Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014
Washington Desk March 2002

The Unilateralist

A conversation with Paul Wolfowitz

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.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In