Soldiers wear ribbons on their uniforms to signal where they have been and what they have done. People in Washington use photographs of themselves with famous officials. The typical lawyer's or lobbyist's office is decorated with trophy photos, on what has come to be known as the "I love me" wall. People who have worked in White House jobs often display pictures of themselves with the President in parts of their homes that guests will see.
The waiting room of Paul Wolfowitz's office at the Pentagon has half a dozen pictures on the wall—Wolfowitz with the elder George Bush in 1991, during the Gulf War; Wolfowitz with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The newest and most interesting photo shows a grinning Wolfowitz with Donald Rumsfeld on one side and Dick Cheney on the other. Across the bottom is scrawled "Paul—Who is the best Secretary of Defense you ever worked for? Dick." The joke is that both the men flanking him are Defense Secretaries he has worked for. Wolfowitz is now the deputy secretary of defense, No. 2 in the Pentagon under Rumsfeld. During the Gulf War, when Cheney held Rumsfeld's current job, Wolfowitz was an undersecretary there.
The Washington message the photo conveys is that Wolfowitz is well connected and that his relationship with Cheney is close enough for a bantering inscription rather than "Thanks for your service to our nation!" But the photo seems worth noting for a less obvious reason: these three people really are a team, whose shared instincts and beliefs are of critical importance in the management of the war on terrorism.
Early in his time as President, Bill Clinton used to refer to "the conversation"—the ongoing discussions he'd had since the late 1960s with his wife and dozens of policy-minded friends about education, welfare, the Democratic Party's future, and so on. Any governor becoming President is ill prepared in certain ways, but on the topics they had long discussed the Clinton team did, as Clinton liked to point out, have a head start.
It is hard to imagine Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, or Cheney using a term as self-conscious as "the conversation," but for thirty years they and several associates have been developing and applying the world view that mainly guides this war. Those associates include Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, who served in the Reagan Administration, and James Woolsey, a Democrat who was Bill Clinton's first CIA director. All three, from outside the Administration, have strongly made a case for carrying the anti-terrorist war to Iraq. The men inside the Administration are so familiar with one another's views, instincts, limitations, and strengths that they have been able to swing into wartime action with remarkably few blunders or amateurish moments.
Within the Administration there are still genuine disagreements about the next step, and the ultimate steps, in the war against terrorism. To those on the Rumsfeld team, the advantages of moving against Saddam Hussein in Iraq seem obvious—whether or not he can be directly linked to the September 11 attacks. The risk of letting his regime continue to develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction is too great. Political approval for a pre-emptive strike against terrorism can only diminish as time goes on—unless, of course, the United States suffers another devastating attack. Iraq's vaunted Republican Guard proved to be much less fearsome than advertised during the Gulf War; in the decade since then it has only grown weaker and American forces more powerful. Wouldn't it be shameful, one of Rumsfeld's supporters put it to me, if we suffered an attack and knew that we could have done something about it?
The counterargument, advanced mainly by Colin Powell and others in the State Department, is for a more methodical and cautious approach. Members of this camp are alarmed about the practical realities of a war in Iraq, where there is no counterpart to the Northern Alliance to do the actual fighting; they see more value in building an international alliance against Saddam Hussein. But the operating skill of the Rumsfeld team has become a policy argument in itself, and if the United States attacks Saddam Hussein, it will be largely because the Pentagon team has bolstered U.S. credibility through its competence.
At fifty-eight, Wolfowitz is much older than Cheney or Rumsfeld was when running the Pentagon. (Cheney, who was Gerald Ford's chief of staff in his early thirties, became Secretary of Defense in the first Bush Administration at age forty-eight; Rumsfeld will turn seventy this year, but at forty-three he was the youngest-ever Defense Secretary, in the Ford Administration.) Yet Wolfowitz still has the air of a promising brainy student being groomed for great things. A character in Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein (2000) is based on him; the novel is a roman à clef portrait of Allan Bloom, a mentor to Wolfowitz during his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. "It's only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country," the Bloom character says, referring to the Wolfowitz character. "He has a powerful mind and a real grasp of great politics, this kid."
Wolfowitz, like Prince Charles, remains "this kid" partly because his elders are still filling the jobs ahead of him, but principally because of his bearing. He is serious-minded but not pompous or puffed up. Like Donald Rumsfeld, he looks comparatively young for his age; the film-actor version would be James Mason.
Cheney and Rumsfeld are two of the notable all-rounders in modern appointive politics, and Wolfowitz, too, has been well prepared for high office. He has held three jobs in the Pentagon and three in the State Department, and he worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (now part of the State Department) during the U.S.-Soviet arms-limitation talks. During the Carter Administration, when most of the government viewed the Shah of Iran as an island of stability in the turbulent Middle East, Wolfowitz led a Pentagon team that issued a prescient warning of upheaval in Iran. When Reagan arrived, Wolfowitz directed the East Asia office in the State Department, where he played a large role in swinging American support away from Ferdinand Marcos's regime in the Philippines. Then he was ambassador to Indonesia—a Jewish ambassador who was highly popular in the country with the world's largest (and perhaps least fanatic) Muslim population. I visited him in Jakarta near the end of his term. He was a genuine celebrity there, in part because his wife, Clare, who had been a high school exchange student in Indonesia, is an academic expert on Javanese language and culture. (The two are now divorced.) After that he was a crucial part of the original Gulf War team in the Pentagon.
In January, I talked with Wolfowitz under the watchful eye of Torie Clarke, the director of the Pentagon's press office, who kept glancing at her watch and finally said, "This is very interesting, but ..." Given Wolfowitz's Clintonlike relish for the twists of an issue, this meant he was about an answer and a half into our conversation by the time our appointment was over. But, like Clinton, he had been chastised by friends for letting meetings turn into bull sessions and thus destroy his schedule, so he had learned to obey his timekeepers.