WASHINGTON -- The weekend after the statue of Saddam Hussein fell, Kenneth Adelman and a couple of other promoters of the Iraq war gathered at Vice President Dick Cheney's residence to celebrate. The invasion had been a "cakewalk," as Adelman predicted.
Cheney and his guests raised their glasses, toasting President Bush and victory. "It was a euphoric moment," Adelman recalled.
Forty-three months later, the cakewalk looks more like a death march, and Adelman has broken with the Bush team. He had an angry falling out with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this fall. He and Cheney are no longer on speaking terms. And he believes that "the president is ultimately responsible" for what Adelman now calls "the debacle that was Iraq."
Adelman, a former Reagan administration official and onetime member of the Iraq war brain trust, is only the latest voice from inside the Bush circle to speak out against the president or his policies.
Heading into the final chapter of his presidency, fresh from the sting of a midterm election defeat, Bush finds himself with fewer and fewer friends. Some of the strongest supporters of the war have grown disenchanted, former insiders are registering public dissent and Republicans on Capitol Hill blame him for losing Congress.
"There are a lot of lives that are lost," Adelman said in an interview last week. "A country's at stake. A region's at stake. This is a gigantic situation. . . . This didn't have to be managed this bad. It's just awful."
The sense of Bush abandonment accelerated during the final weeks of the campaign with the publication of a former aide's book accusing the White House of moral hypocrisy and with Vanity Fair quoting Adelman, Richard N. Perle, and other neoconservatives assailing White House leadership of the war.
Since the Nov. 7 elections, Republicans have pinned their woes on the president.
"People expect a level of performance they are not getting," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, said in a speech. Many were livid that Bush waited until after the elections to oust Rumsfeld.
"If Rumsfeld had been out, you bet it would have made a difference," Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said on television. "I'd still be chairman of the Judiciary Committee."
And so, in what some saw as a rebuke, Senate Republicans restored Trent Lott of Mississippi to their leadership four years after the White House helped orchestrate his ouster, with some saying they could no longer place their faith entirely in Bush.
Some insiders said the White House invited the backlash. "Anytime anyone holds themselves up as holy, they're judged by a different standard," said David Kuo, a former deputy director of the Bush White House's faith-based initiatives who wrote "Tempting Faith," a book that accused the White House of pandering to Christian conservatives. "And at the end of the day, this was a White House that held itself up as holy."
In an interview last week, Perle said the administration's big mistake was occupying the country rather than creating an interim Iraqi government led by a coalition of exile groups to take over after Saddam Hussein was toppled.
"If I had known that the US was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I'd say, 'Let's not do it,' " and instead find another way to target Saddam Hussein, Perle said. "It was a foolish thing to do."
White House officials tend to brush off each criticism by claiming it was over-interpreted or misguided.
Others close to the White House said the neoconservatives are dealing with their own sense of guilt over how events have turned out and are eager to blame Bush to avoid their own culpability.
Joshua Muravchik, a neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute, said he is distressed "to see neocons turning on Bush" but said he believes they should admit mistakes and openly discuss what went wrong. "All of us who supported the war have to share some of the blame for that."