“Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces.” So observed Henry Adams nearly a century ago. Yet the men engaged in that struggle fascinate us: through them otherwise latent forces that actually shape politics are made manifest.
In recent years, Paul Wolfowitz has been the object of such fascination, extravagantly admired in some quarters for his strategic acumen, reviled in others as a reckless warmonger. It is easy to see why: more than any of the other dramatis personae in contemporary Washington, Wolfowitz embodies the central convictions to which the United States in the age of Bush subscribes—in particular, an extraordinary certainty in the righteousness of American actions married to extraordinary confidence in the efficacy of American arms.
Historians will remember Wolfowitz not as the architect of the Iraq War but as the chief proponent of a radical shift in American thinking about war more generally. Since the 1980s, even before the collapse of the Soviet empire elevated the United States to the status of sole superpower, Wolfowitz has been pressing insistently for a more expansive, forward-leaning approach to using armed force. .
Nominally, the inspiration of this project was straightforward: it aimed to enhance U.S. national security. As Wolfowitz saw it, when faced with burgeoning threats, American policymakers have habitually tended to prevaricate. Yet putting off problems merely permits them to fester. Delay serves only to exacerbate danger. In the game of international security, the governing rule was a simple one: pay me now or pay me later. Wolfowitz believed that paying up front could markedly reduce the final tab. Well-conceived, adroitly executed action—with action necessarily implying the actual or threatened use of force—could nip threats in the bud. Although conceding that no action was without risk, he felt certain that “the risks of inaction ultimately are greater.” This comment, made in reference to Iraq in 2002, reflected a more general predisposition.
Yet in a broader sense, the project consuming Wolfowitz also possessed a teleological dimension. In the bold and skillful use of military power, he believed, lay the prospect of resolving the contradictions that had long made statecraft the realm of moral ambiguity and compromise. During the 1940s, and especially during the ominous early days of the Cold War, a series of influential thinkers—Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, and above all Reinhold Niebuhr—had each in different ways made the point that if the United States intended to play the part of a responsible great power then it had no alternative but to deal with the devil: the preservation of American freedom demanded that the United States tolerate, accommodate, and in some instances even collaborate with evil.
Niebuhr rendered the definitive judgment: “power cannot be wielded without guilt.” Applied to liberal, democratic America, this somber assessment had two implications: first, it rendered obsolete claims of innocence dating back to the founding of Anglo-America; second, it imposed sharp limits on the uses of power. According to Niebuhr, there was no escaping this vise. Any attempt to do so would produce dire consequences, practical but above all moral.
A succession of administrations, both Republican and Democratic, had tacitly endorsed this view. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had hailed the murderous Josef Stalin as a great and glorious ally. Following the war, the swelling roster of American friends came to include Batista and Somoza, Marcos and Diem, the king of Saudi Arabia and the Shah of Iran. The year 1972 found a fervently anticommunist American president in Beijing paying obeisance to China’s megalomaniacal “Great Helmsman.”
McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once remarked apropos of Vietnam, “Gray is the color of truth.” During long decades of the Cold War, the entire fabric of U.S. policy seemingly consisted of various shades of gray.
Paul Wolfowitz rejected Bundy’s bleak assessment. He bridled against Niebuhr’s judgment. He refused to concede the impossibility of reconciling power and interests with moral purpose. He was in this sense cut from the same cloth as Ronald Reagan: received circumstance was not destiny. But whereas Reagan looked to the fantasies of Star Wars to void the amorality of Mutual Assured Destruction, Wolfowitz plotted a more subtle and sophisticated, if in the end equally problematic, means of escape.
Wolfowitz ranked among the first national-security specialists to appreciate the military potential of advanced information technology. Computers could change the very nature of modern warfare—not by creating an impenetrable defensive shield as Reagan had hoped but by opening up new possibilities for offensive action.
At the center of this putative military revolution lay the concept of precision. The advent of weapons of unprecedented accuracy, Wolfowitz once told an interviewer, “translates into a whole transformation of strategy and politics.” In an era when nuclear weapons had persuaded many that war had become all but unthinkable, accuracy promised to restore war’s political utility. For policymakers, accuracy would also ease moral inhibitions against choosing to employ force. Simply put, precision could undo Hiroshima and unshackle military power. Best of all was the fact that the United States led the way in every aspect of the information revolution. In an information age, military supremacy was America’s for the taking.
Wolfowitz did not invent these ideas. The intellectual godfather of precision warfare was Albert Wohlstetter, who had been Wolfowitz’s graduate-school mentor and whose student Wolfowitz very much remained. But whereas Wohlstetter, the defense intellectual, had chosen to make his career outside the political arena, Wolfowitz pursued his ambitions as an insider. Increasingly well placed and well respected, cultivating a network of likeminded colleagues and honing his already impressive bureaucratic skills, he emerged by the time of the first Persian Gulf War as the most influential advocate of this imaginative effort to reinvent warfare.
Among national-security specialists, Wolfowitz was also uniquely attuned to the possibility of tapping this new way of war so as to bring U.S. strategic imperatives back into harmony with professed ideals. In the new way of war lay the possibility of washing the gray out of the fabric of American policy.
As the end of the 20th century approached, Providence was clearly summoning the United States to rule. Yet for Wolfowitz, the summons to rule complemented rather than transcended America’s prior mission to redeem. If the New Rome, the United States also remained the New Jerusalem. As Wolfowitz saw it, the possession of great military power facilitated the merger of these seemingly antipathetic roles. America’s interests and American ideology were becoming indistinguishable.
One prospective result would be to free American statesmen from ever again aligning the United States with Stalin to defeat Hitler or with Mao to check Brezhnev. Never again would raison d’etat oblige presidents to soil themselves by associating with execrable tin-pot dictators. Through military power, the United States could recapture the innocence sullied in the aftermath of the nation’s rise to great-power status. An American-dominated military revolution could revive American Exceptionalism and disprove Niebuhr.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, using American muscle to advance American values around the world became for Wolfowitz a moral imperative. It was also, he believed, the essence of the new American diplomacy. Remaining passive in the face of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Africa, or oppression in the Persian Gulf was not only wrong, but foolhardy. As never before, doing good carried with it the prospect of the nation doing well. By taking advantage of vast new opportunities to put U.S. military might to work protecting human rights and advancing the cause of freedom, the United States could actually cement its position of global primacy.
Again, the concept was by no means unique to Wolfowitz. During the Clinton era—for Wolfowitz, wilderness years spent in academe—many others, most notably writers and activists associated with the Religious Right and the so-called neoconservative movement, were expressing similar views. But these chatterers never wielded more than limited clout. The inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001 positioned newly appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz to advocate these ideas where advocacy counted most.
For Wolfowitz, therefore, the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11 also signified a unique opportunity, which he quickly seized. Urging that the global war against terror be recast as a global war on behalf of freedom, he placed himself in the vanguard of those calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. A war to liberate Iraq promised to change the face of American grand strategy. By irrevocably committing the United States to a broader and heavily militarized campaign aimed at liberating the entire Islamic world, it would signify the triumph of principles that Wolfowitz had long espoused.
But for that triumph to occur, the war needed to happen. In this sense, the yearnings for a peaceful resolution expressed by Wolfowitz and other senior Bush administration officials during the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom surely qualify as disingenuous. The object of the exercise was never to disarm Saddam peacefully. The aim was always to demonstrate the invincibility of American arms, thereby resetting in a fundamental way the international correlation of power globally, and especially in the Islamic world. Violence as such was a sine qua non, its use expected to endow the United States with greater reserves of leverage, influence, and respect.
In the months preceding the U.S.-led invasion, with the ranks of those opposing the administration swelling, Wolfowitz figured prominently among the officials called upon to rebut any objections to war. Never has a deputy cabinet secretary played such a visible role in making the case for a policy so fraught with controversy. Cool, imperturbable, and relentlessly “on message,” Wolfowitz performed impressively. Only once did his mask of self-assurance slip: when the United States Army, in the person of its chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, ventured to say nay.
The clash between Shinseki and Wolfowitz received considerable media coverage. For some, it lives on as emblematic of the arrogance and over-confidence attributed to the Bush administration on the eve of war. But the full significance of this civil-military confrontation remains unappreciated. For Shinseki, an honorable soldier with few intellectual pretensions, was also in his own way the embodiment of specific forces, very much at odds with those that Wolfowitz had championed. Although couching his critique in green-eyeshade, bean-counting terms, the general set out to subvert the very project that represented the deputy defense secretary’s life’s work.
The administration, Shinseki told members of Congress, was badly underestimating the number of troops that pacifying Iraq was likely to require. Given that the requisite additional troops simply did not exist, Shinseki was implicitly arguing that the U.S. armed services were inadequate for the enterprise. Further, he was implying that invasion was likely to produce something other than a crisp, tidy decision; from a soldier’s viewpoint, a display of precision warfare was not likely to settle the matter. “Liberation” would leave loose ends. Unexpected and costly complications would abound.
In effect, Shinseki was offering a last-ditch defense of the military tradition that Wolfowitz was intent on destroying, a tradition that saw armies as fragile, that sought to husband military power, and that classified force as an option of last resort. The risks of action, Shinseki was suggesting, were far, far greater than the advocates for war had let on.
Shinseki’s critique elicited an immediate retaliatory response. One could safely ignore the complaints of liberal Democrats or the New York Times, not to mention those coming from a largely inchoate antiwar movement. But if the brass openly opposed the war, they could halt the march on Baghdad even before it began. Besides, how could Shinseki dare even to raise the question of an occupation? Wolfowitz was already on the record as declaring that the United States was “committed to liberating the people of Iraq, not to becoming an occupation force.” Shinseki had to be discredited then and there, lest the opportunity to validate the new American way of war be lost forever.
So the normally unflappable Wolfowitz responded with uncharacteristic brusqueness, caustically dismissing the general’s estimate as “wildly off the mark.” For his dissent, Shinseki paid dearly. Publicly rebuked and immediately marginalized, he soon retired, his fate an object lesson for other senior military professionals. (The episode affirmed the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz theory of civil-military relations: heap lavish public praise on soldiers in the ranks while keeping the generals and admirals on an exceedingly short leash.)
In the end, Wolfowitz got his war. Operation Iraqi Freedom provided the first salvo in an open-ended campaign to transform the Islamic world. Should the conduct of that campaign require the anticipatory use of force, it also provided ample precedent to do just that.
Two years later, Wolfowitz has won a promotion, having been elevated to the presidency of the World Bank. From this even more prominent position, he vows to bring to the eradication of global poverty the same energy that he demonstrated in revitalizing war. According to the standard Washington metric, his appointment qualifies as a triumphal vindication not only of the man but also of the policies he represents.
The contrast with the fate of his chief antagonist could hardly be more vivid. General Shinseki has all but vanished. In an age when senior officers with scores to settle typically vent their spleen by publishing self-exculpatory memoirs or becoming political partisans, Shinseki, ever the traditionalist, has maintained a studied silence. Immensely generous to Wolfowitz, fate has seemingly treated Shinseki unfairly.
Yet this immediate accounting deceives. A balanced assessment of Wolfowitz’s legacy must note that he leaves behind unfinished business and unresolved questions related to precisely those matters about which he cared most: the political utility and moral implications of military power. The forces that he represented and the events that he helped set in motion have yielded at best mixed results.
In its trial run, the doctrine of preventive war—Wolfowitz’s handiwork as much as the president’s—has produced liberation and occupation, a crisp demonstration of “shock and awe” and a protracted, debilitating insurgency, the dramatic toppling of a dictator and horrifying evidence implicating American soldiers in torture and other abuses. The Iraq War has now entered its third year with no end in sight, taxing U.S. forces to the limit. The ongoing conflict has divided the nation like no event since Vietnam. Like Vietnam, it is sapping our economic strength and has already done immeasurable damage to our standing in the world. Despite expectations of Saddam’s overthrow paving the way for what some expected to be a foreign policy of moral incandescence, the United States finds itself obliged once again to compromise its ideals, cozying up to little Saddams like Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov.
The forces that Paul Wolfowitz helped unleash—a dangerous combination of hubris and naïveté—are exacting an ever mounting cost. His considerable exertions notwithstanding, truth in matters of statecraft remains implacably gray. Even assuming honorable intentions on the part of those who conceived this war, wielding power in Iraq has left the United States up to its ankles, if not up to its knees, in guilt.
In his solitude, General Shinseki can await the final judgment of history with considerable confidence. At the pinnacle of professional success, Paul Wolfowitz must look forward to a different verdict that will be anything but kind.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.