It’s all but official. Despite strong opposition from Arab allies, not to mention our NATO partners in Europe, it seems we’re headed for Round 2 – war against Iraq. Not only are U.S. officials once again stepping up their rhetoric against Baghdad, but on Nov. 26, President George W. Bush issued an ominous three-word answer to the question of what happens if Saddam Hussein does not permit United Nations inspectors back into his country. “He’ll find out,” was the terse reply.

For weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, internal battles raged between the Pentagon and the State Department over widening the United States-led war on terrorism to Iraq, even if there was no firm evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks.

With the apparent success of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, the balance now appears to be tilting strongly toward the wider-war faction. This faction is pursuing a broad, decades-old agenda that has little to do with the task at hand of successfully countering terrorism.

Chief architects of the push to get Saddam Hussein have been Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who, as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, is not technically a member of the Bush administration. Since the early 1970s, the two men have been comrades-at-arms in a series of crusades against détente, arms control, and multilateralism.

Within the administration, they generally can count on support from Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith; and several members of the National Security Council staff, including its top aide for global issues and Iran-contra veteran Elliott Abrams.

This circle of administration hawks is backed by a network of veteran Washington hands – some of whom are neo-conservative former Democrats – whose political savvy, talent for polemics, media contacts, and lust for ideological combat have made them a formidable force in foreign policy.

They include former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, “End of History” guru Francis Fukuyama; former CIA chief James Woolsey; syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, to name a few. They are decidedly aggressive when it comes to supporting Israel, particularly the Likud Party, and mostly hostile towards the United Nations.

Many of these wider war proponents have been associated with the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), founded in 1997. Signers of its founding charter included Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Libby and Abrams. Its core ideas of a Pax Americana, backed by superior and interventionist U.S. military power, appear to be based in large part on a 1992 Pentagon strategy document drafted by Wolfowitz and Libby.

These views are clearly at variance with the more modest and multilateralist sentiments of the vast majority of the American public, according to polls taken over the past decade. In addition, very few of the PNAC hawks actually served in the armed forces, and an even smaller number have ever been elected to public office.

PNAC’s special enemy is Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose successful efforts last Spring to gain the release from China of the U.S. spy plane crew detained on Hainan Island drew cries of humiliation and surrender from PNAC founders, Kristol and his sidekick at the Standard Bob Kagan.

Since Sept. 11, PNAC associates have been contemptuous of Powell’s effort at forging and sustaining an international coalition behind Washington’s war in Afghanistan. And PNAC’s gunsights have shifted to Iraq. In a letter to Bush released just a week after the attacks, 38 PNAC associates called for a sweeping anti-terrorist program designed to “remove Saddam Hussein from power, even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attacks.”

As Bush Jr.’s war on terrorism completes its work in Afghanistan, the debate over Iraq will almost certainly intensify both within and outside the administration. The outcome’s implications, however, go far beyond Iraq or the larger Arab world, because the vision that lies behind the drive for Baghdad is essentially imperial and unabashedly hegemonic. The stakes for the future U.S. role in the world could not be higher.

Jim Lobe is a member of the Foreign Policy In Focus advisory committee. This was written for The Institute for Policy Studies, which is a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.