Tracing the roots of America's war in Iraq
'Neocon' architects of a muscular US policy eye more regime changes in the region.
In speeches that were lambasted by the foreign-policy establishment of the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and called for a "global campaign for democracy."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Liberal critics called his comments extremist and dangerous. George Kennan, architect of America's containment policy toward communism, said that such rhetoric would produce "endless war" and "disqualifies the US from active participation in the world."
But for a group of young staffers in and around the Pentagon - who are now top advisers in the Bush administration - these fighting words were gold. Weary of what they saw as the weakness and indecision of the Carter years, they believed in American destiny and a more "muscular" American role in the world. Nor did they mind going it alone. In fact, they welcomed it.
Many of these Reagan-era hard-liners found no place in the first Bush administration, or the Clinton years that followed it. But now, under George W. Bush, they have helped craft what may be the boldest rethinking of national security policy since the 1940s - a policy that is now leading US troops into the streets of Baghdad, and possibly beyond.
Just this past weekend, Paul Wolfowitz, arguably the most visible of these so-called neoconservatives, made the rounds from one Sunday talk show to another. The topic of the moment was how to rebuild Iraq, but he looked further: "There's got to be a change in Syria," he said on one show.
Whether they prove to be visionary or reckless, the ideas of these "neocons" appear likely to shape not just the future of Iraq but also America's role and image in the world for years to come.
"It's a profound intellectual debate with great consequences," says Jay Winik, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.
At the heart of their worldview is a conviction that American power and democratic values can be a force for good - even if applied without the blessing of international institutions or local cultures.
A far cry from the "humble" foreign policy that Mr. Bush promised in his 2000 campaign for president, the claims for "democratic imperialism" were boosted by the attacks on 9/11. To be safe from terrorism, the US must promote a world that shares American values, supporters say.
Defense officials and civilian advisers close to the Pentagon are already signaling the possibility of a widening scope in the region.
"Iraq is just one battle in a larger war.... bringing down the regime in Iran is the central act, because Iran is the world's most dangerous terrorist country," said Michael Ledeen, a former Reagan adviser who is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute at a briefing the first week of the war. The words "United Nations" and even "State Department" are laugh lines at the AEI's signature "black-coffee briefings" on the war.
To critics, the emboldened US posture is a formula for regional resentment and increasing US isolation in the world.
"Our friends in the region won't become more democratic; they'll have to be more repressive to deal with the consequences of a long-term American occupation," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.
"This is a very different administration than that of Bush the father," Mr. Zogby adds. "In the past we've used diplomacy and containment and the building of alliances to strengthen ourselves and our allies against those who oppose us."
The prospect of a broader agenda beyond the war in Iraq alarms many in the US Congress, as well as allies in the "coalition of the willing" and some in the Bush administration. They signed on to what they thought was a single goal - regime change in Iraq. The resulting nation-building effort by itself could require years of involvement by America and other nations.
"I chair every closed briefing. This is not about Iran, it's about getting those [Iraqi] weapons of mass destruction. Period," says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia.