Walid Jumblatt, Hosni Mubarak and Mahmoud Abbas appear to have done what Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney could not, namely prompt a bout of serious self-doubt among the critics of the Iraq war.

The coincidence of democratic developments in the broader Middle East in the first two months of this year as exemplified by the Druze leader's calls for an independent and free Lebanon, the Egyptian president's move towards multi-candidate elections and the Palestinian president's willingness to work with Israel towards a settlement have emboldened neoconservative advocates of President George W. Bush's “liberty doctrine” and muffled the naysayers.

As the American death toll climbed and the violence of the Iraqi insurgency escalated last year, a despondent war lobby was having second thoughts. And even those critics who are now giving some credit to Mr Bush warn that Washington cannot ignore the continuing bloodshed and instability in Iraq.

But since the Iraqi elections on January 30, White House officials have been in ever more buoyant mood, the opinion polls have shown renewed public optimism, neoconservatives have been crowing and opponents of the war have been forced to re-examine their arguments.

Kurt Andersen, a critic of the administration and a wavering supporter of the war, wrote in New York magazine last month: “The people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush . . . just might might possibly have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.”

Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian who hosts The Daily Show, voiced his own painful contrition: “This is the most difficult thing for me, because I don't care for the tactics, but I've got to say I've never seen results like this ever in that region.”

To be sure, this is far from a wholesale reassessment of the Iraq war, the policy of pre-emption, the unilateralist approach and the transformational agenda. Republican “realists” such as Brent Scowcroft have been quiet. The Democratic party's most senior foreign policymakers, people such as former national security adviser Sandy Berger, have embraced the opportunity for democratic change in the Middle East, but offered sobering reminders of past false dawns.

And there is still a fierce debate in Washington over the extent to which the war precipitated change elsewhere in the region, over the depth of Egypt's commitment to reform and over the danger of another civil war in Lebanon.

Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton administration, said on Tuesday: “It's a huge mistake for the United States to take credit for democracy in Iraq . . . Taking credit will backfire because democracy has to be something that they [the Iraqi people] feel that they themselves have developed.”

Still, a New York Times editorial this month, while warning Washington against triumphalism and acknowledging the “negative consequences” of the US-led invasion, said: “This has so far been a year of heartening surprises each one remarkable in itself and taken together, truly astonishing. The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances.”

Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, which supported the invasion and then published an edition of the magazine last year to answer the question “Were we wrong?”, argues that liberals must address the developments in the Middle East.

The Iraq war, he notes, was justified on the grounds of disarming a regime with weapons of mass destruction as well as spreading democracy. “I'm thrilled about what is happening in the Middle East, but it doesn't obviate the other half of the story,” Mr Beinart says. “America may be producing democratic change in the Middle East . . . but America deeply undermined its credibility both at home and abroad with exaggerated claims of weapons of mass destruction.”

But the Bush administration and, according to White House officials, the president himself have felt vindicated by the Iraqi elections as well as events in Lebanon, Egypt and between Israel and Palestinians this year.

As if to drive the message home to liberal doubters, Mr Bush on Tuesday went to the National Defense University to deliver a speech which not only heralded the changes sweeping the Middle East but also cast himself as a president in the mould of Democrat icons Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

“This advance is a consistent theme of American strategy, from the 14 Points to the Four Freedoms to the Marshall Plan to the Reagan Doctrine,” Mr Bush said, referring to the signature policies of three Democratic presidents.

But if Mr Bush's rhetoric was a subtle attempt to capitalise on the new public momentum behind the “liberty doctrine”, neoconservative commentators have shown no such restraint.

David Brooks, the New York Times' in-house conservative, on Tuesday wrote with fresh admiration for Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary and the administration's most ardent campaigner for using US power to encourage democracy in the Muslim world: “Let us now praise Paul Wolfowitz.”

Additional reporting by Jon Boone in London

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