WASHINGTON - Among the photographs outside the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz is one where the veteran foreign policy official is flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney, his boss at the Pentagon of the first Bush administration, and his current boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Playfully signed by Cheney - "Paul, Who's the best Secretary of Defense you ever worked for? Dick" - it is more than just a picture of old friends who find themselves in the trenches together again.
In this Bush administration, it is a portrait of a powerful and disciplined team of like-minded hard-liners that is wielding extraordinary influence on foreign policy, edging into the domain of the State Department and shaping the debate on such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the specter of a U.S.-led invasion to rid Iraq and the region of Saddam Hussein.
At the ideological center of the group is Wolfowitz, former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a defense intellectual known for a muscular approach to international challenges.
"Paul conceptualizes what Rumsfeld and Cheney feel in their gut," says foreign policy analyst Lawrence Korb, a Reagan administration Pentagon official. "He is the intellect of the group. That makes him very influential - more influential than most deputy defense secretaries. And it makes them a very powerful team."
Wolfowitz's prominence offers an insight into the Bush administration's often inharmonious foreign policy-making process, in which the president has increasingly been compelled to referee between the clashing ideologies of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz Pentagon and the more dovish State Department of Colin L. Powell.
In some of the recent policy battles - most notably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dealing with Iraq - the soft-spoken, yet persuasive Brooklyn, N.Y., native appears to have leveraged himself into a singular force.
Wolfowitz's ideas can be heard in everything from Bush's aggressive State of the Union speech to, most dramatically, the shift in the administration's debate over toppling Saddam Hussein from "Shall we do it?" to "How shall we do it?"
For his part, Wolfowitz, one of Bush's foreign policy tutors during the presidential campaign, finds in the president a commander-in-chief instinctively inclined toward an assertive and hawkish world view. Sept. 11 has given more currency to Wolfowitz's long-held belief that the best defense is a strong offense, and that, when dealing with such threats as Hussein, it is wiser to move pre-emptively than risk being someday caught by surprise.
"We can't afford to wait until there's an act of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction to then find the people afterwards and catch them and round them up," Wolfowitz said in an interview in his Pentagon office, laying out the president's position. "It was bad enough with civilian airliners loaded with jet fuel. ... We can't wait until they've done it in the case of nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.
"And we can't afford to fool around for another 10 years."
The son of a prominent mathematician, Wolfowitz, 58, came to Washington nearly three decades ago along with a number of other conservative scholars who sought to challenge Henry A. Kissinger's pursuit of warmer relations with the Soviet Union.
Since then, as a veteran of six administrations - including two stints at the State Department and three at the Pentagon - he has earned a reputation as one of the GOP's chief hawks, believing that the United States, as a superpower, should use its might to try to reform other nations, help them topple their oppressive leaders and re-orient them to reflect U.S. values of democracy.
His background in East Asian affairs during the Reagan administration has made him a player in efforts to bring democratic reform to places like the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia, where he was ambassador. And for years he has spoken forcefully about the need to cultivate moderate voices in the Muslim world. But, more than anything, Wolfowitz is associated with Iraq.
As the chief policy adviser to then-Defense Secretary Cheney during the Persian Gulf war, he favored continuing the U.S. offensive and ousting Hussein, a position opposed by Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and ultimately by President George Bush, who made the decision to end the war with the Iraqi leader still in place.
"There are things, at the time, that I felt would have made sense," says Wolfowitz, asked about his position at the end of the Gulf war. "I think, with 20/20 hindsight, it's even clearer that they made sense."
Some who know him say one of the principal reasons he returned to government was to deal with Iraq and finish the job.
"Nonsense," says Wolfowitz, arguing that he took the No. 2 job at the Pentagon because he was intrigued with the prospect of transforming the military into a 21st-century force, an effort that was supposed to be the prime responsibility of the deputy defense secretary. "I had a feeling, obviously misplaced, that somehow foreign policy wasn't going to be that important," he says with a chuckle.
Still, his eagerness to take on Iraq revealed itself early on when, two days after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz talked about "ending states" that sponsor terrorism. Although Pentagon officials later said Wolfowitz meant to say ending "state-sponsored" terrorism, Powell, in an unusual public rebuke and an early sign of the growing rift between the two departments, told reporters that Wolfowitz was speaking for himself, and that the administration was only interested in "ending terrorism."
But since then, the president has moved closer to Wolfowitz's position and stated that one of the goals of the war on terrorism is to "remove" Hussein from power.
While some in the administration, especially in the State Department, believe any action against Iraq needs to be deferred until the growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world stirred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has died down, Wolfowitz disagrees. "I don't think you can make one wait on the other," he says.
He acknowledges major disagreements between State and Defense, but sees them as a form of "creative tension, not nasty tension" that has resulted in good policy. "The tension is something you want to have," he says.
For instance, he believes the president, in forming a policy on the Middle East conflict, has achieved the right blend of the Pentagon's desire to clamp down on terrorist regimes and support Israel and the State Department's interest in promoting the peace process and a long-term political solution in the region.
"I suspect neither one of our departments would have gotten that balance all on our own," he says.
And Wolfowitz credits the president with not being afraid "to have people in his Cabinet who can out-argue him on issues, obviously, and ... who will argue with one another."
In the last week, some of the arguments have taken place within the Pentagon, with Wolfowitz raising the ire of the Army leadership by deciding to cancel the $11 billion Crusader artillery system in favor of newer technologies.
Although his hawkish posture is said to make some in the military jittery because of its sweeping ambition - and has earned him the nickname "velociraptor" after the vicious predator of Jurassic Park fame - Wolfowitz is mild-mannered, genial and generally respected even by those who deplore his politics.
"He is an incurably nice person," says his longtime friend and former colleague Kenneth Adelman.
Chevy Chase resident
A divorced father of three who lives in Chevy Chase, he pursues interests in the Civil War, Shakespeare and music, and is said to be an "enthusiastic" piano player. He speaks French, Hebrew and Indonesian and taught himself Arabic after being inspired by Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977. His heroes include Churchill and Lincoln - both of whose lives climaxed in war.
Wolfowitz is thought to be the top candidate to succeed Rumsfeld should the 69-year-old defense secretary step down.
The two confer constantly, sharing each other's e-mail, walking down the hall to each other's offices, or through back channels by way of their respective executive dining rooms, rather than speaking on a nonsecure telephone line.
They are so ideologically compatible that Wolfowitz, called a "one-man think tank" by associates, sometimes forgets which of them has made a particular point. Unlike most former deputy defense secretaries whose primary job has been managing the building, Wolfowitz functions more as a strategist in what he calls "a much more intermingled" relationship with his boss.
"He is wonderful about an alter-ego model of deputies," says Wolfowitz, who sits at an imposing desk once used by Ulysses S. Grant (which he's stocked with sealed bottles of whiskey in a nod to the former president and Union general who enjoyed his drink).
Wolfowitz says he spends up to 75 percent of his time on the war on terrorism, and is "very much involved" in its day-to-day monitoring. He participates with Rumsfeld every morning in a conference call to Central Command in Florida and attends Cabinet-level meetings where's he been known to speak more freely than most deputies.
"Paul has the advantage of knowing more about virtually every issue than anyone else at the table," says Robert "Bud" McFarlane, a former national security adviser to Reagan. "Don Rumsfeld relies very heavily on him."
Wolfowitz comes to his firmly held ideas and beliefs by way of academia and government rather than military service.
He studied at Cornell, where his Polish-born father was a professor. After reading about Hiroshima and wanting to do something to prevent nuclear war, he switched his major from mathematics and chemistry to political science in his senior year - much to the dismay of his father, who considered mathematics "divine" and politics "low."
Wolfowitz has said that the Holocaust, which claimed most of his father's family, also shaped a lot of his views, specifically the notion that powerful nations shouldn't sit idly by as other nations engage in persecution and murder.
His views crystallized in graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he studied with some of the leading conservative strategists and philosophers of the time. After teaching at Yale in the early 1970s, he took what was intended to be a year's leave of absence to go to Washington and join a group of conservative thinkers, including Adelman and Richard N. Perle, in government.
Starting in government
Working at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1973, he launched a government career that included posts as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and ambassador to Indonesia in the Reagan administration, and undersecretary of defense for policy in the first Bush administration where he helped orchestrate the Gulf war.
As dean of the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies during the Clinton years, Wolfowitz continued to think about the Gulf region. "He always felt a tremendous opportunity opened up at the end of the Gulf war," says Eliot A. Cohen, director of strategic studies at the school and a former Pentagon colleague. "He came to the conclusion that a lot of it was frittered away."
Wolfowitz has his share of critics who argue that he is too quick to prescribe a military answer to problems, too willing to act unilaterally instead of with a coalition of allies and too interested in remaking other nations in America's image.
The goal of spreading democracy and western values "is one I support," says Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Clinton national security official. "It has intuitive appeal and it makes his strategy more enticing than if it were just about power. At the same time, it doesn't make it any less risky. It means we could be fighting a lot of wars around the world."
In Iraq, Daalder says he prefers tackling the problem of weapons of mass destruction through United Nations weapons inspectors before considering military action, as some in the administration have advocated.
Similarly, Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, College Park, believes keeping Hussein contained is preferable to a military attack that could destabilize Iraq and the whole region. Hussein is "ruthless and ambitious, but not a madman," Telhami says. "I think we should continue to deter him and limit his power."
Wolfowitz has expressed skepticism about the ability of inspectors to detect Hussein's work on weapons of mass destruction and views inspectors as only "part of a solution."
The larger solution, he says, is still on the president's drawing table. "There are some very big decisions that only the president can make," he says.
Then, the world may know the full measure of Wolfowitz's influence.
Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman contributed to this article.