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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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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.

The 9/11 effect on Bush

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