Wolfowitz: The Exit Interviews

As he prepared to leave office, the deputy secretary of defense engaged in a series of conversations with the author on Iraq, democracy, intelligence, 9/11, and how he believes America must make its way in the world

Those who deplore America's invasion of Iraq have no shortage of official villains, but to them perhaps none is more diabolical than Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who, in a promotion that vexes his detractors, will soon take over leadership of the World Bank. His name alone suggests sharp teeth and a thirst for the kill. Even in the hawkish administration of President George W. Bush there was no more forceful proponent for the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Fallows@Large: "Wolfowitz = McNamara, Chapter 402" (April 5, 2007)
"Jeez louise. How much inner peace does it suggest about a person if he refuses to talk about the event for which he will always be principally known?" By James Fallows

Last fall Wolfowitz agreed to a series of private and wide-ranging interviews about his tenure at the Pentagon. My conversations with him took place during four meetings over six months. Wolfowitz's office is large, its pale-blue walls hung with landscape paintings and one big photograph of "P-Dubs" (as he is sometimes known at the Pentagon) holding the hand of a small Iraqi boy during a visit to the war zone. Cynics may doubt America's motives in Iraq, but Wolfowitz appears well-intended: he is a proud liberator. The anteroom and office are decorated with reminders of power: flags, patriotic emblems, photographs of the Dep posing with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others. The view from behind his desk looks out on the gray Potomac River and beyond, to the grand landmarks of the capital.

Whatever history's ultimate verdict on Wolfowitz, he works hard at his job. Famous for his long hours in the office, where he requires two shifts of staff members to keep pace, he has the year-round ghostly pallor of the work-addicted, accentuated by the graying of his defiantly unruly mop of straight hair (ridiculed by the antiwar filmmaker Michael Moore, who captured him trying to tame it with a comb and some spittle before a public appearance). There is nothing bellicose in Wolfowitz's manner; on the contrary, he is gentle and professorial—he was once the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins—and speaks so softly that at times I had to lean closer to catch his words. He frequently interjects "I might be wrong" before delivering an opinion. And while he can be persuasive, no one would ever accuse him of being smooth. He is genuine, unguarded, and above all preoccupied. He seems always at some remove and has an endearing awkwardness; he will stride across a room to shake one's hand and then just stand there, smiling earnestly. Unless some effort is made to engage him, he drifts off—even if he hasn't physically moved. That distance evaporates when one asks him a question—and rather than giving tidy, guarded, prepackaged summaries of his thinking, he steps right onto the careening raft of his consciousness.

At the core of Wolfowitz's view of the ongoing struggle in Iraq is the conviction that the tenacious enemy there consists primarily of organized remnants of Saddam's old regime. Critics of the American effort tend to see the Iraqi resistance as a broad-based popular one motivated by nationalism and anti-Americanism, and spearheaded by jihadis. If they are right, then the invasion of Iraq may simply have stirred up an ongoing civil war in that country, and could lead to the formation of a fundamentalist Islamic government that—allied with neighboring Iran—could serve as precisely the kind of haven for Islamist terrorists that the United States had hoped to destroy, one perhaps worse for America than Saddam Hussein's old regime. If Wolfowitz is right, then the insurgency consists of a relatively small number of brutal Saddamite thugs whose only popular support is based on fear. In his view, this core group, which he likens to the mafia, can be defeated, and Iraq in the near future will be a stable and self-governing ally in the region.

His conviction is partly a leap of faith. He likes to tell the story of a conference in Washington where a critic of America's foreign policy stood up to denounce the arrogance of imposing "our" democratic values on the Arab world, only to have an Arab stand up to complain that true arrogance was to assume such values were "ours," when they are universal. Underlying his faith about Iraq is the belief that mankind everywhere seeks freedom and self-government. If there were no polls or even anecdotal evidence to support the view, Wolfowitz would still believe that that is what a majority of Iraqis want, and that those who would restore dictatorship or impose religious extremism are, by definition, a minority. Democracy, in his view, is both a universal ideal and a universal default position. When a Polish interviewer suggested that his policy was about "exporting democracy," Wolfowitz objected. "'Export of democracy' isn't really a good phrase," he said. "We're trying to remove the shackles on democracy."

My aim in talking with Wolfowitz was not to debate policy or to second-guess decisions but to elicit a fuller explanation of his thinking.

September 15, 2004

By almost any measure the war appeared to be going badly. Nearly sixteen months after President Bush had dramatically declared victory, Iraq was still a bloody battleground. Americans were hunkered down behind concrete barriers and barbed wire. A string of kidnappings and gruesome videotaped beheadings had horrified most of the world and inspired jihadis and die-hard Saddamites. A number of small Iraqi cities and towns—most notably Fallujah, scene of the murder and mutilation of American contract workers months earlier—were under the control of insurgents. Fallujah had effectively been ceded to the insurgency in April, when the newly formed Iraqi forces sent to reclaim it had allied themselves with the rebels. About fifty Americans had already died in Iraq that month, and sixty-six had been killed the month before. At home a report prepared for the CIA—and leaked—concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, although he did have the means to manufacture them, and would probably have done so if UN sanctions had been lifted—a step the UN was considering prior to the invasion. On this very day Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, would tell the BBC that the U.S. invasion was unjustified and "illegal," and that conditions in Iraq were unsuitable for the elections scheduled for just four months hence.

Presented by

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In