Paul Wolfowitz

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 12 2001 8:30 PM

Paul Wolfowitz

Bush's testosterone man at Defense.

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Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was probably the American least surprised by the 9/11 attacks. In his three decades as a neocon defense wonk, he has made a specialty of expecting unlikely events with horrible consequences. He has long been trying to persuade his colleagues that the United States must prepare for the remote, the unlikely, the peculiar, because it will occur. He's also known for considering every response, especially ones that seem over-the-top.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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So it's not surprising that, in an administration that has a genius for public unanimity, Wolfowitz has become the lone overt free-lancer, overshadowing his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At a press conference three days after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz declared that American policy was "ending states who sponsor terrorism." Wolfowitz also lobbied strenuously in private for the United States to fight a broad war that would topple the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. (Wolfowitz, while he hasn't said so publicly, may suspect Saddam was involved in 9/11. Wolfowitz has close ties to those who do. See " Osama, Saddam, and the Bombs.")

Wolfowitz's "ending states" comment earned him a public smack from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told reporters that Wolfowitz could "speak for himself," but the American goal was only to "end terrorism." And Wolfowitz's enthusiasm for nailing Saddam was quashed for the time being, as Powell and others have made it clear that such a widespread war would destroy the coalition and infuriate Arab allies. (Who's on whose side in this disagreement?'s a scorecard.)

But Powell hasn't totally quashed Wolfowitz. The U.S. strikes on Afghanistan are clearly a Taliban-busting operation, not merely a kill-shot at Osama Bin Laden. And, according to news reports, the United States is also considering action against terror groups in Indonesia and the Philippines. Robert Wright makes the case against Wolfowitzian vast unilateral action in this"Earthling." (This is not the first time Wolfowitz and Powell have clashed. Click for more.)

Foreign policy conservatives generally come in two flavors. The Kissinger-style realists believe that the United States can work with any regime, however nasty, to maintain the balance of power and that democratic ideals are minimally important to national security. The moralizing neocons—see Robert Kagan and the Weekly Standard—wish to spread American values everywhere, backed by American military power, and damn the geopolitical consequences. Wolfowitz triangulates the two views, a chilly rationalist who's also a moralist.

Wolfowitz, the son of a Cornell math professor, believes deeply in the value of calculation to foreign policy. He majored in math and chemistry, and when he turned to political science for graduate school, he did it in the most analytical way possible: At the University of Chicago, Wolfowitz became the protégé of Albert Wohlstetter, the conservative nuclear strategist. Wohlstetter believed that it was not only possible, but necessary, to rationally study atomic war. That ability to think about the unthinkable rubbed off on Wolfowitz. (Wolfowitz also studied with Allan Bloom. Saul Bellow apparently modeled a character in Ravelstein, his novel about Bloom, on Wolfowitz.)

Wolfowitz also absorbed plenty of the neocon fervor. In the early '70s, as a young Defense Department hand, he rallied conservatives against détente, arguing that the untrustworthy Soviets would exploit any American softness. He has preached for democracy on occasions when a Kissingerian would not. As ambassador to Indonesia in the late '80s, he lectured the dictator Suharto and his lackeys on the need for political openness. He pressed for democracy in the Philippines rather than blindly backing a pro-U.S. dictator.

Wolfowitz is frequently called a conservative ideologue, and while it's certainly true, it's not the most fruitful way of analyzing him. There are four pillars to Wolfowitz's philosophy: 1) intellectual inquisitiveness, 2) insistence on expecting the unexpected, 3) belief in American might (and skepticism of foreign entanglements), and 4) faith in prevention. Wolfowitz often complains about the United States' "what, me worry?" complacency, and his ambition is to shake it.

As Wolfowitz hopped up the ladder of the Defense and State Department bureaucracies (serving every president but Clinton since Nixon), his knack for expecting the unexpected and his eagerness to deploy American forces earned him a reputation for both prescience and nuttiness. In 1977, he foresaw the possibility that Iraq would invade Kuwait and threaten Saudi Arabia, and the United States changed its Persian Gulf deployment strategy as a result. In 1992, by contrast, he horrified many when he suggested that the United States dispatch troops to Lithuania if Russia tried to stop the republic's secession.

Wolfowitz is a great advocate of prevention. He is avid about national missile defense because he thinks the United States has been reckless in assuming that an enemy wouldn't dare fire a missile at us. (Wolfowitz, typically, worries lots about the domestic havoc a potential missile strike could cause but little about the geopolitical disturbance missile defense certainly would cause.) Wolfowitz believes that actions that seem excessive may in fact be essential for greater peace. This is why we must take down Saddam Hussein now: We don't know that Saddam will do anything dreadful, but we know that he intends it. He is building weapons of mass destruction. He has slaughtered thousands of his own people. A kiloton of prevention now would be better than a megaton of cure.

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