Beating up on neocons used to be a specialized sport without wide appeal. With all due false modesty, I offer myself as an earlier practitioner. Back in the mid-to-late '70s, when I had a weekly column in the Village Voice, I used to have rich sport with that apex neo-con, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, I nicknamed him Norman the Frother and freighted him with so many gibes that he made the mistake of publicly denouncing me in Commentary, exclaiming that "Cockburn's weekly pieces have set a new standard of gutter journalism in this country," a testimonial I still proudly feature on the back of my books.

            The neo-cons' political hero in those days was U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, much venerated in Israel and the corporate offices of Beijing for his ardor and constancy in sluicing the U.S. taxpayers' money into their treasuries. The neo-cons' great hope was Scoop for president, but he failed to impress the voters in the Democratic primaries in 1976. To the neocons' chagrin, the new occupant of the Oval Office was Jimmy Carter, whom they construed to be soft on Communism and an Israel-hater. Carter threw plenty of money at the Pentagon and stoked up the Cold War, but on a couple of occasions he was downright rude to Menachem Begin, so the neo-cons abandoned the Democrats and threw in their lot with Ronald Reagan. For them a hard-line Israel has always been the bottom line.

            Now here we are on the downslope of 2003, and George Bush is learning, way too late for his own good that the neo-cons have been matchlessly wrong about everything. One can burrow through the archives of historical folly in search of comparisons and still come up empty-handed. The neo-cons told Bush that eviction of Saddam would rearrange the chairs in the Middle East to America's advantage. Wrong. They told him it would unlock the door to a peaceful settlement in Israel. Wrong. They told him (I'm talking about Wolfowitz's team of mad Straussians at DoD) that there was irrefutable proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. Wrong. They told him the prime Iraqi exile group, headed by Ahmad Chalabi, had street cred in Iraq. Wrong. They told him it would be easy to install a U.S. regime in Baghdad and make the place hum quietly along, like Lebanon in the 1950s. Wrong.

            And, of course, the neocons, who have never forgiven the United Nations for Resolutions 242 and 338 (bad for Israel), told Bush that he should tell the U.N. to take its charter and shove it. Bush, who appreciates simple words and simple thoughts, took their advice, and last Sunday night had it served up to him by his speechwriters as crow, which he methodically ate in his 18-minute speech, saying the United Nations has an important role in Iraq.

            Now many are gloating at the neocons' discomfiture and waiting for their downfall. Click go Madam Defarge's knitting needles as she waits beside the guillotine. Here come the tumbrils, inching their way slowly through the rotting cabbages and vulgar ribaldry of Republican isolationists. Here's a pale-faced Douglas Feith. Up goes the fatal blade, and down it flashes. Behold, the head of a neo-con! The crowd bays, but this execution merely whets the appetite. The next tumbril carries a weightier cargo: Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams. Still not enough. Madam Defarge knits on, and her patience is soon rewarded. First, Wolfowitz, then finally Rumsfeld himself are dispatched, and the crowd moves off to torch the Weekly Standard and string up its editor, Bill Kristol.

            Maybe not all of them, but some neocon will surely pay the price for dropping President Bush's approval rating into the low 50s. But will the basic neocon political line, dominant for so long in Washington, suffer a dent? Not in any fundamental way. To appreciate this one only has to look at the current posture of prominent Democrats. Are they glorying in Bush's political embarrassment and the humiliating and costly disaster for the U.S. consequent upon its attack on Iraq? Take U.S. Senator Joe Biden. His immediate reaction to Bush's speech last Sunday was to insist that the president would need, and should get, more money than the $87 billion put on the table.

            Then Biden gave the neocons a lesson in how to pay lip service to internationalism and "our allies": "What we need isn't the death of internationalism or the denial of our stark national interest. What I want to talk about today is a more enlightened nationalism that understands the value of international institutions but supports the use of military force -- without apology or hesitation -- when we must. An enlightened nationalism that does not allow us to be so blinded by our overwhelming military power that we fail to see the benefit, indeed the need, of working with others . To begin moving this nation in the right direction I believe we need to embrace a foreign policy of enlightened nationalism . First, we need to correct the imbalance between projecting power and staying power. America's military is second to none. It must and will remain second to none."

            Study the zigzag rhetoric of Governor Howard Dean, and you find the same essential approach, though Dean has just outraged the neocons by calling for an even-handed U.S. approach to any resolving of the Palestinian issue.

            With the exception of Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Mosely Brown, no Democratic candidate (and certainly not the supposedly "antiwar" Howard Dean) is calling for anything other than that the United States to "stay the course" in Iraq, with more money, more troops and, if possible, the political cover of the United Nations. A few neo-con heads may roll, but the policy won't change. It's fun to demonize the neo-cons and rejoice in their discomfiture, but don't make the mistake of thinking U.S. foreign policy was set by Norman Podhoretz, or even William Kristol.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.