Moments after the Persian Gulf War was halted, Bill Kristol got a call from columnist Charles Krauthammer, and both were fuming over what they saw as unfinished business.
"I was one of those who thought we should have finished off Saddam at the end of the war," Kristol recalls. "We both agreed this was a big mistake."
As Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff, Kristol had little influence over administration policy. But over the next dozen years, in various incarnations and guises, he would mount a political, journalistic and intellectual campaign to push the government closer to the goal of regime change in Iraq.
Kristol's magazine, the Weekly Standard, has been loudly beating the war drums. He has launched a hawkish think tank that churns out petitions backed by big-name scholars and former officials. He presses his case privately with the likes of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and publicly on Fox News Channel. He teaches at Harvard, speaks to such groups as the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. And he's co-authored a new book called "The War Over Iraq."
"You have this intellectual trickle-down effect," says Gary Schmitt, who runs the Project for the New American Century, which Kristol chairs. Indeed, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen once dubbed the looming conflict "Kristol's War."
If so, he has plenty of allies. Kristol, 50, is part of an informal neoconservative network, ranging from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to former Pentagon official Richard Perle, that has been pushing for a more muscular approach against dictators like Hussein.
"It's been an example of opinion leadership -- formulating ideas in a way that would eventually connect with a much broader audience," Perle says. Kristol "filled a vacuum" in the 1990s, says Perle, when Republicans "weren't terribly interested in foreign and defense policy."
Not everyone is enamored of Kristol's role. "This is a Svengali," says Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "He and his comrades are operating a cabal. . . . They're willing to whip up passions and fear because they're so certain they must utilize this window for the war."
Part journalist, part GOP strategist, Kristol plays all the angles. The seven-year-old Standard, financed by Rupert Murdoch, is a money-losing venture with a modest circulation of 60,000. But with Kristol as editor, it has achieved an outsize degree of influence, especially since closing ranks behind President Bush's war on terrorism.
As Kristol declared in an editorial last week: "We look forward to the liberation of our own country and others from the threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and to the liberation of the Iraqi people from a brutal and sadistic tyrant."
"Prior to September 11," says Fred Barnes, the magazine's executive editor, "Iraq was an issue that an awful lot of people in politics and journalism forgot. The Weekly Standard did not."
A champion of John McCain during the 2000 primaries, Kristol has incurred the wrath of both Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"It's more of a marriage of convenience," says a White House official who insisted on anonymity. "People appreciate what he's doing. But there's still hesitation and trepidation about where Bill would stand if our interests weren't mutual."
Barnes echoes this assessment: "You know how the Bush family is -- they have long memories and bear deep grudges."
Still, Kristol remains well wired. He meets periodically with Rice, whom he first courted at Stanford University when she was provost there. Kristol, Krauthammer and a few other conservative commentators huddle privately with Karl Rove in the political czar's White House office every three months.
Kristol is close to Pete Wehner, a Rove deputy whom Kristol hired in 1985 when he was working for President Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett. Two Bush speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, worked for Kristol as Quayle speechwriters.
The normally affable Kristol gets riled when critics suggest that he, Perle and Wolfowitz, among others, are somehow pushing war with Iraq to help Israel.
That charge "really is just about the fact we are Jewish," Kristol says. He dismisses the claim "that neoconservatives, which really means Jews, hijacked the Bush administration. It's a little creepy."
As the son of two prominent New York scholars, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, the McLean resident has had his greatest impact in the world of ideas. When he founded the Standard in 1995, Kristol hired Robert Kagan, a former Reagan administration official, as a contributing editor, and they churned out editorials supporting President Clinton's stance on Bosnia. The following year the duo wrote an influential piece for the journal Foreign Affairs that called the Democrats weak on foreign policy and chided the Republicans as too isolationist.
"In the realm of foreign policy," they began, "conservatives are adrift."
The two became "the main proponents of what you might call the American greatness school," Krauthammer says, and they took their share of heat. The New Republic, for example, argued that "this sanctimonious preening is a recipe for endless and reckless intervention everywhere." But Kristol kept up the drumbeat, with a 1997 cover story in the Standard headlined: "Saddam Must Go."
"He has a certain fearlessness," says Kagan, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We spent the '90s attacking Republicans, mostly. That's not an easy thing for the editor of a conservative magazine to do, and it brought quite a lot of hostility from official Republican circles."
Out of power and out of step with many in his own party, Kristol launched the New American Century group, financed by conservative foundations, which in effect organized a hawkish cabinet in exile.
In 1998, the organization sent a petition to President Clinton that called his Iraq policy "dangerously inadequate" and said America's goal must be "removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power." It was signed not just by Perle and Bennett but by Donald Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Wolfowitz, Paula Dobriansky and Robert Zoellick -- all of whom would assume senior posts in the Bush administration.
Kristol became a major booster of McCain's presidential bid, drawn by the senator's strong support for intervening in Kosovo. "I've spent a lot of time with him over the years discussing the issues, and he's helped inform me," McCain says. But he says that Republicans haven't always appreciated Kristol's candor.
"There's a certain demand for uniformity, particularly on the right, that in my view is distasteful -- that anyone who disagrees is unfortunately branded an enemy."
Friends say Kristol has a knack for sounding reasonable, even while pushing war. "He knows how to operate behind enemy lines, in a generally liberal-dominated media world," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition official.
In the early months of the Bush administration, Kristol, who had already ticked off such GOP stalwarts as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, became something of a pariah at the White House. When Bush apologized to win the release of a U.S. flight crew detained by China, Kristol and Kagan wrote that the president had caused a "profound national humiliation."
"One of the more disreputable commentaries I've seen in a long time," said Cheney, accusing Kristol of trying to "sell magazines." Powell called the piece "absurd."
The political climate -- and Kristol's role -- changed dramatically after Sept. 11. As Bush declared war on al Qaeda and began targeting Iraq, the Standard moved into cheerleading mode. Kristol signed with Fox after being dropped as a panelist by ABC's "This Week," doggedly defending Bush on Murdoch's network.
Over the years, he says, "we were making what was then a pretty unpopular case for a foreign policy that now resembles the Bush foreign policy, post-9/11."
With U.S. forces on the verge of bombing Baghdad, this would seem to be Kristol's moment. But he insists he's just one voice among many.
"If we've had some influence, I'm happy with that influence. Everything I do is out in the open. I'm not one of the more shadowy figures in Washington."