Festival of updates #5: Wolfowitz and Iraq


For the rest of his life, Paul Wolfowitz will face questions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You can hear that realization sinking in on him during the course of his ten-minute interview with Guy Raz of NPR, broadcast this evening on on All Things Considered. Wolfowitz had come on the show to discusss his essay on foreign policy "realism" in Foreign Policy magazine -- about which more in a moment. Through the ten minutes, you can hear Wolfowitz sounding startled, then testy, then something like resigned when Raz keeps coming back to the questions he obviously had to ask, about how Wolfowitz's current theories match the record in office for which he will always be best known.

The idea that we'll "always" be known for a moment in the unchangeable past, no matter how the rest of our lives turn out, is a proposition so fatalistic that that we all naturally resist it. (Except maybe Michael Phelps, Sandy Koufax, perhaps Tom Brady and Neil Armstrong, etc.) The earnest post-Vietnam career of Robert McNamara is a testament to how much he struggled with that reality. Remarkably and rarely, Al Gore will "always" be the man at the losing end of Bush v. Gore, but he made a new identity after that.

In the ten minutes of his interview, whenever Wolfowitz says "Look!" what he's really signaling is: I don't want to talk about this Iraq stuff any more, so why do you keep coming back to it? The reason for coming back, of course, is that Wolfowitz does and always will occupy a unique role in the intellectual history of the decision. Dick Cheney will apparently never reveal a doubt or second thought; George W. Bush has (with some dignity) backed off the public stage for now; Colin Powell has made sure to signal that he was never that enthusiastic; and who knows what Donald Rumsfeld will come up with. But Wolfowitz was the one who from the start had the sweeping vision of the historic rationale for removing Saddam Hussein.

The public case for invading Iraq was purely negative. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) But the "enlightened" case that Wolfowitz in particular had made for years in articles, interviews, and speeches involved the broader, Wilsonian prospect of bringing democracy to the Arab world, as it had largely come to much of Asia and Latin America. I did a profile of him in early 2002 that emphasized this theme. I also had a sense of its origins, having lived in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, when Wolfowitz helped swing U.S. policy against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and then was a very popular U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. By all accounts, Wolfowitz was a prominent voice telling a rattled President Bush, during the first, nervous strategy session at Camp David days after the 9/11 attacks, that for positive and negative reasons alike he had to get to the root of the terrorist problem by moving against Iraq. (For more on Wolfowitz's role in war planning, see here and here.)

In its way it was an honorable vision, as were most of Robert McNamara's beliefs through the early days in Vietnam. But it did not -- OK, has not so far -- turned out anything like what Wolfowitz advertised publicly and within the government. To his credit, Guy Raz of NPR played back to Wolfowitz the tape of his notorious Congressional testimony just before the invasion, in which he said "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." And "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

It's worth listening to -- along with the full 37-minute unedited interview, here. Among other reasons, I suspect it will be a while before we hear Paul Wolfowitz in such a setting again. The first 15 minutes or so of the "long" version involve what he did want to talk about -- his new Foreign Policy article warning against excessive "realism" in America's approach to the world. Judge for yourself, but it strikes me as a concerted argument against a non-existent or straw-man foe. When an American president has given a major speech in an Arab capital saying that the U.S. needs to engage in the modernization of the Islamic world, it's hard to argue that the U.S. is showing a steely indifference to social and political conditions outside its borders.

It took more than twenty years after Robert McNamara's departure from the Pentagon for him to begin talking seriously about Vietnam. I look forward to what Paul Wolfowitz eventually says about his war.

In an on-air colloquy with Guy Raz after this interview, I made my own mistake. I said that a recent ruling by a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit held that John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, "was" personally liable for illegal detention of a U.S. citizen. Actually, the ruling said that he "could be" personally liable. My apologies.