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.

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.

I wanted to ask about the evolution of the view that now guided the war. That view, as I understood it, was defined by pessimism, optimism, and impatience with procedure.

The pessimism lies in an insistence that the world is full of enemies who will hurt us if they can. This view is widespread in America since September 11. It was not before then—and the proof is the appetite for "Why do they hate us?" stories. Wolfowitz, I had been told by members of his camp, was less surprised by the attack than the public, because his formative experience was confronting the Soviet Union. Kenneth Adelman, who directed the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan years, told me, "I used to remind myself during the arms talks that if it was up to Karpov [his Soviet counterpart], I'd be in a gulag. When all is said and done, there really are people on the opposite side from us." Wolfowitz extended this view in several essays, including one in The National Interest in 1997 in which he compared the prosperity, optimism, and predictions of "global civilization" of the late 1990s to the very similar worldwide climate a century before, and warned that the risk of tragedy was just as great now.

The optimism lies in the conviction that if the United States confronts "evil" enemies, it can win. The proof is, of course, the Soviet Union's fall. Ronald Reagan came to office calling not for détente but for outright victory over the "evil empire." Ten years later the empire was gone. Nearly all the members of today's defense leadership were part of Reagan's team. The memory of that success lies behind George W. Bush's promises that terrorists will be not just contained, like drug traffickers, but beaten, like Nazis and Soviets.

As for impatience with procedure, around the world the Bush foreign-policy team is criticized as "unilateralist"—a group that scoffs at alliances and international organizations and doesn't take treaties seriously. To people who share Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld's views, these criticisms reflect a confusion of ends and means. If arms-control talks simply continue the arms race, these people think, then it's time to step away from the table. As long as the United Nations or NATO goes in the general direction the United States thinks wise, we should act through those alliances. But humoring allies counts for little in itself, and negotiating for its own sake has no appeal. The NATO countries complained when Ronald Reagan put intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and they complained when Bill Clinton took them out. The members of the current defense team "have made their careers by not being taken in by atmospherics or diplomatic niceties, not being deceived by lulls in the action," says Jay Winik, the author of April 1865 (2001), whose previous book, On the Brink (1996), was about the conservative national-security establishment. "The whole nature of this terrorist war is that something terrible happens, and then it stops, and then something terrible happens again. In a very strong sense they are temperamentally right for this challenge."

I asked Wolfowitz about the experiences that had been most important in shaping his own strategic view. He sat and looked away for a long time. Then he talked about his early work at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

"It's funny, if there's one thing that really separates my generation from the next generation, it's the Cuban missile crisis," he said. "People who lived through that can see the world in a certain way that people who didn't live through it can't, I guess. But one of the things that impressed me in the three years I worked on [arms control] was that nuclear wars are most likely to arise out of conventional wars. Preventing conventional war is the key, I came to think—even more important than simply looking at nuclear weapons in a vacuum. That actually led me to grab on very eagerly when I had the chance a few years later to come here [the Pentagon] for the first time."

Some politicians, such as George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, are hard to quote directly because they don't finish their sentences. Wolfowitz is hard to quote directly because so many of his sentences have numerous internal clauses, like mathematical formulas with brackets. He went on to explain how his immersion in conventional power politics led him to realize that to conduct foreign policy, one must first know who one's allies are.

"You do have to treat your friends different from your enemies," he said. "I think that's a basic principle of international relations—and a lot of the rest of life, except in life you don't usually have enemies quite as nasty as you do in foreign policy."

During his time as an Asia hand Wolfowitz was known for applying pressure to "friends"—Ferdinand Marcos, the Korean generals—to encourage democratic reforms. What about applying that kind of pressure to the "friendly" dictators and tribesmen who are supporting us now? He said, "Well, first of all let's talk about the nondemocratic enemies. The fact is that all the regimes that sponsor terrorism terrorize their own people. For reasons that aren't obvious, we've tended—not just the United States but the world in general—to give a pass to, for example, the Syrian dictatorship that we never gave the South Korean dictatorship. I'm not saying that the South Koreans should have had it—but you sort of wonder at the ready acceptance of this kind of pass."

He said he really couldn't explain the double standard. But one reality was that through the 1980s "success built on success" in Asia as countries overthrew dictatorships, whereas in the Middle East "you might say failure has built on failure," with no examples of democratic reform like the ones in the Philippines, Korea, and Taiwan. "Also, if you stop and think about the penalties for being known to favor any kind of positive political change in, say, Iraq, it's not surprising that there are a million Iraqis who favor positive political change—and they're all outside of Iraq. Inside, you don't survive."

He thought that this pass system was about to change. "There has been ... not tolerance but lack of intolerance toward support for terrorism until now," he said. "We had these terrorism lists, and countries were put on them for supporting terrorism. It was a bad thing to do, but it wasn't considered intolerable. I think that after September 11 it's intolerable. It seems to me that the political condition of the Muslim world and the Arab world was considered tolerable before. Not very nice, but you live with it. And I think that's not healthy—not healthy for us and certainly not healthy for them. Terrorists [and dictators] don't operate in a vacuum. They look at what happens to other terrorists. And hopefully now they are looking at what's happened to the people in Afghanistan. We're clearly getting very different responses from the Yemenis, for example, than we did a couple of months ago."

Part of changing the attitude toward terrorism, he said, is making sure that military action gets results. "It is important that you don't just think of military force as a way of 'signaling' things," he said. "I get very, very uncomfortable the minute we say we're going to 'send a message' with this or that use of military power. I find this funny coming sometimes from people whose formative experience was opposing the Vietnam War, which I would have thought would give them greater caution about it. You send a military message by having a military effect. We could have bombed Afghanistan for months and months and not sent any 'message' if we hadn't found a way, largely through getting Special Forces on the ground to coordinate air strikes, to make the air power devastating in its military effect."

The obvious question was how Wolfowitz viewed the Vietnam War at the time. But Torie Clarke and her associate Susan Wallace got me out before I could ask him, and he had no time for a follow-up e-mail exchange. The prevailing view of Vietnam among his colleagues is that it couldn't be fought effectively, because it was an attempt to fine-tune military efforts rather than go out and win. Therefore it was not worth fighting.

As I was leaving, I did manage to ask whether Wolfowitz, who a year before taking office had written in Commentary that a new round of "great-power conflict" would be the main threat to future peace, thought this was still true. He said he did.

A century ago, he said, the international problem was the appearance of new great powers—mainly Germany and Japan—whose appetites and grievances the existing world order could not accommodate. Now another crop of new powers was appearing.

"China is the most obvious one," he said. "In East Asia in general you have this stunning growth in economic power, which means ultimately, potentially, military power. A unified Korea is itself the size of a major European power. Only in Asia does Vietnam look like a small country—its army is tough and big. And then you've got the Indians ... It's a question of how to achieve balance of power in East Asia, among these growing powers, without going through the experience Europe went through to get there, because that's a little too costly."

Russia, the familiar "great power," would not be part of the new problem—"not at all, no," he said. "During the Cold War we were trying, with the opening to China, to help a weak China deal with a threat from a very powerful Soviet Union. I think in the future we may be trying to figure out how to help a weak Russia deal with an increasingly powerful China. I think we really are in a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. It will go through bumps and starts, and it's not a new era in the sense that suddenly they love us and we love them. But our interests coincide in so many ways that they didn't before." With that he was back to the current war.