Wolfowitz At the Door

The antiwar movement's unsung friend at Defense


Paul Wolfowitz is a mirror in which we see reflected every image except our own. For opponents of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, no character makes quite so handy a villain as the Deputy Secretary of Defense. From his hotly disputed claims about "bureaucratic reasons" in the prewar sales pitch to his trying televised press conference after being attacked by rockets at the al-Rashid hotel (a conference where Wolfowitz was universally described as either "spooked" or "shaken," though to this observer he appeared to be neither), Wolfowitz is the Oscar-winning gold standard in the role of neocon heavy. He beggars Rumsfeld, out-Perles Perle, offends decency more powerfully than both Kristols put together. There is no mendacity too outrageous for him to utter, no vice that fails to besmirch his character, no sin, venial or mortal, that he has not committed.

Exactly how Wolfowitz came to fill this particular human-dartboard position is cause for interesting speculation. Certainly, the deputy secretary's personality plays a part. With his pencil neck and know-it-all air (odd given that acquaintances generally describe him as personally engaging), Wolfowitz is the very model of an infuriating chickenhawk. Nobody with a sense of irony could fail to appreciate the contrast between Wolfowitz's brusquely argumentative, steamrolling prewar style and today's fog of qualifications and second-guessing. His role as the intellectual architect of the White House's pre-emptive security strategy also makes some legitimate policy complaints inevitable. And while charges of anti-Semitism are lodged pretty promiscuously these days, in the Wolfowitz case they may contain some truth. If nothing else, Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt's comparison of the controversial official to a "virus" came straight from the Cossacks' playbook.

The paradox in this vituperation is that, of all the Administration's high-level policymakers, Wolfowitz is probably the one who is philosophically closest to his own detractors. You could irrigate the planet Mars with the crocodile tears that have been shed for the Iraqi people over the past 18 months, and the war's hawks have been as lachrymose as its doves. Wolfowitz stands out in this milieu by his comparative guilelessness. If consistency of message and purpose is any guide, the Defense Department's number two man is guided, at least in part, by a genuine belief in the very airiest and most Wilsonian ideals that brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein. In interviews, in public statements, in his travel itinerary, Wolfowitz consistently personalizes the Iraqis, cites his own experiences in post-Saddam Iraq, and speaks with passion about the brutality of the late Ba'athist regime.

This side of the deputy secretary came through most starkly during a recent question and answer session at Georgetown University, where a pair of students, cheered on by a large section of the audience, challenged the administration's policy and vowed to oppose it vehemently. Wolfowitz's sometimes testy replies were revealing: He spoke movingly of malnutrition among Iraq's Marsh Arabs, called the war "not ideological," and "a moral issue," and pounded home the need to continue with the rehabilitation of Iraq even if George W. Bush loses next year's election (and by extension, Wolfowitz loses his job). It was a characteristic Wolfowitz comment, framing everything in terms of humanitarian duty and a belief in democracy for the Arabs.

At the same session, Wolfowitz revealed another area in which he should theoretically be perfectly simpatico with the antiwar left: He is probably the most pro-Palestinian member of the Bush administration. Granted, that's not a difficult position to attain in the current administration, and it would be overstating matters to say Wolfowitz has evolved a thorough or coherent critique of the Sharon government. But he extemporizes (and unpopularly) on Israeli abuses, condemns settlement and the separation wall, and continues, seemingly unbidden, to voice support for grassroots initiatives such as the detailed Geneva Agreement on Israeli-Palestinian peace that Sharon so angrily opposes.

There is one section of the antiwar movement that should not be expected to be content with such gestures. This is the America First wing, a group that freely admits to indifference about the fate of the Iraqis under Saddam or anybody else, and views any expenditure of American blood and treasure for the well-being of foreigners as folly. This group includes the author of this article, and I will admit to a sinking feeling when Wolfowitz points proudly to America's record of humanitarian interventions over the past decade. But the America Firsters are a vanishingly small fringe of the antiwar coalition. Most Bush opponents frame their arguments in internationalist terms, or with expressions of concern for the Iraqi people—and in those terms, de facto support for Iraq's illiberal resistance is just whistling in the wind.

More frequently than either side will admit, the stated goals of antiwar progressives and pro-war neocons overlap. Wolfowitz frequently cites (and perhaps overstates) his own positions against the kleptocracy of Ferdinand Marcos and the dictatorship of Suharto. Even if his opposition to such brutes was not wholly consistent at the time, it is important that he views it now as being of a piece with his support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration's foreign policy has been credibly tagged with many faults: imperial hubris, mercantilist greed, congenital dishonesty, etc. In this context, Wolfowitz presents a tricky case: He actually seems to believe (and may be alone in believing) that American power is best used to attain liberal goals.

Whether this belief is gaining or losing ground in the administration is an open question. President Bush's recent round of speeches on democracy the Middle East—notably his talk at Buckingham Palace and his address to the National Endowment for Democracy—constitute at least a verbal sea change in American policy, and a striking admission that past support for illiberal regimes was a grave error. At the same time, the administration's visible haste in seeking an exit from Iraq is sharply at odds with that missionary spirit. And it is in this split that Wolfowitz' relationship with his detractors may prove crucial.

It's an irony of our current situation that the wartime opposition is needed now more vitally than ever before, but that that opposition can't seem to identify its own friends and foes. Liberal war opponents frequently claim that they, rather than the Bush team, are the real champions of the Arab people, the honest supporters of progress and democracy. If so, they should be pressing the Bush administration to live up to the ideals it is increasingly using to sell the Iraq war to American voters and the world community. In doing so, they may find that Paul Wolfowitz is the most important friend they've got.