A fallen empire rises again - help appreciated

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For my first 4e campaign, I would like the PC's to be part of an empire that fell due to a great war and plague, and which is just now beginning to regroup with a plan to rise once more and take back the world that they see as rightfully theirs. It's going to be a fairly dark campaign with morally questionable PC's, though not outright Sauron-style evil. There will likely be some backroom deals with sinister forces "for the greater good". I want the PC's to be the stars of the show, so to speak, but I'm not sure of the best way to do that while still letting them realistically be a small group of adventurers. It would be nice to make them the leaders that rise up and reunite the shattered empire, but I don't particularly want the party to have easy access to an army, since I'll need to constantly invent excuses for them to leave the army at home while they go into the dungeon. Similarly, I don't know if I want to make them rulers or even generals, since that would usually mean they have a responsibility to stay in one place and rule their kingdom or organize their army.

I suppose I could make the emperor an NPC and have the PC's be his elite strike team, but I would prefer that the PC's be the ones who make the big decisions on what the empire will do. Maybe I need to make a puppet emperor, with the PC's being the power behind the throne, with some reason that the PC's need to remain "behind the scenes" and adventure mostly on their own, while still giving the players a sense that they have a lot of political power and occasional access to willing servants and soldiers. Any ideas?
There's always the classic 'usurper to the throne' idea. When the empire crumbled, an ambitious family siezed control from the rightful rulers and supposedly killed all potential relatives that could contest them. Perhaps these usurpers were actually responsible for the fall of the empire, spreading weakness and chaos to allow them to sieze control. But unbeknownst to the new rulers, survivors of the rightful rulers were secreted away, along with their supporters. Now their descendants, perhaps supported by a rebellious and secretive society working in the current government, are ready to right the wrong and resume control. Of course, they have limited support, and obviously don't have armies at their beck and call.
The PC's are elite commandos who are given politically-sensitive assignments, of escalating importance as they level up. Not officially connected to the standing army. They'd be more like spies, or assets used by a spy organization.
I suppose I could make the emperor an NPC and have the PC's be his elite strike team, but I would prefer that the PC's be the ones who make the big decisions on what the empire will do. Maybe I need to make a puppet emperor, with the PC's being the power behind the throne, with some reason that the PC's need to remain "behind the scenes" and adventure mostly on their own, while still giving the players a sense that they have a lot of political power and occasional access to willing servants and soldiers. Any ideas?

What you're talking about here is something that, for the moment, I'll call the "Star Trek Mistake".

When you watch Star Trek, the main characters are (mostly) the command crew of the ship. On a certain level, this has a very real appeal. That system breaks down when you run into the issue of their 'away teams' though. Placing the captain, first officer, medical officer or top engineer of your 257200 zillion dollar spaceship on the surface of an unkown planet in a dangerous situation is beyond the borders of complete and absolute lunacy. The people you'd send on away teams would be skilled medical personnel or a contingent of soldiers, not the must-have personnel of the spaceship. If a more realistic Captain Picard ever set foot on a planet, it would be in an effective green zone that had been secured by his own troops, and then only for diplomatic encounters that required his actual presence.

Now, to an extent we're all more or less willing to put up with this in movies and stories. King Arthur wouldn't have been as interesting if he didn't...y'know...do stuff himself. We like cowboys. The fact of the matter, though, is that it isn't at all practical for adventurers to rule a kingdom unless they're committed to settling down themselves. Becoming a king or emperor is a good ending to a campaign, but not a terribly great medium for it.

I'd recommend with taking the "elite strike team" option, but with a bit of a twist. The king/emperor will put a lot of faith and trust in the PCs so they'll still be important to the politics of the reforming empire. He knows that the PCs will be putting their noses into dangerous places and actually seeing what's there, so he'll value their opinions unless he's a brainless twit. (Most brainless twits don't rescue an empire from obscurity though) The "puppet" option doesn't really do much for explaining how someone else doesn't take control of the PCs moron or why said moron doesn't botch up the whole kingdom building thing while the PCs are away either, so it's not an attractive option to me.

The PCs won't have the real reins of power, but they also won't have to worry about things like meeting foreign dignitaries, maintaining a royal bloodline or having drawn-out meetings with the Imperial Chamberlain to discuss the kingdom's financial stability, however.
D&D rules were never meant to exist without the presence of a DM. RAW is a lie.
Yup, the Star Trek mistake is certainly to be avoided for the sake of realism. If the PC's must be directly involved in decision making, and yet retain the ability to go into danger themselves, then another option that comes to mind would be, not so much building a mighty empire, but rather settling/taming a frontier.
The PC's could be part of a rag-tag, rough&tumble frontier settlement on the edge of an orc-infested wilderness. With their unique skills, they would be the ones to send out to take down the kobold warren, or root out the ogres that bedevil the settlers. And because of their direct experience amidst the deadly dangers of the wilderness, the townsfolk would be very interested and take all their recommendations very seriously. They would have a role to play in decision making, and yet with a small, struggling colony just getting started, there would be no one else capable of beating back the orc raiders. It's otherwise very difficult to see how or why a mighty Empire would allow its rulers to venture forth on deadly quests.
If you feel a great empire must be involved, then the above scenario could be multiplied. The Empire is expanding into the trackless wilderness on several fronts. The PC's could be assigned to assist and support a variety of settlements struggling amidst hardship and savagery. They would have to beat back physical threats to the settlement, and could reasonably be expected to make key decisions as to its defense. Everything would depend on them, since the imperial legions are just too far away to be of help. Settling a frontier would also fit in better with the premise of a wild, unexplored world of mystery and wonder as a key conceit of 4th edition.
I want the PC's to be the stars of the show, so to speak, but I'm not sure of the best way to do that while still letting them realistically be a small group of adventurers.

If your really willing to let them go at it any way they want and let the campaign spend a lot of time outside dungeons, then there is no reason not to let them be the leaders. Just set it up so that their military is mostly tied up protecting the trade routes and guarding the towns. Once the characters gain a few levels there will be little reason to pull the army into the dungeons they will be facing anyway.

If you want to focus on dungeon crawls, and various focused missions then setting them up as a elite team that reports directly to the leader of the new empire is the easiest solution.

One solution that falls in between would be to make the party the power behind the throne. The real heir to the Kingdom is a 5 year old child, so while he sits on the throne, the party controls the real power from behind the scenes. That lets the party act as a small group when they want or need to but essentially have total control over the government.

Another similar idea, if you want to give the party some freedom but not total control, is to make a weak King surrounded by various power seeking factions. The party makes up one faction, while groups of generals and advisers make up other factions. The party becomes subject to direct orders from the King, but will often be free to act on their own.

Another solution would be to make the characters members of an Order of Knights dedicated to the Empire but not directly responsible to any one person. That would make the characters free to pick and choose assignments, and even able to take action on their own, but keep them focused on the good of the Empire. Conceptually though that works much better with a good aligned party serving a largely good Empire.

What you're talking about here is something that, for the moment, I'll call the "Star Trek Mistake".

I understand where you are coming from, but historically that often doesn't apply before the modern era.

In the Middle Ages and earlier periods, the leaders often personally did a lot more. There are a lot of reason for this, but the important ones are that simpler government structures meant that major projects required leadership by a top official to work, poor communications meant that leaders often had to be closer to the front lines, and loyalty was usually invested in particular leaders not countries or ideas so leaders had to act personally.

Here are a few more suggestions.

If you take things like the Illead in the time of heroes as an example, everyone was a king of some small place. Being a king means little and does not prevent people from going adventuring.

The big reason that kings adventure is the alternative is to sit on a chair all day listening to people complain. Further that problem is that often in the age of heroes, the average troops were pretty poor compared to the training that kings usually received and the equipment they could afford to go to war.

Another way to this type of campaign is to borrow from games like Ars Magica. Players often then vote on big events related to the coven or in your game, the players would vote on how the empire would address issues.

I would further suggest that you would in this situation use the skill challenge resolution system to approximate the regular running of the kingdom with the players personally becoming involved in things that required a more personal involvement.
This may be a longshot, but perhaps a reasonable way to cover both the diplomatic situations and the nitty-gritty personal adventures:
Have the players play two separate groups. One group of adventurers and another group of diplomats. It has been my experience that diplomatic adventures are not quite the excitement the players are normally looking for, so make the diplomatic sessions brief "Scenes" before the main course of your game night.

Give the characters each an NPC type character. Since 4e mentions the players are rare brave adventurers make sure this diplomat does not have the same heroic stats and special abilities found in the adventurer. Think of your games like episodes or movies. Occasionally we get to see what the big players are doing while the main protagonists are acting out the will of the diplomats.

When you switch gears into the main story line (that of the player characters) the players will already have a feeling of the intrigue and political world you are creating. They will also learn the effects of their actions. If you keep the diplomatic sessions relatively vague, you won't give too much away to your players.

An interesting trick is to have the diplomatic session out of chronological synch. That is to say have the results of the diplomatic session show up after the players mission. If you can steer clear of railroading you can start to have the diplomats directly opposing the player characters in their actions. But play with the timeline a bit so the adventurers don't always know what to expect.

I ran two campaigns simultaneously; an evils campaign and a heroes campaign. During the heroes campaign I had the characters trying to light a signal tower while being besieged by orcs. In the distance they could see the dwarven stronghold they were trying to signal. At the climax of the battle the signal was lit and when they looked to the dwarven stronghold they witnessed a grand explosion. Their back-up was gone.
The following session was the evil's campaign. My players didn't really care what they were doing. They were led to steal some magic item from some dwarves and in the end they blew up the stronghold. The players didn't see right away that they were fighting each other indirectly, but there was a big aha moment when the stronghold started rumbling.

my way more than 2 cents
Since you can never have enough ideas, here's another one:

The great war and plague have left the empire demoralized and rebuild is going slowly at best. Have your PCs retrieve or be a great Omen about the rebirth of the empire. They could retrieve a symbol of the royal house, rescue the believed-dead heir to the throne or fulfill some prophecy by accident.

Some of these could place the PCs in the position of kingmakers (whom do you hand the symbol of rulership over to?) or they could take over the empire themselves. In any case they would be very important people to the empire all of a sudden. Of course the aristocracy doesn't do well with newbies sticking their noses into their spheres of influence. Though they know how important the PCs are to their own wellbeing, a reckless player who orders the army around could find his orders being revoked or ignored once he turns his back so you should be able to deal with them if they try to turn overlord.
Why would they keep on adventuring? Well, now that they are crowned / have crowned someone, they are expected to procure all the other lost relics / fulfill the other prophecies (or the king needs them to do that in order to stay in the saddle) or just help where needed.
Thanks for the ideas everyone! This has given me a lot to think about. Time to get out the campaign notebook and start scribbling. ;)
Another way to do this is to simply have the Empire and its war as a backdrop for the campaign.

Foyles War and Star Wars do this.

In Foyles War (TV detective show) the main character is 'too' important in the job that he is doing as a police detective to be sent to a main line unit and instead must remain as a detective protecting the homefront.

This allows you to take the approach to the players of saying that they are too important to put on the front lines of the army and thus serve the empire in other ways.

Star Wars is similar but different, especially in the Rebellion period. There is a Rebellion spread across dozens of worlds but it is too disorganized to qualify as a unified army. The main characters spend much time getting intelligence briefings that send them from trouble spot to trouble spot.

Even when the New Republic is 'officially' in existance, the new government is often so close to seperation and tumbling apart that the main characters spend much of their time still running from trouble spot to trouble spot to keep the new governement together.

Using the empire as your base model then you could say that people remember the 'empire' but now their are half a dozen people that claim to be the 'true' decendent and their are a large number of fractional governments that each have a range of feeling. Behind this is the general ground swell of citizens that want a return to the original empire (though like many such things; each individuals view of what the New Empire should look and act like could be vastly different).

Players would spend much of their time being sent on 'good will' missions to bolster support for the concept of this new empire and to put down trouble spots before they tear apart the idea of a New Empire.