WASHINGTON — When Baghdad fell, Paul D. Wolfowitz was looking ahead, already well into executing a plan for postwar Iraq.
Credited as one of the chief intellectual architects -- a term he dislikes -- of removing the Iraqi regime, Wolfowitz had much at stake in the war, but more in peace.
By toppling Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon's No. 2 official said in a series of interviews with The Times before and during the war, the United States was not seeking to create a "domino effect" that would topple the kings of the Arab nations on the Persian Gulf, but a "demonstration effect" -- even an "inspirational effect" -- that would be felt by citizens as far away as Morocco.
Wolfowitz sees the military conquest of Iraq as a lesson to regimes that threaten U.S. interests and envisions democratizing Iraq as a model for an undemocratic Arab world.
Although he insists that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term occupation of Iraq, Wolfowitz sees the possibility of putting U.S. bases in what he is convinced will be a newly friendly Persian Gulf nation. He argues that would allow the number of troops to shrink to fewer than before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"The real point is that removing this regime will be so liberating for the United States in the Persian Gulf," he said. "Our whole footprint can be much lighter without an Iraqi threat."
The audacity of the vision has provoked criticism at home and abroad, and debate even within the administration.
"Iraq is an underdeveloped country with severe ethnic tensions and contested borders," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public policy group. "So Wolfowitz's aspiration for Iraq is much to be desired, but far from assured."
Administration officials are looking north for a model for postwar Iraq, to an autonomous Kurdish territory that Wolfowitz describes as the best example of a transition from a military occupation in 15 years. The establishment of Kurdistan was overseen by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the man now in charge of creating an interim government in post-Hussein Iraq. Garner and his team established the Kurdish enclave in six months after the Gulf War, backed by less than one division of U.S. Army light infantry.
Wolfowitz insists that his vision of a postwar Iraq, a postwar Middle East and his world view have been widely misunderstood by critics who cast him as one of the administration's leading hawks.
"The problems in Iraq are huge, and I'm sometimes perceived as being this wild-eyed optimist. It's only in comparison to people who say it's a hopeless basket case and nothing good could ever happen," Wolfowitz, 59, said over coffee at the Georgetown Four Seasons before the war.
Outside, sign-toting protesters passed by the window after an antiwar rally that drew 10,000 to the National Mall. "I don't see why the Iraqis can't do as well as the Romanians have done. That's not wild-eyed optimism," Wolfowitz said.
Wolfowitz often cites Romania because it was a home-grown dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu. Unlike in Iraq, the Romanian dictator was overthrown by his own people. With its oil wealth and a comparatively well-educated citizenry, Iraq may offer more promise than Romania, he added.
Wolfowitz has consulted with the Czech foreign minister and others in "New Europe" on destroying the organs of party dictatorship -- what would be "de-Baathification" -- in Iraq.
Those nations, he said, know how to turn a Stalinist economy into a free-market system, how to destroy the apparatus of the state secret police, and how to decide what level of complicity in the preceding repressive regime should disqualify officials from serving in the new government. Americans with no experience in such matters, by contrast, "can get played for suckers sometimes," Wolfowitz said.
There is a symmetry to Wolfowitz looking to Eastern Europe for a model. His father, statistician Jacob Wolfowitz, fled Poland in 1920 at the age of 10 to escape anti-Semitism and repression, an experience that instilled in his son an abhorrence for "how horrible repressive regimes can be," said a close relative, who asked not to be named.
The makeup of the interim government remains an open question. A planeload of Iraqi exiles -- "free Iraqis" in Pentagon parlance -- has landed in Iraq, a group dominated by Shiite Muslims opposed to Hussein's Sunni regime. Leading the group is Ahmad Chalabi, head of the London-based Iraqi National Congress. Wolfowitz, who disputes the widely held view that he is one of Chalabi's staunchest supporters in the administration, said the controversial businessman will not be given the same presumptive leadership status U.S. officials accorded to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.