HILLA, Iraq

It was a classic Paul Wolfowitz moment: He was speaking at a new women's rights center here nine days ago when someone asked for his advice on writing an Iraqi constitution. Wolfowitz, the professor turned Pentagon war planner, began quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's theories about democracy to the residents of this ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River.

"There are people in the world who say that Arabs can't build democracy," Wolfowitz told the crowd. "I think that's nonsense. You have a chance to prove them wrong. So please do it."

That interaction captured the missing element in many analyses of the Iraq conflict. Commentators in Europe and the Arab world write darkly about America's designs on Iraqi oil, or a conspiracy to enrich Vice President Cheney's old friends at Halliburton, or a plot to help Israel. It would be nice, in a weird way, if the Iraq war were anchored to such worldly interests. But it isn't.

The reality is that this may be the most idealistic war fought in modern times -- a war whose only coherent rationale, for all the misleading hype about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda terrorists, is that it toppled a tyrant and created the possibility of a democratic future. It was a war of choice, not necessity, and one driven by ideas, not merely interests. In that sense, the paradigmatic figure of the war is Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and the Bush administration's idealist in chief.

I traveled through Iraq with Wolfowitz on the whirlwind trip last weekend that concluded with a rocket attack Sunday on the hotel where we were staying in Baghdad. For people watching on television, that assault may have conveyed the vulnerability, and perhaps futility, of America's mission: We keep trying to help the Iraqis, it seems, and they keep shooting missiles back at us.

But seen through Wolfowitz's eyes, the rocket attack was just a blip -- no more daunting than the car bombs, assassinations and ambushes that are daily facts of life here for U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. More important to Wolfowitz were the dozens of Iraqis and Americans he met who are risking their lives for the U.S. mission and the ideals that Wolfowitz holds dear. In that sense, the trip was fuel for Wolfowitz's intellectual engine.

As we were flying back to Washington in a lumbering C-17, I asked Wolfowitz if he ever worried that he was too idealistic -- that his passion for the noble goals of the Iraq war might overwhelm the prudence and pragmatism that normally guide war planners. He didn't answer directly, except to say that it was a good question. And it's a starting point for some reflections on Wolfowitz and his war, seven bloody months after U.S. troops invaded Iraq.

Wolfowitz is a rare animal in Washington -- a genuine intellectual in a top policymaking job. He was dean of the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University before taking his current Pentagon post, and he has the kind of curious mind that makes him as good a listener as talker. He is also a man who for more than a decade, ever since he served as ambassador to Indonesia, has been fascinated with the Muslim world.

That passion undercuts the widespread notion that Wolfowitz is simply a neoconservative tool of Israel. He is instead a kind of amateur Orientalist: He reads about the Arab world, bleeds for its oppression and dreams of liberating it. He seeks out Arab intellectuals who can advise him on policy, and he says he opposes Israeli settlements. Wolfowitz, as an outsider, may romanticize the Arab world, but there's no denying his intellectual interest.

His idealism about the potential for change in the Middle East was on display throughout his recent trip. He told the gathering at the women's rights center in Hilla, for example, that democracy wasn't just about elections -- which are somewhat discredited in Arab countries by the experiences of Egypt, Jordan and even Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Ultimately, he argued, democracy was about justice.

"To Americans, the most important thing about democracy is to guarantee human rights and justice for all," he said. At other stops, he made a similar pitch about the role of courts and legal institutions in a free society.

Wolfowitz's emphasis on justice emerged in part from conversations he had in September with Jamil Mroue, publisher of the Daily Star in Beirut. Over a four-hour dinner in Washington, Mroue argued that if America simply stressed security in Iraq, it would be no different than the authoritarian rulers who govern in the name of security throughout the Arab world. The missing ingredient was justice, said Mroue. Taken with the argument, Wolfowitz arranged for Mroue to meet with his top aides.

Mroue is only one Arab influence on Wolfowitz's thinking. Wolfowitz's initial mentor on Iraq was Ahmed Chalabi, the long-exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a man with powerful ties to the neoconservative establishment in Washington. A brilliant if abrasive intellectual, Chalabi helped convince Wolfowitz that the Iraqi people longed for liberation and would rally behind an American invasion.

Chalabi had a receptive audience. Wolfowitz, as under secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, had advocated toppling Hussein after the first Gulf War in 1991. He thought then and for most of the '90s that the regime could be overthrown by Iraqi insurgents, without sending U.S. troops to Baghdad. But after 9/11, Wolfowitz decided it was too dangerous to wait, and began arguing forcefully within the administration for an Iraq invasion.

The once close relationship between the administration and Chalabi has cooled, in part because of Chalabi's inability to get along with the head of the U.S. occupation authority, L. Paul Bremer III. (Indeed, President Bush is said to have used crude language in expressing his anger toward Chalabi in a conversation in September with Jordan's King Abdullah. Chalabi professes to be unconcerned about his new unpopularity in Washington. "Do you know that Adenauer was arrested by the British in 1945?" he told me at a reception in Baghdad a week ago, referring to the man who eventually became the architect of postwar Germany, Konrad Adenauer.)

The Iraqis who matter to Wolfowitz now are the indigenous leaders who can take over responsibility for Iraq's governance and security. Here, too, Wolfowitz's views were shaped by a conversation with an Arab intellectual -- a Lebanese professor and former cabinet minister named Ghassan Salame, who outlined a plan for a rapid transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis when he met with Wolfowitz for two hours in September. Much of Wolfowitz's schedule a week ago was meant to highlight this new strategy. Wolfowitz visited Iraqi police stations in Hilla, Kirkuk and Baghdad, and a Civil Defense Corps training camp in Tikrit.

At each stop, he argued that only the Iraqis can provide security for their country. That is undoubtedly true, but I suspect that Wolfowitz may be overly optimistic about how quickly the new security forces will be ready to take over from American troops. The Iraqis recruits are courageous and well-meaning -- but at this point they are no match for the insurgents.

Still, Wolfowitz feels an almost visceral sense of loyalty to his Iraqi allies. And that helps explain why he is so determined to stay the course. Everywhere he went he saw reminders of the cost Iraqis have paid. The Hilla meeting, for example, was chaired by a local leader, Iskander Witwit, who lost 34 members of his family to Hussein's forces after the 1991 Shiite uprising in southern Iraq. Witwit carries with him a photo of his late brother, who was decapitated by Hussein, to remind himself what he's fighting for.

Wolfowitz asked the audience in Hilla how many had lost close relatives to Hussein's secret police. About half the people in the room raised their hands.

The Pentagon number two also stopped near Kirkuk for a moving visit to a site where U.S. troops had been ambushed days before. He heard the story of how Lt. David Bernstein, a young officer who graduated eighth in his class at West Point, died saving the life of one of his men. His voice heavy with emotion, Wolfowitz told the commander of the unit that had been ambushed, "We're going to win this."

Wolfowitz's Iraq is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died fighting for the dream of a free Iraq. That's the paradox of intellectuals in politics -- the abstract ideals they preach become encrusted with the blood of those who fight to make them real.

I find it impossible to fault on moral grounds the case for toppling Saddam Hussein last March, and for staying the course now. America did a good deed in liberating Iraqis from a tyrannical regime. But Hussein never posed the sort of imminent danger to America that administration rhetoric implied, and Wolfowitz must share the blame for exaggerating that threat. However dubious the arguments for war may seem in retrospect, I believe it would be wrong to abandon Iraq now, when a relatively small number of insurgents are waging a ruthless campaign to subvert the change and reconstruction that most Iraqis seem to want.

One lesson of this painful year is that too much moralizing is dangerous in statecraft. The idealism of a Wolfowitz must be tempered by some very hard-headed judgments about how to protect U.S. interests. Wolfowitz said in an interview with a Vanity Fair reporter earlier this year that he was a "practical idealist" and that, for him, policymaking wasn't "just a matter of doing business and being sensible." His commitment to principle is admirable, but sound policy can't be premised on the dream of human perfectibility, in Iraq or anywhere else.

America's problems in Iraq stem in large part from wishful thinking, and Wolfowitz and his colleagues must be careful to avoid any more of it now as they try to craft a sustainable strategy. What worries me most after touring Iraq with Wolfowitz is how little the U.S. forces know about their adversaries here. Pressed at a briefing about who is controlling the resistance, a general answered, "We don't have the intelligence to lay this out on a chart." That was chilling.

Now that the going is difficult in Iraq, the Bush administration needs to think more with its head and less with its heart. The idealists can win this war, but only if they act with brutally honest pragmatism.

Author's e-mail:

davidignatius@washpost.com

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Post and a former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during his news conference after the attack on the al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.