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."
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.
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.
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."