World War – that US interests in the Middle East depend on an alliance with conservative Arab regimes, especially the Saudi royal family.
The Wall Street Journal advocates invading Iraq not just to get rid of Saddam, but to 'send a message to the Arab world that self determination as part of the modern world is possible'. This megalomaniac strategy reflects the self confidence of right wing intellectuals who, under Reagan and Bush Sr, increased the military pressure on their Russian rivals to breaking point.
They also brutally crushed revolutionary nationalist movements in Central America. Like Tony Blair, they believe they can 'reorder the world'. Unfortunately for them, the US is very far from being all-powerful. The arrogant assertion of US strength since the fall of Kabul has caused a reaction in many quarters.
For example, Wolfowitz's recent decision to receive the defence minister of China's arch-rival, Taiwan – the first such meeting in almost a quarter of a century-caused fury in Beijing.
Arab rage at Sharon finally brought home to the Bush administration that they were in danger of fatally undermining their chances of building a coalition against Iraq. The path to Baghdad turns out to go via Jerusalem after all. It is likely to be a bloody journey along a twisting road.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848 or visit www.bookmarks.uk.com.