What'll it be? Will we lead by example or force?

Now that America has settled its beef with Saddam Hussein, all eyes are turning to Syria. Top American officials have recently charged the Syrians with possessing chemical weapons, harboring leaders of the fallen Iraqi regime, and allowing Syrian "volunteers" to travel to Iraq to kill Americans. How we handle those rising tensions will provide the first clues to how the administration plans to convert our military victory in Iraq into a political one.

In the current issue of The Washington Monthly, I argued that the move against Iraq was only partly tied to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and even less to his supposed ties to Islamist terrorist groups. The deeper rationale was based on the belief– widely shared at the Pentagon and by Vice President Dick Cheney– that the root cause of terrorism is the Middle East's endemic autocracy, corruption, and poverty.

In a 21st-century version of the domino theory, the reasoning goes, toppling Saddam and rebuilding Iraq under American supervision could trigger a wave of democratization throughout the Middle East and help wipe out the terrorist threat at the root.

Even among the advocates of such a vision, however, there are several variations of how to make this happen. For simplicity's sake, let's call them the minimalists (who want to lead by example) and the maximalists (who want to keep changing regimes with military force or something very near to it).

In the minimalists' vision, we've already achieved our fundamental military objective– securing Iraq. The task now is to build an Iraq that is, if not a perfect democracy, then at least something close enough to it to provide a quality of life that is demonstrably preferable to that under the governments of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Iraq is both literally and figuratively at the heart of the Arab world. So, over time, a democratized Iraq should undermine the legitimacy and popularity of those other regimes and lead either to their transformation or their downfall.

Having Iraqis and the rest of the Middle East embrace a democratic Iraq depends heavily on their perceptions of our aims. And using our new base in Iraq as a launching pad for new wars would only lend credence to those who argue that we are just newfangled colonialists. That's precisely what the minimalists want to avoid. So they'd much prefer to concentrate on building a democratic Iraq.

The maximalists have the same long-term objectives. But they want to achieve them much more quickly and with far greater reliance on military force. They'd like to use our base in Iraq to assume a quasi-imperial role in the region. That means using our vaunted military machine (and obvious willingness to use it) to bully the regimes in Syria and Iran into submission or dare them to risk invasion if they defy our will.

If we've already got a foothold in the region, why let Iran keep funding terrorism or Syria keep threatening Israel with its Hezbollah proxies in southern Lebanon? If Syria and Iran are ripe for democracy, why wait?

The problem is that, whichever of those approaches is preferable, we may not be in a position to choose between them. The natural trajectory will be in the direction of the maximalists. Many of the problems we'll confront in Iraq will have their origins in neighboring states, so sliding into military confrontations may prove much easier than avoiding them. Even if we avoid more invasions, it could mean the sort of get-tough approach to neighboring countries that would bollix our efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Arab world.

For instance, if the Syrians really are giving refuge to Saddam's henchmen or helping Arab "volunteers" make their way into Iraq, we really won't have much choice but to do whatever it takes to put a stop to it. If we don't, that American foothold in the region, meant to overawe neighboring anti-American states, could quickly turn into an American piƱata, an easy target for every crackpot or bunch of fanatics who want to draw American blood without having to secure a U.S. visa.

We have to ensure that bad actors don't meddle with our reconstruction of Iraq while also avoiding the sorts of spillovers of the war that could kill our credibility with the already ambivalent populations of the Middle East. That will require the deftest mix of diplomacy and threat.

Dealing with Syria in the coming weeks will provide the first signs of whether we're up to the challenge and the first clue whether it's the minimalists or the maximalists who are running the show.

The author penned a famous essay after 9/11 about the importance of vengeance in punishing terrorists. This essay first appeared in The Hill, a weekly newspaper covering Congress.