Fallows@Large April 2007

Wolfowitz = Swaggart, Chap. 1

The question Wolfowitz apparently failed to ask, is: given that I am basing my entire tenure at the World Bank on a crusade against corruption, how will it look if I extend special favors to a handful of political confidantes plus my girlfriend?

I was wrong to suggest that Paul Wolfowitz was like Robert McNamara. That is disrespectful to McNamara. The better comparison is to Jimmy Swaggart. Let me explain, through the roundabout medium of Norman Podhoretz.

Long ago, in the unbelievably frigid days in Washington just before Ronald Reagan was sworn in, by chance I met Podhoretz at a pre-inauguration party. He was then the editor of Commentary magazine and a big, fervent figure in developing what we would come to know as neo-conservatism. Two important allies in this cause were his wife, Midge Decter, and son in law, Elliott Abrams, later of Iran-contra fame. As a former employee of the soon-to-be-ousted Jimmy Carter administration, whose flounderings during the Iran hostage crisis became the neocons’ symbol of feckless American liberalism, I was not a natural invitee to such parties. But my next-door neighbor was a big-time Republican and had asked me over.

I ended up uncomfortably in a corner with Podhoretz, to whom I had been introduced as an ex-Carterite. Politely, he asked what I was doing now. I said that I had just the day before finished a book about military policy. It would be published a few months later as National Defense. The point of the book, I told him, rose from what I had discovered during some interesting reporting in and around the Pentagon. If you looked objectively at the details of how men and machinery perform in combat, you would end up being skeptical of a lot of the very expensive, fragile, overcomplex weaponry in the U.S. arsenal — and instead would pay a lot more attention to guile, agility, the moral elements of leadership, the bond between the military and the public, and similar assets that money alone couldn’t buy. And you wouldn’t be in any rush to pump up the defense budget, as Carter had begun doing after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (remember when that was considered the graveyard of big powers?) and as Reagan had promised to do even faster. You would instead concentrate on how troops and leaders did their jobs, under the unique constraints and circumstances of combat.

“Well, maybe,” Podhoretz said, skeptically. “It depends on what your intentions are.” That is, he could end up agreeing with my specific arguments if he believed I was, deep down, in favor of American strength. (Of course, virtually everyone whose views I described in the book, including the now-legendary Air Force colonel John Boyd, was a huge believer in American strength and had studied its operational realities, in detail.) But he might think something different if he suspected that I was merely grabbing another argument to denigrate the military. That is: first he’d figure out whether I was with him or against him. That would tell him whether to agree or disagree with my analysis. He didn’t put it quite that bluntly — and he was perfectly affable about it — but that was the point.

Everybody is like this to some degree. But in modern U.S. politics, I think the neocon/Bush combo is more “tribal” in its thinking than anyone else is. If you’re on the team, it’s very hard for you to do or say anything wrong. If not, the reverse. For instance: no organ of either the “mainstream” or the actually leftist press is as disciplined about propping up allies, no matter what, and shooting enemies on sight as are the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and most of what’s on Fox News. Democratic politicians are more disciplined than they used to be but still can’t help squabbling. By contrast there is evidently nothing Dick Cheney could do, say, exaggerate, or make up that would discredit him to his base. (The recent mini-rebellion against Cheney by students at BYU being an exception proving the rule.) Or Alberto Gonzales. Or Karl Rove. Or even Donald Rumsfeld — disaster in Iraq, moral shame at Abu Ghraib, the cancer of Guantanamo, none of these cost him a smidgen of diminished public support from his President, until he proved inconvenient when the 2006 election results came in.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. 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.

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