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Tracing the roots of America's war in Iraq

'Neocon' architects of a muscular US policy eye more regime changes in the region.

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This debate is sure to pick up as US forces move toward endgame in Baghdad. Last week, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld publicly cautioned Iran and Syria to avoid "hostile acts" on behalf of Iraq or risk consequences - a warning repeated on Sunday by Mr. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense.

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Since 9/11, US aims have evolved from targeting those responsible for the attacks to eliminating weapons of mass destruction and regime change in Iraq.

Much of the intellectual groundwork for that shift was laid by a small group of advisers with a broad plan for democratic reform in the Middle East.

While Cheney and Rumsfeld are old-time conservatives, Wolfowitz and others came up through Democratic ranks as staffers in the 1970s for Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a powerful liberal Democrat who took the lead in scuttling the SALT II arms agreement with the Soviets.

They include Douglas Feith, now No. 3 at the Pentagon, and Richard Perle, who recently resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group, amid a controversy over what critics said were conflicts of interest.

Dubbed neoconservatives for their switch from the liberal Democratic camp, their paths converged in the Reagan White House in the 1980s, then again in the second Bush administration.

Their intellectual influence was felt in early decisions by Bush to scrap the Kyoto protocols on the environment and a biological weapons convention. But their views counted even more as the administration shaped its response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Within days of the attacks, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crisscrossed official Washington with a broad plan to deal with terrorism: "There is no international terrorism without the support of sovereign states," he said, referring to a position paper drafted for him in 1996 by Mssers. Perle and Feith. The attacks, he said, present a historic opportunity for the US to dismantle the regimes that support terrorism, including those in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and the leadership of the Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, as early as Sept. 16, 2001, Wolfowitz urged President Bush to deal with Saddam Hussein as a priority, according to published reports. He had raised the concern as far back as the Carter years. The idea was initially rejected by Cheney and Secretary of State Powell. But by the State of the Union in January 2002, Iraq was part of the "axis of evil" and a top US priority.

The Bush II hawks aren't always united on assumptions or strategy. Old-line conservatives such as Rumsfeld and Cheney have been deeply skeptical of "nation building" as an exercise that can tie up military capacity for years to no good end. By contrast, neocons see building democracies as an essential aspect of American leadership.

What both groups share is rejecting the view that America is constrained by weakness and indecision - qualities both ascribe to the Carter and Clinton years - or by the votes of international organizations.

"I'm rather optimistic that all of these divisions and debates in the United Nations and elsewhere will be resolved in a general recognition that high moral purpose has been achieved here," said Mr. Perle at an AEI panel last month. "The Iraqis are going to show, I believe, that they are far more capable of implementing a humane government than some people have believed."

On Capitol Hill, neocon thinkers have also influenced some members of Congress toward acceptance of a more forceful US policy. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas recalls a series of dinners at Freedom House after 9/11 to help policymakers understand the new security threats.

"What came out of this was that we were really going to have to shift policies to bring peace to this troubled region and to keep terrorism from coming to us," he says, referring to comments from AEI's Ledeen and historian Bernard Lewis, a longtime influence on neocons. "This whole effort is about change in the region, not just a regime," he says. "It is about spreading democracy, human rights, full gender participation, religious freedom, open societies.... This is not the end of the road in Iraq: We will be pressing forward."