Four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz made a forceful case to President Bush for expanding the war on terrorism to include the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

At the time, many people in Washington, including some senior members of the Bush administration, thought that Wolfowitz was way out on a limb. A year and a half later, Wolfowitz's long-held dream of ridding the world of a leader he regards as one of the cruelest of modern-day despots and a direct threat to the security of the United States seems on the point of being realized.

But getting rid of Hussein was only part of the Wolfowitz vision. With U.S. forces poised on the outskirts of Baghdad, an even bigger, and in some ways more controversial, challenge now awaits: creating a free, stable and democratic Iraq that will serve as an inspiration to its neighbors.

Wolfowitz's fervent belief in what he calls "the power of the democratic idea" -- and its applicability to a part of the world better known for authoritarian regimes, many of them closely allied to Washington -- has won him both admirers and detractors.

To his supporters, Wolfowitz is a visionary thinker, a tough-minded intellectual with a streak of idealism. While emphasizing that he was not alone in calling for the United States to confront Hussein, they credit him with helping to devise a daring strategy for the Iraqi leader's overthrow that will reshape the politics of the Middle East in a way that will be hugely beneficial for the United States.

To his critics, the former international relations dean at Johns Hopkins University is an ambitious ideologue, whose theories about democracy-building in the Arab world are at once naive and dangerous. They fear that the end result of the Wolfowitz doctrine is more likely to be an upsurge of anti-Americanism around the world and a flood of recruits for Osama bin Laden.

Largely as a result of his decade-long effort to lay the intellectual groundwork for Hussein's overthrow, Wolfowitz has become "probably the best-known deputy secretary of defense in recent memory," a top White House aide said. His influence within the administration as a shaper of national security strategy far exceeds his second-tier rank in the bureaucratic hierarchy. More than any other senior administration official, his own political fortunes are closely tied to Hussein's demise.

"I've met quite a few dictators up close and personal in my life," Wolfowitz said, listing the former leaders of the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea. Hussein, he said, is in an "entirely different league" because of the totalitarian nature of the society he created and the fear that he still inspires among many Iraqis.

In the Arab world, and much of Europe, Wolfowitz is often talked about as the leading light of a small band of neo-conservative thinkers who have allegedly hijacked U.S. foreign policy and launched it in dangerous new directions. A senior figure in the Democratic Party's foreign policy establishment, who declined to be quoted by name, argued that Wolfowitz has achieved his eminence by ensuring that he is always "the most conservative, hard-line person in the room, and that no one is to his right politically."

In an hour-long interview in his Pentagon office as U.S. forces closed in on Baghdad, and a telephone conversation yesterday, Wolfowitz took issue with "some very harmful, inaccurate caricatures" that, he said, misrepresent his ideas and the intentions of the Bush administration. He said he dislikes such labels as "hawk" and "neo-conservative" because "I don't think they fit me very well. I certainly don't like a label that suggests I believe that the military is the solution to most of the world's problems."

The principal reason for going after Hussein, Wolfowitz argued, was the direct threat the Iraqi leader posed to U.S. national security through his possession of weapons of mass destruction. But he made clear that he thinks the overthrow of a brutal dictatorship in Iraq, and its replacement by even a half-decent regime, will have beneficial effects throughout the Arab world.

"He is a revolutionary, in a way," said former left-wing firebrand Christopher Hitchens, who figures on an eclectic list of Wolfowitz admirers, drawn up by Wolfowitz aides, that ranges from former secretary of state George Shultz to leaders of the Iraqi-American community. Hitchens said he likes Wolfowitz precisely because he is willing to "make war on the status quo" in the Middle East and destroy a "fascistic regime" in Iraq even if it means "quarrelling with the Saudis, the Turks, a chunk of the oil lobby here, and part of the American right."

Hishal Melhem, a leading Arab journalist who recently interviewed Wolfowitz for the satellite news station Al Arabiya, said: "It takes my breath away when I think about the scale of the transformation that [Wolfowitz and others] are trying to achieve in the Middle East. It is so radical, so optimistic, so audacious. It is a new American imperium. . . . They are going to create an earthquake in Iraq that will reverberate throughout the region."

'Something to Overcome'

Wolfowitz's preoccupation -- some say obsession -- with Saddam Hussein goes back to his first stint at the Pentagon, between 1977 and 1980, when he was asked to analyze military threats in the Persian Gulf region, particularly to oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Other officials focused on the threat from Iran, then in the throes of an Islamic revolution, and the Soviet Union. Wolfowitz thought the main threat came from Iraq, and called for the United States to pre-position military equipment in the region for use in a conflict.

A still-secret Pentagon paper Wolfowitz authored in 1979 included the line, "It seems likely that we and Iraq will increasingly be at odds."

For much of the 1980s, U.S. policy tilted toward Baghdad, which was seen as a barrier to the spread of Iranian-style fundamentalism.

But Wolfowitz's prediction proved prescient in August 1990 when Hussein invaded Kuwait. At the time, Wolfowitz was serving as undersecretary of defense for policy. He said he was dismayed by the U.S. unwillingness to support an uprising by southern Iraqi Shiites at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War that drove Iraq from Kuwait, and particularly the unwillingness to shoot down Iraqi military helicopters that were used to terrorize the rebels.

The failed 1991 uprising, Wolfowitz suggested, goes a long way in explaining why Iraqis have been cautious about openly expressing enthusiasm for U.S. military forces since they invaded the country 2 1/2 weeks ago. "The main complaint against us . . . is that we abandoned them in 1991," he said. "I think that will be something to overcome."

'Off the Mark'

As it became clear that Hussein was playing a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors enforcing the 1991 armistice, Wolfowitz became a leading proponent of again using U.S. military force against Iraq. His initial idea was to create a "liberated zone" in southern Iraq, protected by U.S. air power, to which Iraqi forces could defect. His views ran counter to the option favored by the majority of the foreign policy establishment, including many leading Republicans, who maintained that Hussein could be contained by "no-fly" zones and international sanctions, and by the presence of thousands of U.S. troops on Iraq's borders.

After Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed. It was then that Bush decided, in a phrase he used recently, that "the doctrine of containment just doesn't hold any water," at least in the case of Iraq. At a meeting at Camp David on Sept. 15, 2001, Wolfowitz alarmed such bureaucratic rivals as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell by arguing in favor of confronting Iraq earlier rather than later.

Although he declined to personalize the dispute, Wolfowitz said he had the feeling "that the people who were saying Iraq later were really saying Iraq never. . . . They kept saying more time, more time, and increasingly it's clear they just mean live with the situation."

Wolfowitz's attempts to link Hussein to al Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist network, and to paint a generally rosy picture of post-Hussein Iraq, have put him at odds with part of the uniformed military. One now-retired general who worked closely with Wolfowitz after Sept. 11 depicted him as much less abrasive than his boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but overly "aggressive" and "imaginative" in his interpretation of often-ambiguous intelligence findings.

Wolfowitz was recently involved in a rare public dispute with the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who estimated that hundreds of thousands of troops may be needed to occupy Iraq after Hussein's overthrow. "Wildly off the mark," was Wolfowitz's comment. Some senior military officers suspect that Wolfowitz was worried that public support for an invasion of Iraq could be undermined by too frank a discussion about the long-term costs.

Enlisted by Pentagon officials to address these criticisms last week, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, steered clear of the controversy. He said the size of the occupation force is simply "not knowable . . . because we don't know how much damage we are going to do to that country to free that country." While conceding that "some people" felt that Wolfowitz had "a predisposition" to believe the worst of Hussein, Pace said the war plan relied on solid intelligence.

"He is very smart," Pace said of Wolfowitz. "He has the courage of his convictions to say what he believes to be the truth, even if it runs counter to what others may be saying."

Wolfowitz's friends and allies say that the depiction of him as an ultra-hawk, close to the Israeli lobby, is unfair and inaccurate. They note that he was booed at a huge pro-Israel rally in April 2002 when he talked about the suffering of Palestinians as well as Israelis.

"He is surprisingly pragmatic, given the public perceptions about him," said Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a longtime friend and chief of staff to Vice President Cheney. "He has a mental agility that enables him to get there in ways that other people don't see at first."

'High Point'

Wolfowitz's father, a brilliant mathematician whose family fled anti-Semitism in Poland and lost many relatives in the Holocaust, instilled in him a hatred of totalitarianism and a belief in the United States' power to do good. His later intellectual odyssey is about as close as one gets to a classic neo-conservative trajectory.

As a senior in high school in Upstate New York, Wolfowitz said he stuck out as a supporter of John F. Kennedy. He studied political philosophy at the University of Chicago under Albert Wohlstetter, the nuclear terror theorist who was an inspiration, along with Henry Kissinger, for the film "Dr. Strangelove." That led to work for Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a hawkish Washington state Democrat known as "Scoop" who believed in using U.S. power for humanitarian purposes.

After serving at the Pentagon during the Carter administration, Wolfowitz remained a registered Democrat until he joined the Reagan administration as head of policy planning at the State Department. He said it was not he who changed his political philosophy so much as the Democratic Party, which abandoned the hard-headed internationalism of Harry Truman, Kennedy and Jackson.

By Wolfowitz's account, the pivotal moment in his early political career came in 1985 when, as assistant secretary of state for Asia, he helped distance the Reagan administration from Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. His office wall at the Pentagon is adorned with pictures from that period, including one taken in the White House the day Marcos was overthrown, depicting an exhausted-looking Wolfowitz sitting in the background as President Ronald Reagan was briefed on developments in the crisis.

"I actually thought it probably was the high point of my career," Wolfowitz said. "I never expected to do anything as interesting or as important" again.

When Wolfowitz talks about building democracy in Iraq after the overthrow of Hussein, he often does so through the prism of his own experiences in Asia, not just in the Philippines but also in Indonesia, where he was ambassador from 1986 to 1988. Some argue that it is a misleading comparison. The People Power Revolution that toppled Marcos was largely indigenous, in contrast to Iraq, where a post-Hussein government will arrive in the exhaust of American tanks.

The Philippines also had some experience with democracy, said Stephen Bosworth, who was ambassador to Manila at the time of Marcos's overthrow. In Iraq, democracy will have to be built almost from scratch.

Bosworth, who is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, also provides a somewhat different account of Wolfowitz's role in distancing the United States from Marcos. For a long time, he said, Wolfowitz and other senior Reagan administration officials took the view that "Marcos is a major part of the problem, but first we must make him part of the solution. . . . His initial instinct was to work with Marcos. There did not seem to be any alternative."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Wolfowitz as being "well ahead of the curve" in the internal administration debate over what to do about Marcos. He said Wolfowitz's views about Iraq appeared to be motivated by "high idealism" and "concern for human rights."

"I have never seen so much loose thinking about democracy," countered Thomas Carothers, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied U.S. democracy-building efforts worldwide. "The idea that you can produce a democratic tidal wave throughout the Arab world is a dangerous fantasy. What we are ending up producing is incredible hatred."

'Desire for Freedom'

Wolfowitz acknowledged that every country is different, and Iraq is not the Philippines. He said post-Hussein Iraq may have more in common with Romania after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, the most megalomaniac of East European communist leaders who was toppled from power in 1989. He noted that Romania's progress toward democracy has been uneven, but that the country has done "a lot better than one would have predicted" for a society thoroughly infiltrated by the secret police.

In Iraq's case, Wolfowitz said, memories of the Hussein dictatorship may provide "a unifying force." They may lead people to say, "Wait a minute, remember what it was like when we fell to quarrelling with each other, or when we let the army get too strong, or when we let decisions be made by force."

In a speech in October about the future of Iraq, Wolfowitz described how the demise of Hussein's "despotic regime" would promote the "ageless desire for freedom" throughout the Middle East. Some of the ideas he expressed in that speech reappeared in a presidential address to the American Enterprise Institute in February in which Bush spoke about post-Hussein Iraq as "a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

Wolfowitz is guarded about how far the democracy process should go, or how the United States would react if anti-American governments come to power in such authoritarian countries as Egypt or Saudi Arabia as the result of free elections. He said he favors "a case-by-case approach."

For the moment, he seems to be thinking about much more modest changes, along the lines of those that the Reagan administration urged on Marcos before his fall from power. He described his philosophy as "evolutionary rather than revolutionary." Egypt does not have to hold free elections tomorrow, he said, but it could make a start by not throwing prominent human rights activists in jail.

For the Arab world not to change at all, Wolfowitz said, is "a formula for eventual catastrophe."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, right, and Gen. Peter Pace discuss the war Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."