WASHINGTON -- The riots surrounding the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed are driving a wedge between the White House and President Bush's neoconservative allies, raising new questions about whether the administration intends to follow the neocon line beyond the Iraq war.
The White House has slowly amped up Bush's condemnations of the cartoon protests, but always taken pains to declare, as spokesman Scott McClellan did earlier this month, that ''we understand fully why people, why Muslims, find the cartoons offensive."
This rather muted, diplomatic response seems to reflect both the president's feeling that lampooning religious prophets is out of line and his desire to avoid inflicting any further damage on US relations with the Muslim world. Many leading Democrats and Republicans have taken similar stances, condemning the cartoons but making clear that the violent protests are wildly disproportionate to the offense.
But that hasn't been enough for leading neoconservatives. In their global view, the cartoons are props in the hands of US enemies in the Arab world, and the protests are a stage-managed effort to deflect the world's attention from the misdeeds of Middle Eastern regimes.
As in the run-up to the Iraq war, the neocons conflate the actions of Islamic extremists and secular Arab governments that are usually not friendly to Islamic fundamentalism, suggesting that even such historic enemies are acting in concert against the United States.
Many Arab governments have refrained from criticizing the protests. Some foreign policy specialists believe the governments are fearful of giving their fundamentalist critics fresh ammunition by appearing to be pro-Europe or pro-United States. But neoconservatives, who dislike both the fundamentalists and many secular regimes, see a deeper agenda.
''Since 9/11, the West has gone on offense against radical Islamists and Middle Eastern dictatorships," wrote William Kristol, one of the leading neoconservative thinkers, in The Weekly Standard. ''That assault has apparently been more threatening to them than many of us realized. From Iraq to Palestine to Iran, from Islamist enemies of liberty to dictatorial opponents of democracy, those who are threatened by our effort to help liberalize and civilize the Middle East are fighting back with whatever weapons are at hand, and with whatever invented excuses and propaganda ploys they can discover."
This sweeping arc of an argument also recalls neocon comments in the months leading up to the Iraq war, when every action, alliance, or piece of evidence was stripped of context and viewed only in terms of being a provocation to the United States.
Now, according to Kristol, the Bush administration seems to have gone liberal. ''Robert Frost said of liberals that they're incapable of taking their own side in a fight," Kristol wrote, referring in part to Bush's response to the cartoons. ''We will see how deeply a degenerate form of liberalism has penetrated our souls. Will we anguish? Or will we fight?"
At some point after Kristol wrote the piece, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters, ''I have no doubt that Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and have used this for their own purposes." But Rice hasn't strongly pushed the view that governments are responsible for fanning the flames of protest. Some of the most bloody riots have occurred far from the so-called Axis of Evil, under such US-friendly regimes as Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
Kristol's larger concern is that the Bush administration, with Rice at the tiller, has moved away from neoconservative hawkishness on more than just the cartoons, including dealing with Iran and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
The administration's ongoing need to defend the Iraq war seems to have obscured the extent of its retreat from neoconservatism. Bush's State of the Union speech, with its merely perfunctory condemnation of Iran's nuclear ambitions and gentle appeal to the Iranian people, was notable for its lack of scorched-earth rhetoric, even on Iraq.
And while Bush's delivery made the speech seem more contentious -- the president, with his distinctive vocal emphasis, could turn the Gettysburg Address into fighting words -- his low-key handling of the cartoon furor seemed to confirm that the president's words, not his manner, reflect his true intentions.
Perhaps the administration is tamping down other crises in order to finish the job in Iraq, and will then turn its fury on Iran and Hamas. But it's equally likely that the Iraq war has provided more lessons than the administration has acknowledged, and that one of them is to keep the neoconservatives out of the policy shop.
Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.