America's swift victory in Iraq and President Bush's increasingly ambitious vision for US foreign policy are together causing a fresh look at an old subject - the Age of the American "empire."
A domestic-oriented president who came into office deriding nation building and advocating a "humble" role for America in the world has been transformed into one of the most interventionist presidents in history. Some of his recent rhetoric is drawing comparisons to Woodrow Wilson, who nearly a century ago set out a gauzy vision for bettering the world through the spread of moral imperatives.
In part the new scrutiny of America's role in the world is the result of the US setting up its tutorial shop in another Islamic country. In part it emanates from vying visions in the State Department and Pentagon of how to use America's unmatched global power.
But the central source of the new focus is the president himself, a man who once ran a baseball team in Texas and who has now become a born-again global crusader - in a way seen only a few times over the course of a century.
"This is one of those defining moments for our country and its role in the world, and it's being overseen by a president who came into office very skeptical about nation building ...," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington. "Supporting freedom everywhere has always been an American principle, but the way one goes about it makes a difference and it's where the debate comes in."
The US's expanding footprint will be on display again Friday as the president sets out on an ambitious overseas trip. He will take in regions where US presidents before him left their mark. In Western Europe, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman undertook what are now recognized, along with postwar Japan, as America's finest legacies of foreign reconstruction. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Bush will follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy and especially Ronald Reagan, remembered for his own moral imperative, issued from Berlin to his Soviet counterpart: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
But Bush's most ambitious and riskiest stop will be in Jordan, where he is to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He will press for progress in a conflict that has been a place of triumph and a quagmire for many US presidents.
The roots and motivations behind Bush's transformation to global activist, and how the public views the return of an interventionist America, are issues that will gain in relevance as the US pursues a transformation not only of Iraq but of the Middle East. They will also help determine whether Bush faces better prospects than Wilson did with his doomed vision in 1916.
When Bush proclaimed on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier earlier this month that "Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food, and water, and air," it did not sound like the 2000 presidential candidate who criticized contemporary uses of the military to restore civil order to war-torn countries.
As US soldiers try to bring order to Baghdad and other cities so Iraqi children can return to school, it conjures up a memorable quote from Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice: "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten," the then-campaign aide said in an October 2000 interview with The New York Times.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are widely cited as the impetus for Bush's conversion to an interventionist foreign policy. The attacks gave a national-security imperative to a more muscular US approach. As a result, spreading American values like democracy and personal freedoms as part of national security has a coherence that Clinton-era interventions lacked, some experts say.
The attacks also forced average Americans to think beyond PTA meetings and parochial concerns. "What we now call homeland security and national security have blended," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign policy expert at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "Americans no longer have the luxury of ignoring foreign policy, as is our wont."
The turn in foreign policy to more idealistic interventionism also has roots elsewhere, experts say: from a trip Bush, as a little-traveled Texas governor, took to Israel in 1998, to the neoconservative-inspired national security strategy the White House released last fall.
After visiting Israel, Bush enthusiastically described the trip to friends as a life-changing experience. As for the national-security document, which outlined the so-called Bush doctrine, most attention was paid to two elements: its call for preemptive military strikes against threatening enemies, rather than waiting for an attack to happen; and its commitment to allowing no challenge to US global military superiority.
But the doctrine also emphasizes the importance of championing democratic values: It speaks of America's place in "encouraging free and open societies on every continent." It is this aspect of the strategy that is getting new attention in the wake of war.
Bush himself insists his vision has nothing to do with empire-building. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who backs a more traditional, interests-based foreign policy than what is emanating from some Pentagon cubicles, likes to point out the only land the US has ever sought to keep is the land needed to bury its dead.
Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian who worked with the Bush administration on the national security strategy, insists that while Bush is rethinking America's approach to foreign affairs - "redefining," for example, the "nexus between principles and power" - it is not with grand conquests in mind.
"We must speak of American power and of responsible ways to wield it," he writes in the spring issue of The National Interest, but "let us stop talking of American empire, for there is and there will be no such thing."
Yet Mr. Simes, who publishes The National Interest, says that "rather than being afraid to use the word 'empire,' we should engage in a serious, national discussion about what kind of empire the US will be."
While most Americans would agree with the lofty words Bush is using about spreading freedoms and prosperity around the world, Simes says the US also needs an honest debate about the costs and difficulties of pursuing these goals. Without that, he says, the US risks slipping into imperial policies - especially with ambitious "interventionists" gaining influence in the White House.
He cites an article by Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in which he writes: "It is impossible to win the war on terrorism so long as the regimes in Syria and Iran remain in power. So now what? The short answer is regime change."
Regime change in Iraq was not always the goal of Mr. Powell's State Department. But it was always the key to both successfully waging the war on terrorism and reforming the Middle East, according to neoconservative thinkers like Mr. Ledeen and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
That has raised questions about who is running American foreign policy - and about how deep Bush's commitment to the new interventionism runs. "A cynic would say the president's idealistic words are really camouflage for a much more realist policy," says Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. "It still looks like we're trying to get away on the cheap in Iraq. I don't see the commitment to the time and troops it would take to really rebuild and remake [the country]. What that says to me," he adds, "is that the Pentagon is making foreign policy in this administration."
Others, however, view it differently. They believe Bush, having studied how Mr. Reagan came to be seen as the victor in the cold war, has set out to build his own legacy based on winning the terror war. And doing that, the thinking goes, means above all refashioning the Mideast.
Yet the president also seems restrained at times by political pragmatism. For more than two years, for instance, he hesitated diving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - even when much of the world was begging for it. It's that kind of realism that tells Mr. Wright that America is not on the verge of an age of empire - at least not in the classic sense.
"It wouldn't be an old-fashioned empire in the British mold. The influence would be exerted more subtly," he says. Still, "So long as we have troops in another country and we're pulling the strings of government, it's a charge you can't curtly dismiss."
What bothers Wright and others who question the interventionist motivations is that empire, or imperialism, is what much of the rest of the world sees.
Still uncertain is how much the US public will embrace a vigorous new role for America in the world. Traditionally American pragmatism - concerns about costs in lives and finances - has limited global cop-playing, no matter how noble the intentions.
The public isn't rebellious yet, especially after a war that cost relatively few US lives and is viewed by a majority as having been "the right thing to do," according to a poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. "As long as casualties are low and the economy is OK, the public will give Bush a pass on this[new interventionism]" says Wright. "They like the rhetoric."