National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, set to become secretary of state, explained the administration's perspective on 18 January when she appeared before a Senate panel.
"America and the free world are once again engaged in a long-term struggle against an ideology of hatred and tyranny and terror and hopelessness," Rice said. "And we must confront these challenges with the same vision and the same courage and the same boldness that dominated our [post-World War II] period."
Reuel Gerecht is a former Middle East specialist with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As director of the Washington-based think tank Project for a New American Century, he helped develop the argument for going to war in Iraq. Gerecht, now with the American Enterprise Institute, said he believes Rice's words point to an ongoing shift in U.S. foreign policy that will only accelerate in the second Bush administration.
That change, he said, involves a new push for democracy around the world -- particularly in the Middle East. Earlier American support for dictators there is now seen as having helped spawn disaffection and radical Islam -- and so contributed to the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
"If you compare that to previous American administrations which largely were unconcerned about the relationship between dictatorship, autocracy, and Islamic extremism, then the answer is clear: I think there has been a fundamental shift in American foreign policy and they [the Bush administration] will continue to move down that path," Gerecht said.
Will Washington stick to diplomacy and dollars to prod autocratic societies to open up not only in the Middle East, but also the former Soviet Union? Or will it again see force as a possible tool for change?
The devil is in the details -- nowhere more so than in Iran.
Gerecht, a leading "neoconservative," said the administration had not yet decided what to do about Iran. He said it would like to see democratic change there. But he said he believed that, in the end, Washington was likely to see keeping nuclear weapons out of Tehran's hands as a more urgent priority. And unlike the European Union, which is using trade incentives to convince Iran to drop aspects of its nuclear program, Gerecht said the United States was more likely to resort to force.
"I would say that you will start to see more people in the administration begin to think about -- reluctantly begin to think about -- a preemptive military strike because the diplomatic avenues, particularly the European effort, has so far shown so little promise," Gerecht said.
But not all conservatives see it that way.
Raymond Tanter is an Iran expert who served in the National Security Council for former President Ronald Reagan. He said some in the administration argued for a policy of long-term "regime change" in Iran that supported the political opposition while avoiding for now any military action:
"They will first take the main Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin e-Khalq, off the State Department foreign-terrorist-organizations list and return the weapons to that group -- that group is now lodged in Iraq -- and start putting pressure through the Iranian opposition on the regime in Tehran so that Tehran cannot simply be on the offensive with respect to its nuclear weapons program and its state sponsorship of international terrorism," Tanter said.
However, some see Washington's ability to argue for democracy and human rights as seriously undermined by its actions in Iraq and the war on terrorism. They include cases of abuse and torture of detained terror suspects.
"There's no question that the perception that the current administration in the United States tolerated the use of torture, undermined respect for the Geneva Conventions and other important treaties, has made it much more difficult for the United States to effectively press other countries to respect those same standards [of human rights]," said Tom Malinowski, who is with Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington.
Whatever Washington decides to do with Iran, it remains a possible stumbling block to improving relations with the European Union. So does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush is set to visit Europe in February on the first foreign trip of his second term. He and other administration officials have suggested they are ready to make an effort to patch up differences with the EU.
But the EU says for that to happen, Bush must make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority.
Yet Gerecht said he believed Bush is likely to continue with his hands-off approach and to wade into the conflict only if the new Palestinian leadership can stop attacks against Israel.
Tanter, who also enjoys close ties to the administration, said he agreed.
"It's very important that the president of the United States and the president of France meet and give the appearance that all is well," Tanter said. "But as Shakespeare said, 'All's well that ends well.' And I don't see that the substance of the differences will have changed as a result of having summits. That said, the summits are necessary in order to signal to their respective democratic publics that the allies are trying to get along."
Meanwhile, the war in Iraq will remain Washington's main focus in the coming year.
Gerecht said this month's Iraqi elections could begin a process of improvement, bringing the majority Shi'a to power and forcing recalcitrant Sunnis to join the new order.
But he acknowledged that America could yet lose in Iraq -- a catastrophe that he said would undermine all of Washington's foreign policy goals.