To be fair, the Bush team dabbled in engagement with Damascus after the September 11 attacks, but those efforts were focused on counterterrorism. The goodwill did not carry over into other areas, including Iraq. True to form, the Syrians did just enough on al Qaeda to earn plaudits in some quarters while never restricting the group's ability to injure the United States, its friends, and its interests in the region. For example, Bashar al-Assad never shut down the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq by way of Damascus International Airport.
It's hard to sign up with the folks who seem all too willing to bomb Iran, but like Syria, the neoconservatives have a well-grounded view of the Iranian regime. George H.W. Bush tried engagement (remember "Goodwill begets goodwill" in his inaugural address?), so did Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama has offered a hand to the clerical regime.
Yet all three presidents have very little to show for their efforts. Why? Did they not engage enough? Did Bush, Clinton, and Obama engage incorrectly? Unlikely. Rather, one needs to look at the ontology -- yes, ontology, the metaphysical nature -- of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic was founded in many ways on opposition to the West, and in particular, the United States. A good portion of Iran's revolutionary narrative identifies the United States' perfidy in undermining the aspirations and identity of the Iranian people. The litany of Tehran's complaints against Washington is long. This is precisely why the Iranian leadership cannot make a deal with the United States. To do so would undermine the reason for the revolution and the Iranian leadership's own reason for being. The neoconservatives seem to have innately understood -- perhaps for different reasons -- that the Iranians were quite unlikely to respond to U.S. overtures. This doesn't mean that engagement is bad everywhere, even when it comes to Iran. The Obama administration may have been too sanguine about its ability to sway Iran's leadership, but the policy does serve an important purpose. Engagement demonstrates that, unlike with the run-up to the Iraq war, Washington is willing to exhaust every possible avenue to resolve its differences with Tehran before taking more punitive steps such as sanctions or even military action.
The one other area where the neocons got it right is democracy. A few caveats. First, you don't have to be a neoconservative to support democratic change in the Middle East -- it's simply the right thing to do. Second, the Freedom Agenda is all but dead, but that doesn't mean that the neocons were wrong. It has become fashionable to say that the Bush administration made "egregious" errors promoting democracy in the Arab world. Yes, invading Iraq to transform the country and the region qualifies as egregious. Still, Bush's forceful, public support for freedom and democracy in the Middle East had a profound effect on politics in the region. It did nothing less than change the terms of the debate in a way that Arab leaders could no longer control and allowed democracy activists to pursue their agendas in new ways.
Of course, democracy and reform in the Middle East did not begin when the Bush administration discovered the issue on or about September 12, 2001, or when the neoconservatives began pressing the issue. Still, with Washington watching, Arab authoritarians had to position themselves as reformers, making it more difficult for them to crack down on the real reformers. In Egypt, for example, opposition activists who were generally opposed to Bush's Middle East policy ruefully acknowledged that Washington's outspoken support for democracy provided them and their colleagues' protection from the Egyptian state. Indeed, it seems that Bush and the neocons had moved the needle on democracy in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2005 was upon us, but then Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Having never resolved the problem of what happens when nasty people are elected freely and fairly, the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the region was left to wither. Nevertheless, the neocons were onto something.
Needless to say, Washington's position in the Middle East was far worse after the ascendance of the neoconservatives during the Bush years. The region was further from peace, stability, and prosperity than when they found it in early 2001. Still, the neocons' perspective on the nature of the Syrian and Iranian regimes were largely accurate, and their forceful advocacy of democracy and freedom in the Middle East may have grated on many, but it did much to advance those causes in a region once described as "democracy's desert." Any number of observers would surely disagree with these claims, but I suspect that has more to do with politics than a careful evaluation of what the neocons have to offer to the foreign-policy debate.