As critics of George W. Bush’s foreign policy begin to count down the final days of his presidency, the big question is whether the realists can build on the gains they made during 2007 in wresting control over key hotspots from hawks headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The possibility that those gains could be reversed—be they in North Korea, Iran, or elsewhere in the Middle East—remains very real.

While even hardline neoconservatives discount the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before Bush leaves office, hawks are in full outcry against the lack of progress in denuclearizing Pyongyang, while skepticism over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process initiated in Annapolis in November has only grown stronger in the wake of Bush’s January visit to the Middle East.

Moreover, last month’s incident in the Strait of Hormuz involving U.S. warships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats resurrected the specter, much feared by senior Pentagon officials, that a local confrontation between the two countries in or around Iraq could quickly escalate into a shooting war. In addition, the hawks appear increasingly determined to halt the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops below pre-surge levels after July, possibly leaving some 130,000 troops in Iraq through 2008, contrary to hopes by the Pentagon leadership for further substantial reductions before Bush leaves office.

On most fronts, however, the realists appear to have gained the upper hand, increasing the likelihood that Bush will leave office with a whimper instead of the much-feared bang of a new war in the Middle East.

Indeed, 2007 will go down as the year in which the balance of power in the long-running struggle between hawks and realists in the Bush administration shifted strongly in favor of the latter. 

The realist turn in Washington’s posture can be credited in part to the manifest failures—particularly in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as in North Korea—of the hardline policies promoted by the coalition of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and Christian Zionists who were empowered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The resurgence of realists can also be traced to the rise of specific individuals, who took the place of their discredited predecessors between the beginning of Bush’s second term and the end of 2006, when the most important realist of all—Gates—replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

With Gates heading Washington’s most powerful foreign policy bureaucracy, the return to realism, which was already under way as early as October 2003 (albeit tentatively), accelerated sharply. By the end of 2007, the administration’s top hawk, Cheney, looked more isolated than ever.

Gates—a protégé and deputy of neocon nemesis Brent Scowcroft (former President George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor)—replaced key Pentagon officials who had either actively supported or excessively deferred to Rumsfeld and Cheney with far more independent-minded and skeptical officers, most importantly the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and the head of the U.S. Central Command, Adm. William Fallon. To the great frustration of neoconservatives in particular, both men spoke out publicly in 2007 against the possibility of war with Iran in what sometimes appeared to be a deliberate, Gates-backed effort to push back against the over-heated rhetoric of the hawks.

Last September, for example, Fallon denounced what he called "this constant drumbeat of conflict" as "not helpful and not useful." Several weeks later, after Cheney charged that Tehran was directly responsible for the attacks by Shi’ite militias on U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq, the top brass was the first to suggest that Iran was in fact abiding by a pledge to Baghdad to rein in the militias.

Gates has also quietly encouraged professionals in other bureaucracies, notably in the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (where he served as director from 1991 to 1993, having worked his way up from an analyst), to stand up to perceived pressure from White House hawks.

He played a key role in recommending like-minded policy-makers for critical posts, such as Adm. Mike McConnell, with whom Gates had worked closely under the elder Bush when McConnell served as chief intelligence officer for the Joint Chiefs. Bush chose McConnell to serve as director of national intelligence shortly after Gates took office.

It was McConnell and Gates who reportedly pushed hardest at the White House for December’s public release of the unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program, which concluded that Tehran had suspended its alleged weapons program in 2003. Its findings appear to have greatly diminished, if not dashed, the hawks’ hopes for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of Bush’s term.

Until Gates’ confirmation, realist hopes for a major comeback rested primarily at the State Department with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, despite a rhetorical embrace of the democratic messianism promoted by Bush, began gingerly pushing the president toward a more realist course shortly after succeeding Colin Powell in early 2005. Rice prevailed over Cheney in aligning Washington’s position on Iran more closely with its European allies that same year, a move that made her a target for neoconservative commentators who had hoped her leadership would force the State Department bureaucracy to toe the hawks’ line.

But she soon found herself blocked—and at times overwhelmed—by the still-powerful Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal," as former Powell chief-of-staff Lawrence Wilkerson has called it. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, the White House rejected out of hand her concerns about the diplomatic costs of prolonging the fighting.

When it became clear within the administration that Bush had become disillusioned with Rumsfeld, Rice—backed by a phalanx of other veterans of the elder Bush’s administration, including his secretary of state, James Baker—urged the president to choose Gates, who had been her boss in Scowcroft’s National Security Council (NSC) almost 20 years earlier.

With Rumsfeld out and Gates in, Rice appeared to gain confidence. In February 2007, she bypassed Cheney’s office and the hawkish NSC staff to win Bush’s personal approval for a nuclear deal with North Korea. Hawks both in and out of the administration howled about the bargain, but the generally leak-prone Pentagon raised no objection, giving rise to suggestions that Gates had been consulted in advance.

Gates’ hand was evident even more strikingly in the Middle East, where within eight months of his confirmation, Rice launched two of the most controversial recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), a congressionally mandated, bipartisan task force co-chaired by Baker, on which Gates had served as one of its ten members until his nomination in November.

The ISG called on the administration to open direct talks with Iran on stabilizing Iraq and to commit itself to a major new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative to help rehabilitate Washington’s image in the Arab world. Both recommendations constituted direct challenges to the hawks, who even before the group’s report was released mounted a major media campaign against it.

In spite of

Bush’s initial discomfort with both initiatives, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad began talks with his Iranian counterpart in May 2007 and has reportedly asked Tehran to resume them early this year. And last July, Bush announced a new peace process that he said he hoped would create at least a framework agreement for the creation of a viable Palestinian state by the end of his term, a goal that he reaffirmed at the Annapolis summit in late November and again on his recent trip through the region.

Gates has also followed up on yet another ISG recommendation—to reinforce U.S. and NATO positions in Afghanistan.

Echoing a July NIE, Gates argued recently that al Qaeda and Taliban operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan warrant much more attention than they have received. Last month, he ordered 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan, bringing total U.S. troop strength to its highest level ever.

That move largely reflects the long-standing but increasingly urgent conviction in both the intelligence community and the Pentagon that the “central front in the war on terror” lies more in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Iraq or its neighbors. Israel-centered neoconservatives (who have argued since 9/11 that the main enemies of Israel and the United States are one and the same, and since Saddam Hussein’s removal, that Iran constitutes the greatest threat) reject that view.

Gates has also worked closely with Rice’s State Department, on whose behalf he called for a sharp increase in funding. In the war on terror, he said “soft power” has to be given much greater priority than it has to date. Gates went even further in an interview in late December, asserting a perspective that the hawks have long denounced as anathema. “We are in a multipolar world now,” he told the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland.

As confident as Gates sounds, the new year opens with a long list of unresolved issues and new challenges that could reverse many of the realists’ gains.

It appears, for example, that Gates and the Pentagon brass—who have made little secret of their concern about the impact of the 30,000-troop “surge” on the long-term health of the U.S. ground forces—may be losing a struggle over the pace at which U.S. combat forces are being withdrawn from Iraq.

While Bush remains committed to bringing U.S. troop strength there down to the pre-surge levels of around 135,000 by August, he has repeatedly indicated—most recently in his State of the Union address on January 28—that he will defer to the recommendations of his Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, on any further reductions.

While Gates and the Joint Chiefs have made clear they support further withdrawals—down to as few as 100,000 troops by the time Bush leaves office—Petraeus, who has become an icon for neoconservatives and other hawks, appears to oppose this. A major test of strength on the issue is shaping up for this spring.

In addition, further progress by the realists in consolidating their hold on policy depends to a great extent on actors over which they have little or no control, such as North Korea. The hawks are complaining loudly that Rice was suckered into the accord with North Korea and that Pyongyang will never fully comply or give up its nuclear arsenal. Failure to make progress on this front will likely undermine the realists.

Similarly, Bush has made clear that he is unwilling to exert serious pressure on Israel to make the concessions most Middle East experts believe are required to achieve even a framework for an agreement embodying his vision of a two-state solution. This effectively leaves any hope for a breakthrough in the hands of two particularly weak leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which, so long as it remains isolated by the other two parties, can easily act as a spoiler.

It also remains unknown how eager Iran is to cooperate with U.S. strategy in Iraq and the larger region, particularly if Petraeus slows the pace of Washington’s drawdown. Some elements in Tehran’s leadership may consider a confrontation with Washington politically advantageous in the run-up to U.S. elections. In the absence of greater bilateral engagement—which the hawks on both sides are certain to resist—the possibility of an incident that escalates out of control will persist.

Meanwhile, Israel’s not-so-veiled threats to take unilateral action against Tehran’s nuclear facilities also raise the possibility that Bush may feel compelled to act if Iran retaliates, although most experts believe it unlikely that Israel would attack without at least an orange light from Washington.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web program (