Any US effort to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could end up changing much more than one nation's governing regime.
In fact, some administration officials believe that a successful anti-Hussein operation could tip the geopolitical balance of the entire Middle East in the US favor. It might spread democracy throughout a region that has seldom experienced it before, optimists say, while easing Israeli-Palestinian violence and lowering the price of oil, in the bargain.
In contrast, pessimists hold that a move against Hussein could light fires throughout one of the most flammable areas of the world, threatening pro-Western autocrats in Jordan and Saudi Arabia while turning ordinary Arabs against America for years to come.
Much depends on how the campaign against Hussein develops from here. But right now it seems possible that, one way or another, US intervention in Iraq could be a defining geopolitical event equal in import to the fall of the Shah of Iran or the 1967 Arab- Israeli War.
"What [the Bush administration] has in mind is a broad vision ... which really involves changing the character of the Middle East," says Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.
In Washington it's clear that the faction of the administration most interested in pursuing military action against Saddam Hussein has goals for change that goes beyond Iraq's borders.
In a speech in August, Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the removal of the threat posed by Saddam would lessen tensions throughout the Middle East, including those between Israel and surrounding hostile Arab states. Those interested in more freedom and democracy in the region would find their hand strengthened, Cheney argued before the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Projections for such positive developments rest crucially on two things: the nature of any post-Saddam Iraqi government, and the way surrounding nations view such a new regime.
Iraq, like virtually all nations in the region, has no history of democracy. Its current borders are a creation of British colonial rulers, who melded together areas dominated by Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and other sometimes antagonistic groups into one state.
But Iraq also has a generally well-educated urban population and a tradition of entrepreneurship. Optimists say that democracy and capitalism could thrive there if allowed to take root.
"[Iraqis] have the potential to be the Japanese of the Middle East," says Jay Davis, national security fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and a former UNSCOM inspector in Iraq.
With a beachhead in Iraq, democracy might then spread throughout the region, in the view of some in the administration. In particular it might lead to more openness and accountability in the Palestinian Authority, and a corresponding Israeli receptivity to a renewed peace process.
By sending money to the families of suicide bombers and generally urging Palestinian extremists to confront Israel, Saddam has contributed to the cycle of israeli-Palestinian violence. His elimination alone could brighten prospects there for peace.
It might also make Saudi Arabia less important to the United States. Iraq could serve as a Gulf region base, replacing US installations on the Saudi peninsula. Iraqi oil reserves could replace Saudi ones in the US geopolitical calculation.
"The goal at the moment is Iraq, but the ripple effects of this mean that, for the first time, one will have an American relationship to the Middle East based on the interests of the populations in the region, as opposed to dealing with autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt," said Kanan Makiya, a noted Iraqi dissident and Brandeis professor of foreign relations, following a conference of Iraq opposition figures near London on Sept. 6.
Of course, similar optimistic projections of regional change were after the first Gulf War, over ten years ago. Few came to pass. James Baker, then-Secretary of State, made a concerted push for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question in the year following the US victory, for instance. Progress was but incremental.
Some go so far as to call the optimistic outlook overly romantic the unrealistic dream of Cheney of Arabia. Iraqi ethnic factions are so hostile they could make a post-Saddam Iraq a seething political caldron. Afghanistan, by contrast, might look as serene as Vermont.
Surrounding nations, fearing for their own safety due to the instability across the Iraqi border, might well become more autocratic, not less. Turkey fears Kurdish claims on its territory, for instance. Iran, which fought a grinding war against Iraq in the 1980s, fears its reemergence as a strategic competitor.
Palestinian extremists, seeing the loss of a prime backer and the rise of the US in the region, could become even more violent. Their rage could sweep into Jordan, threatening a key US ally whose population is generally pro-Hussein.
"If we have any illusions about this ... transforming the Middle East into a democratic place, let's think about that a little more," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, during testimony before the Senator Foreign Relations Committee last month.