A man who has mattered

Posted: May 12, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- ``I can't tell you,'' Paul Wolfowitz says with justifiable asperity, ``how much I resent being called a Wilsonian.'' As he retires as deputy secretary of defense and becomes head of the World Bank, the man most responsible for the doctrinal justification of the Iraq War, and who has been characterized as representing Woodrow Wilson's utopian, rather than the realist, strain in American foreign policy, begs to differ. The question, he says, is who has been realistic for almost four decades.

     The sprouting of freedom through the fissures in the concrete of dictatorships began, he recalls, in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s. This, he believes, disturbed Soviet leaders, and should have: It called into question the realism of ``realists'' who, he says, ``were factually wrong'' in dismissing the possibility of undermining the Soviet regime with pressures short of force.

     Those include pressures for human rights and on economies. In the early 1980s, Wolfowitz was part of the successful resistance to abolishing the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights. This was more than a decade after he worked with Sen. Henry Jackson, the Washington Democrat, in preparing for Jackson's extraordinary debate with Stuart Symington, the Missouri Democrat, about ballistic missile defenses.

     The debate occurred in an almost unprecedented closed session of the Senate in the summer of 1969. Symington argued that offensive weapons can always overwhelm defenses. Jackson, Wolfowitz recalls, said yes, but the side building the offensive systems can bankrupt itself in the process, as the Soviet Union came to understand in its death throes.

     In the early 1980s, Wolfowitz says, when he was Secretary of State George Shultz's assistant secretary for East Asia, it was the so-called realists who said Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was a thug, but our thug. But the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983 showed, Wolfowitz says, the limited ability of brutal power to sustain a regime. There in 1986, and the following year in South Korea, U.S. involvement helped enlarge freedom.

     Asked how he could have taken the Cold War fetish of arms control seriously enough to serve in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Ford, Wolfowitz says, ``I thought it'' -- the fetish -- ``could be a serious threat to national security.'' When it threatened to cripple deployment of Tomahawk cruise missiles, Wolfowitz and others, including the then and future secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld, successfully resisted. Says Wolfowitz, ``When I saw cruise missiles making right-angle turns in 1991 (in Iraq), I felt some satisfaction.'' 

     Although Wolfowitz has been accused of being irrationally preoccupied with Saddam Hussein, he says he actually consistently underestimated Hussein's malevolence. ``I did not think he would invade Kuwait; or that when he did he would take all of it; or that when driven out he would not say enough is enough; or that he would try to kill President (George H.W.) Bush.'' But, he says, it is an unusual man who tortures children to intimidate parents.

     Today, he says, the most dangerous Iraqi insurgents are from the tens of thousands -- still only a fraction of a percent of the population -- of ``hard-core killers'' who ran Hussein's regime. From his visits to Turkey, a secular Muslim democracy, and from his service as ambassador to Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, he has acquired considered confidence in the capacity of what he calls ``mainstream Muslims'' for freedom. Note well: he says his confidence derives from experience, not theory.

     Because he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the ascendancy of political philosophers Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom -- a thinly disguised Wolfowitz appears in ``Ravelstein,'' Saul Bellow's novel about Bloom -- many attempts have been made to trace to them the pedigree of his thinking. He says, however, that to the very limited extent that ``academic things'' shaped him, they were classes on America's Constitutional Convention and Lincoln's political thought, classes stressing that ``the foundations of liberal democracy are about a helluva lot more than elections.''

     They are also about private property as a bulwark of the individual's zone of sovereignty, and about the hopefulness that depends on the reality of material progress. Therefore leading the World Bank will tidily close the circle of a remarkable Washington career that began in the summer of 1966, when as a 22-year-old graduate student he was an intern in the Bureau of the Budget, precursor of the Office of Management and Budget, working on problems of economic development. He has never been elected to office or served in a president's Cabinet, but he has mattered much more than most who have.