by Sam Tanenhaus
Vanity Fair July, 2003
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Is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz driving U.S. foreign policy? After 9/11, when George W. Bush needed a worldview, the neoconservatives, led by Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and the controversial "prince of darkness" Richard Perle, provided it. Not since J.F.K.'s Best and Brightest has an intellectual junta had this much muscle. But even the neocons aren't quite sure what they've wrought in the Middle East. Examining their ideological roots and their bitterest bureaucratic brawls, Sam Tanenhaus charts the triumph of a radical faith in American power
One evening in February, some of Washington's leading hawks gathered at the Metropolitan Club, only a block from the White House, to celebrate the publication of The War over Iraq, a tautly argued pro-war polemic co-written by Lawrence F. Kaplan, a 33-year-old senior editor at The New Republic, and William Kristol, 50, the publisher and editor of The Weekly Standard, by all odds the capital's most influential journal of opinion these days.
Like most significant Beltway occasions, this one was deeply political, and what it marked was the ascendancy of the thinkers, activists, and policymakers known as neoconservatives. "Regular Republicans," such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, were also on hand. But the neocon-ness of the event was clinched when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke to the crowd. To this audience, Wolfowitz, 59, was well known as the principal author of the most important neoconservative text of the day: the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive, or "preventive," military action. Its first chapter, the invasion of Iraq, would commence in a month.
At the time, with the last stabs at diplomacy being made, the official White House line was that war could still be averted. But Wolfowitz spoke of it as an impending event. "There was no if," Kaplan told me in April. "His talk was clearly framed as when." Not that he sounded triumphant. He never does. (His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, is triumphant enough for two.) Wolfowitz, for all his hawkishness, is disarmingly soft-spoken, thoughtful, deliberate. His remarks were sober but also inspiring. "It sounded like a general rallying his troops for the battle ahead," one guest recalls.
The tone was appropriate because many in his audience were warriors of a kind, intellectual warriors who had been waging a battle of ideas, for more than three decades in some cases. But politics is timing. At the outset of the Bush presidency, there seemed to be little interest at the top in neocon thinking. But then, following the trauma of September 11, George Bush needed a plan-more than a plan, an answer, a way of looking at America and its place in the world-and the neocons, with their muscular idealism, had one perfectly in place.
For Wolfowitz, the memory of September 11 is especially vivid because he was at his office in the outer ring of the Pentagon, on the side of the building opposite where the hijacked American Airlines 757 hit. One hundred and twenty-five Pentagon employees were killed that day. "We had just had a breakfast with some congressmen," Wolfowitz told me in May. He and Rumsfeld were lobbying for increased defense spending. The pair had warned their visitors that "we were in for some nasty surprises" from America's overseas adversaries and that "the nature of surprise is you don't know what it's going to be."
Indeed. Word soon came that a plane had flown directly into the World Trade Center. "We turned on the TV and saw shots of the second plane hitting. There didn't seem much to do," Wolfowitz says. Then, half an hour later, at 9:43, he and his colleagues felt a jolt shudder through the Pentagon. "The whole building shook. My first reaction was that it was an earthquake." But Rumsfeld instantly made the connection with what was happening in New York. He raced off to the impact site to see what had happened. "Next we heard there had been a bomb and the building had to be evacuated," Wolfowitz recalls. Smoke and fumes filled the offices. The surviving staff struggled out to the 29-acre complex's parade grounds. A small "command group"-Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Richard Meyers, then the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (he has since moved up to the top job)-returned to the building. "That's an experience I will never forget," says Wolfowitz-the "huge fire, the acrid smoke seeping in." Soon he was whisked off, for security reasons, to "this bizarre location prepared to survive nuclear war, way uptown."
It was a scene out of a low-budget Cold War disaster film. But this was a new era with new enemies. To Wolfowitz, it was clear "the old approach to terrorism was not acceptable any longer." Passivity was now riskier than action. "This is just the beginning of what these bastards could do if they get access to modern weapons," Wolfowitz remembers thinking. That weekend, in front of the president at Camp David, he would startle some officials by advocating an attack not on al-Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan but on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "After 9/11, Iraq was the one issue" for Wolfowitz, says a senior administration official. "Even before then he was pretty well focused on it."
Meanwhile, on September 11, across the Potomac, fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, soon to emerge as the Bush administration's favorite think tank, were receiving similarly aggressive counsel from Wolfowitz's longtime friend and ally Richard Perle, who was on the phone from France. Perle, himself an A.E.I. fellow, was also the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a high-powered 30-member group (Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich also belong) that periodically gives advice to the secretary of defense. Like Wolfowitz, Perle is never at a loss for a big-picture reading. One who consulted him that day was presidential speechwriter David Frum, who along with other administration staffers had taken shelter at A.E.I.'s offices after the White House was evacuated. Frum spent an hour on the phone with Perle. "I remember very clearly what he said," Frum recalls. "'Whatever else the president says, he must make clear that he's holding responsible not just terrorists but whoever harbors those terrorists.'"
That night Bush would go on television and say precisely this. Two months later, Frum would invent the phrase "axis of hate," later revised to "axis of evil"-a textbook neoconservative formulation.
Some argue that there's no longer any difference in conservative thinking between neo and non-neo. But when the term "neoconservative" first achieved currency, in the mid-1970s, it referred to a loose confederacy of ex-liberals who had drifted steadily rightward, repudiating the excesses of the welfare state and post-Vietnam distrust of American power. While mainstream conservatives inclined toward isolationism or Realpolitik, neocons inhabited a political shadowland where idealism mingled with ideology. They still do. Beneath Wolfowitz's hyperrational exterior, for instance, there is an electric current of moral fervor-righteous passion, some would say. Perle and Kristol, both highly sophisticated men, invoke the words "good" and "evil" quite as naturally as President Bush does, though with a very different resonance. Neocons are steeped in the knowledge-personal, in some cases-of Europe's 20th-century totalitarian horrors. They bring a rare sense of historical drama to politics; for them foreign-policy issues come drenched in crisis. Saddam is not merely a brutal dictator whom the world would be better off without-he is the stepchild of Hitler or Stalin, or both.
To be a neocon today is to believe that the optimal world is one in which the United States asserts its might and promulgates its ideas, embracing its "unipolar" status, whether or not other nations agree. So dominant has this outlook become that it has transformed perceptions of the Bush administration, and of George Bush himself, at least in the eyes of those who mistrust him. Yesterday's servant of oil and gas companies is now "the callow instrument of neoconservative ideologues," as The New York Review of Books recently put it. Others warn darkly of a "cabal" or "conspiracy" of mostly Jewish "kosher conservatives" who have "hijacked" the government even as they secretly serve the interests of Israel's Likud Party. There are rumors of a "shadow government," being run from Wolfowitz's office, which is said to have usurped intelligence operations from the C.I.A. There is talk, too, that Kristol, whose Weekly Standard is read intently by some at the White House, has planted a sleeper cell of neoconservatives in the upper reaches of the Bush administration.
"People think there's a conspiracy," says an amused Kristol, who like all Beltway pros can dismiss an idea even as he reinforces it. "It's not as if Paul and Richard and I get together every month and decide what the next move is going to be." But, yes, he admits, "Bush moved a little after 9/11. Certainly he says things now he wasn't saying two years ago." But "if it's a cabal, it's the most visible cabal ever." After all, "we write articles." For his part, Wolfowitz is less amused, bristling at any suggestion of secrecy. "It's completely out in the open who holds these views in this administration. It couldn't be more transparent."
The neocons are not usurpers. They are the new establishment, and not since the "Wise Men," who formulated the first Cold War policies for Harry Truman in the late 1940s, or the Harvard brain trust that advised John Kennedy have intellectuals had so direct an impact on the nation's politics. Of course, the policies of those two administrations produced very different results. The Wise Men made the United States the world's great stabilizing force via the Marshall Plan and nato. Their heirs in the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses-"the Best and the Brightest," in David Halberstam's famous phrase-gave us Vietnam. And no one is quite sure what the results will be this time, not even, for all their confidence and proclaimed moral clarity, the neocons themselves. "There's no relevant experience to draw on," confesses Perle, who has been advocating regime change in Iraq for years, when asked how long it will take to create a viable government there. Or as Wolfowitz admits, contradicting some of his more optimistic colleagues, "Getting post-Saddam Iraq right may take years."
Born in 1943, Wolfowitz grew up in an atmosphere of intense moral and intellectual seriousness. His father, Jacob, had emigrated from Poland as a 10-year-old and came of age in New York during the Great Depression, teaching high school for a number of years while earning his doctorate in mathematics. He eventually joined the faculty at Columbia and later Cornell. Paul, the younger of two children, inherited his father's intellect and also his moral passion. As an undergrad at Cornell, Paul met Allan Bloom, a charismatic, erudite professor of political philosophy, who was the resident adviser at Telluride, the dorm for gifted students, where Wolfowitz lived. Wolfowitz credits Bloom in large part for his discovery that the "study of politics [is] a serious business." A math and biochemistry major, Wolfowitz also immersed himself in the study of global politics, which, according to friends, displeased his father, who scorned the social sciences.
Though admitted to M.I.T.'s graduate program in biophysical chemistry, Wolfowitz, "unbeknownst to my father," had applied as well to the University of Chicago. Its political-science faculty had just added a new member, Albert Wohlstetter, a brilliant and eccentric geo-military thinker whose analyses of America's porous nuclear defenses, written at the Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica, California, had shocked the Pentagon into overhauling its weapons systems. He and Wolfowitz met at the first student-faculty tea held after the younger man arrived at Chicago in 1965, at age 21. Described by one colleague as "an impossible person, a mad genius," Wohlstetter had the guru's talent for engaging young minds. According to Wolfowitz, when "Albert learned I was a math major he immediately glommed on to me," sensing in Wolfowitz a possible recruit to the "technical and technological" approach to military strategy favored by Wohlstetter, whose enthusiasm for inventive nuclear scenarios is said to have inspired Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick to make him one of several models for Dr. Strangelove. Contrary to that image, Wohlstetter had not learned "to love the bomb." He was, rather, a practical visionary convinced that the regnant nuclear theology of the period-with its belief that the "delicate balance of terror" held the superpowers in check-was also keeping American policymakers from thinking more creatively, and thus less apocalyptically, about weapons and war.
At Chicago, Wolfowitz also met another important preceptor, Leo Strauss, an emigre German Jewish philosopher who had been Bloom's mentor. Strauss's philosophy is complex, allusive, and nuanced, steeped in close readings of Plato. Among the ideas that would influence neoconservatism was his belief that modern European liberalism had been a disaster climaxed by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Mankind's last best hope was the United States; its civil democracy was a kind of blessed historical accident. Strauss, who died in 1973, "is a remarkable figure" from whom, Wolfowitz says, he learned a great deal in the two seminars he took, though he scoffs at the notion, much bruited of late, that Strauss's ideas can be linked to the Iraq war. "A product of fevered minds," he insists.
In any event, Wolfowitz knew his future lay not in political theory-as abstract in its way as math-but in the practical realm of policy. He jumped when Wohlstetter suggested he go to Washington for a few weeks in the spring of 1969 to work as a "scout," canvassing opinions on Capitol Hill for a group of Cold Warriors who supported the anti-ballistic missile (abm), a futuristic defense system that the new president, Richard Nixon, was struggling to get through Congress. During the project, which lasted a few weeks, Wolfowitz met a senator, his first, Henry M. Jackson, of Washington State. A Democrat, "Scoop" Jackson was a classic first-generation neocon, liberal on social issues but fiercely anti-Soviet. Wolfowitz was impressed when a shirtsleeved Jackson-a national figure being talked of as a future president-got down on the floor to master a chart Wolfowitz had made countering charges that the ABM was unworkable.
Wolfowitz's fellow scout on the ABM project was another protege of Wohlstetter's, a 27-year-old graduate continued on page 164 continued from page 118 student in political science named Richard Perle. The son of a textile manufacturer and his wife who had moved from New York to Los Angeles, Perle was the opposite of an academic overachiever. In fact, he was flunking Spanish at Hollywood High School when he caught the eye of a classmate, Joan Wohlstetter, Albert's daughter, who invited him home to swim in the family pool. Her father was there, and he stirred Perle's untapped intellectual depths, engaging him in a conversation about military strategy that lasted, in one form or another, until Wohlstetter's death in 1997. Perle's formal education came at the University of Southern California (Chicago turned him down) and then at Princeton, where he was working on his M.A. when Wolfowitz met him.
After the ABM project ended, Wolfowitz returned to academia, but Perle joined Jackson's staff and remained there for the next 11 years. Following the death of his parents-his mother in 1969, his father two years later-Perle found a surrogate father in Jackson. The pair were on a mission to shred detente, the bold new strategy devised by Nixon and his foreign-policy guru, Henry Kissinger, as a means of easing superpower tensions. To hard-liners, detente was morally repugnant since it glossed over Soviet crimes. It was also harebrained: Jackson favored the opposite strategy of upping the arms budget to put the screws to an already feeble Soviet economy.
Perle's work habits were unorthodox-he kept to a schedule of his own making, which might not start till late morning and then continue deep into the night-but he seemed born for bureaucratic intrigue. He and the senator made a rugged team, with Perle mastering legislative detail while Jackson made the public case, crushing his adversaries in open and closed debate. "There was a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic," says Jackson's biographer, Robert Kaufman. "What Nixon was to Eisenhower, Perle was to Jackson." Wolfowitz, meanwhile, grew restless on the tenure track in Yale's political-science department and in 1973 moved to Washington, eventually enlisting with a group Wohlstetter put together called the New Alternatives Workshop. Its mission, Wolfowitz says, was "to look at the implications of new technology," particularly weapons that "promised great improvements in accuracy." The fruits of the group's research and lobbying efforts would be evident a decade and a half later with the first Gulf War's smart bombs. "It was a considerable matter of personal satisfaction to watch those missiles turn right-angle corners in the Gulf War in '91, doing what Albert envisioned 15 years before," Wolfowitz says today.
During this time, Wolfowitz and Perle became even closer, though their styles are very different. "Richard has joie de vivre," says someone who knows both Perle and Wolfowitz well. While the former "could have sold anything to anyone, Wolfowitz has this academic personality-balanced, slow, methodical, always worried about uncertainty." Their tastes differ, too. Perle lives large and is as learned in the offerings of the world's shopping capitals as he is in throw weights. His first wife was working at a travel agency when he met her in Denmark. (A friend refers to this as Perle's "Philip Roth period.") The ascetic Wolfowitz is quieter, absent from the D.C. party circuit, invisible to the press until only recently. He closely guards his private life. Although he is separated from his wife, Clare, an anthropologist who has been described as his college sweetheart, Wolfowitz remains a devoted family man, close to their three children.
It was in the 70s that neoconservatism matured into a formal movement with munificent funding and tentacular "outreach." Magazines such as The Public Interest and Commentary spread the gospel while organizations such as the Committee on the Present Danger mobilized intellectuals who'd had enough of the counterculture, of squishy "anti-American" liberalism, of dithering leaders who had "lost their nerve," of an increasing mood of comity with the Soviets. At this point most neocons were still-barely-Democrats. (And some, including Perle, remain nominal members of the party.) The decisive break came in 1980 when they backed the most radical of major Republicans, Ronald Reagan, whose landslide victory unlocked the doors to real power for neocons, who flocked to Washington.
One such was Bill Kristol, the leading figure in a new generation of neoconservatives who had been raised in the movement. He is the son of the writer and editor Irving Kristol, a seminal neocon thinker who has been called the movement's "godfather," and of the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Born in 1952, Bill Kristol was raised in the world of New York intellectuals. As a boy, growing up on West 81st Street, he played ball in Riverside Park and maneuvered his way among the in-crowd at the Collegiate School. But at Harvard he got serious. His mentor, Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government, introduced him to Strauss's writings, and Kristol became a devotee who played in a "Straussian" touch-football game on weekends.
Kristol got a Ph.D. at Harvard and taught briefly at the University of Pennsylvania and, back in Cambridge, at the Kennedy School of Government. But "I just wasn't cut out to do serious academic work," he has said. William Bennett, Reagan's second secretary of education-and a friend of Irving Kristol's-gave Bill a staff job and then, rolling the dice on a fresh talent, promoted him to chief of staff. There Kristol mastered the art of political P.R.: feeding leaks to the media, timing news cycles, and all the rest. Under George H. W. Bush, he became, at age 36, Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff, assigned the task of creating an aura of gravitas around the most lightweight public figure of the day. Quayle may have profited less from the arrangement than did Kristol, who got a lot of ink, sometimes at his boss's expense.
Wolfowitz and Perle also thrived during the Reagan-Bush years. As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Wolfowitz persuaded Reagan to cut his ties to Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine dictator, an accomplishment Wolfowitz proudly cites in conversation-and that others claim as a landmark moment in neoconservative foreign policy. Next he became ambassador to Indonesia, where he concluded his three-year tour with a speech boldly calling for more political openness, endearing himself to the people while angering their dictator, Suharto. In a burst of bravado, he told The New York Times in April 2001 that his picture still hangs in the homes of citizens there.
But it was Richard Perle who entered the public consciousness at home. The former "Scoopite" found a place in the Reagan administration, thanks to the well-connected Republican arms-control specialist Kenneth Adelman, who had also eased Wolfowitz's way. "In 1980, I was pushing for Perle to be at the Defense Department," Adelman says today. Frank Carlucci, who was slated for the department's number-two slot, had heard stories about Perle's irregular work habits and called Adelman for advice. "Frank said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'It's worth the trouble. It's worth every bit of it.'" Perle, appointed assistant secretary of defense, maintained his erratic ways. According to Adelman, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger held a small staff meeting every morning promptly at eight. "Some people would give their right arm to attend," says Adelman. "Face time with the secretary. Richard would roll in at 10, be behind all day long." But, reprising the act he'd perfected under Jackson, Perle was also widely assumed to be doing Weinberger's thinking for him. "Richard Perle is extremely able, very knowledgeable about the background of arms control, which I was not," Weinberger told me recently. "When I came into office I needed a great deal of briefing." And Perle supplied it. He also excelled in "interagency" disputes with the State Department, pummeling opponents who favored soft negotiations with the Soviets. Dubbed the "prince of darkness," a one-man wrecking crew of arms negotiations, Perle became the darling of the hard-liners.
He was also a figure-about-town. He had married a Capitol Hill aide, Leslie Barr, and had a son, Jonathan (now in law school). The local press corps now faithfully reported Perle's off-duty activities, which by Washington standards were fairly louche: Perle and his beluga caviar, his imported French bread and cappuccino, his Monte Cristo cigars and Gauloises, his abandoned plans to invest in a chain of souffle restaurants (that was in the 70s). When he quit government in June 1987-the allure of private business, of sitting on corporate boards and setting up venture-capital firms, was too great-The Washington Post, in a three-part, 10,000-word retrospective (remarkable for a third-rank policy official), suggested he had "done more to shape the administration's nuclear arms policy than perhaps any individual except Reagan himself." It was no small accomplishment, and it has grown over time; that policy, many believe, helped bring the Soviets to their knees.
But if the 80s were the peak for neocons, the 90s were the nadir. Fate installed the elder George Bush in the White House when the Soviet Union finally split at the seams. But instead of offering a third Reagan term, Bush proved, to neocon eyes, a throwback to squeamish, ruling-class governance. There was the classic, Vietnam-redux "loss of nerve" during the Gulf War when Bush withdrew U.S. forces rather than take Saddam down. Next came his refusal to intervene in Bosnia because, explained Secretary of State James Baker, "we have no dog in that fight." Wolfowitz, now the under-secretary of defense for policy, told friends he was appalled. Today, Perle calls Baker's statement "morally reprehensible." The neocon vision of creating a Pax Americana, of the virtuous democracy that would guide the world from darkness into light, had been betrayed.
But not altogether. In 1992, Wolfowitz's staff, working from briefing papers he had prepared, drafted an continued on page 168 continued from page 165 in-house defense policy "guidance" asserting that the unipolar moment had come, that the United States should assert its interests over much of the globe, challenging even friendly nations, which were depicted as potential rivals. An adversary, alarmed by the report's hints of messianism, leaked it to The New York Times, which ran a huge page-one story followed by a scorching editorial warning that the "go-it-alone" approach was "downright perverse." Unnamed officials sprinted away from the "dumb report"-in hindsight, the blueprint for the Bush doctrine as well as, Wolfowitz argues, the Clinton administration's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
After Bush's defeat in 1992, friends tried to persuade Wolfowitz to go into investment banking. It was easy to see why: ex-politicos with Pentagon connections, Perle included, were making millions as "access capitalists." It was becoming, in fact, a new Washington industry. But Wolfowitz wasn't interested. "The gravy that there's a lot of in Washington is sort of beside the point for him," says an old friend. Instead, he accepted the deanship at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.
It was Kristol who tended the neoconservatism flame in Washington during the Clinton interregnum. He set up his own power base, an advocacy group called the Project for the Republican Future, and with his staff of 10 produced a blizzard of policy statements which he promoted by fax and in his silken TV commentary. In 1994, after helping sink Hillary Clinton's health plan and pushing Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, Kristol, along with two conservative journalists, his fellow "minicon" John Podhoretz (son of the writer and editor Norman Podhoretz) and the more traditional Republican Fred Barnes, decided to start The Weekly Standard, a Washington-based political journal that would occupy the same, sometimes prickly place on the right that The New Republic did on the left. Its manifestos attacked Republicans for hibernating away from the world and Democrats for being too naive about it. In January 1998, Kristol generated an open letter to Clinton-signed as well by Perle, Wolfowitz, and five others who now hold important positions in the Bush administration-declaring that "containment" of Iraq had failed and the only solution was "removing Saddam's regime." But no one took this too seriously. It was just the kooky neocons conjuring up new evil empires.
When the 2000 campaign began, the assumption was that the Republican front-runner, George W. Bush, would rely on his father's most trusted advisers-Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Condoleezza Rice-and that the old and hated Bush policies of cautious realism would prevail. Kristol backed John McCain, likening him to Teddy Roosevelt, the avatar of a new epoch of "national greatness." But some had inklings that the younger Bush might not be a carbon copy of his father. When the campaign started up, both Wolfowitz and Perle were brought in to brief Bush on foreign policy. "The first time I met Bush 43 I knew he was different," Perle says. "Two things became clear. One, he didn't know very much. The other was he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn't know very much. Most people are reluctant to say when they don't know something, a word or term they haven't heard before. Not him. You'd raise a point, and he'd say, 'I didn't realize that. Can you explain that?' He was eager to learn.... I came away thinking he had some of Scoop's qualities of character. You got the sense that if he believed something he'd pursue it tenaciously." Wolfowitz, too, would soon be telling Washington acquaintances that Bush was "the new Scoop Jackson," that he cut through the murk, wanted to be told what needed doing and how it should be done.
as the campaign wore on, Bush and Wolfowitz grew closer. There were many phone calls from Austin. Wolfowitz's intimates began to think he'd be named secretary of defense if Bush won. "There was a huge expectation," says a friend. "He had the resume as much as anyone else who's held the position." But if Wolfowitz was disappointed by Bush's choice of Rumsfeld, he didn't let on-he admired Rumsfeld and told friends he was eager to work for him. Indeed, the secretary was a kind of honorary neocon.
Perle made it clear he didn't want a job in the administration, so Rumsfeld named him chairman of the Defense Policy Board. As an "outsider insider," with access to classified documents but not officially a member of the administration, Perle was free to do what he did best-stir things up. But Perle would get in trouble for appearing to violate the Defense Policy Board's "conduct" rules on at least two occasions. One came when he took a $125,000 retainer from Global Crossing, the bankrupt telecom company, which had sought his advice on Defense Department objections to the firm's sale to an Asian venture. After a media squall, Perle said the fee would be donated to the families of American soldiers killed or injured in Iraq. He stepped down as Defense Policy chairman, though he remains on the board. The skilled infighter also threatened rashly to sue The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh for libel over an article detailing Perle's alleged conflicts of interest.
As Bush took office, the Standard looked as if it had been left out of the game altogether. First, there was the inopportune McCain endorsement. Then, after Kristol in TV-pundit mode had predicted a victory for Al Gore, Ari Fleischer, then a Bush-campaign spokesman, phoned to let him know his words had been "duly noted." As Kristol says diplomatically, "The Bush people aren't big on constructive criticism." Now, when conservative journalists are invited to White House "schmoozes," Kristol is conspicuously left off the list. "I'm sort of not persona non grata, nor persona grata," he says.
In any case, neoconservatism was never about making friends. It was about remaking American politics, and the world too, if the opportunity came. And on September 11 it did. Soon the most intense and hard-fought interagency debate in modern memory was under way, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to limit the administration's military response to al-Qaeda and the Taliban while Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz pushed to widen it. A pivotal moment came on Saturday, September 15, when Bush summoned his top advisers for a contentious meeting at Camp David. There are several published accounts of this marathon session, all incomplete because the participants were interviewed while the war in Iraq was still pending. The fullest account of the meeting to date, in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, describes a coffee break during which Bush told a small group-it included Cheney, his chief of staff, I. Louis ("Scooter") Libby, and Wolfowitz-that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry B. Shelton, who personally opposed attacking Iraq, had presented "unimaginative" options for going after the country. Wolfowitz, Woodward writes, then "expanded on the arguments about how war against Iraq might be easier than against Afghanistan." This account ends with Wolfowitz being scolded by White House chief of staff Andrew Card for interrupting Rumsfeld to pursue the point with the larger group. The president, Wolfowitz and the rest were reportedly told, had heard enough about Iraq.
In fact, according to an informed source, Wolfowitz not only engaged Bush much more directly over coffee than has been reported, but also may have sold him on an eventual reckoning with Saddam. Wolfowitz agreed with Bush: Shelton's plan-a limited series of "pinprick" bombings-was indeed unimaginative. But, Wolfowitz is said to have countered, "we have very good options for dealing with Iraq," and he laid them out. "Think about the fact that the second-largest city in Iraq"-Basra-"is full of Shia who hate Saddam," he told the president. Consider, too, that Basra lies "within 60 kilometers of the Kuwaiti border and within 60 percent of Iraq's total oil production." Bush was impressed. "It was clear [Wolfowitz's argument] stuck with him," says this source. Wolfowitz puts it this way, with characteristic precision: "To the extent it was a debate about timing and tactics, the president clearly came down on the side of Afghanistan first. To the extent it was a debate about strategy and what the larger goal was, it is at least clear with 20/20 hindsight that the president came down on the side of the larger goal." In truth, Wolfowitz had presented in broadest outline the full-scale invasion that would be enacted 18 months later.
Since then, Wolfowitz's fixation on Iraq has led even some in the administration to accuse him of tunnel vision. "If you look around the world at other issues, he's nonexistent," says one senior official. "He's not a major player on any other issue." At interagency meetings, this source says, Wolfowitz often can't state a Defense Department position because he "has no idea where Rummy [stands]." Nor has his thinking about Iraq been in sync with others'-as became clear when the administration's rationale for going to war kept changing. When we spoke in May, as U.S. inspectors were failing to find weapons of mass destruction, Wolfowitz admitted that from the outset, contrary to so many claims from the White House, Iraq's supposed cache of W.M.D. had never been the most compelling casus belli. It was simply one of several: "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." Everyone meaning, presumably, Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Almost unnoticed but huge," he said, is another reason: removing Saddam will allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been one of al-Qaeda's biggest grievances. "Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door" to a more peaceful Middle East, Wolfowitz said, adding, "I don't want to speak in messianic terms." (The risks of doing so were brought home three days after our interview when eight Americans were killed by al-Qaeda bombs in Riyadh.)
There are other intriguing byways in Wolfowitz's thinking about Iraq. For one thing, he seems confident Saddam was connected to the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the theory advanced by the Iraqi specialist and A.E.I. adjunct fellow Laurie Mylroie in her book The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks. Says Wolfowitz, "The acknowledged incontrovertible fact is the only indicted participant [still at large]"-Iraqi-American Abdul Rahman Yasin-"fled to Iraq and has been there ever since. [He] may be there today." Wolfowitz also has entertained the theory, advanced by Mylroie on the basis of telephone logs and other evidence, that Saddam was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. "I first heard the notion from Paul," says a longtime friend. "He showed me Timothy McVeigh's Web site that said there was nothing worse than the suffering of Iraqi children under the sanctions. He was interested in this question. I don't think he'd reached any conclusion." Perle, too, finds the theory plausible. "I think Laurie makes a significantly strong case and [it] deserves investigation," he says. Wolfowitz, when asked directly about the Oklahoma City connection, declined comment.
Whatever the justifications, Wolfowitz has staked a great deal on the so-called war of choice in Iraq. If his master plan works he may well be remembered as a giant of foreign policy-Wolfowitz of Arabia, as some in the Middle East now call him. If not, the consequences will haunt him, and us all, for many years to come.
In the meantime, the neocons dominate a moment in which righteousness radiates outward from the centers of power. "Iraq is in a small way the reverse of Vietnam," says Kristol, offering yet another gloss on the war. He means a favorable outcome could restore America's pre-Vietnam faith in itself. This is admirable, but also unsettling. It suggests that for the neocons, or some of them at least, the war "over" Iraq is really being fought at home-that it is part of the larger struggle for the American soul that they have been waging now for 30 years.
COPYRIGHT 2003 All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of The Condé Nast Publications Inc.