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The Visionary

Tales from the Wolfowitz era.

May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IT WAS ONLY 7:15 a.m. on October 26, 2003, and Paul Wolfowitz was already thinking about Saddam Hussein. The deputy secretary of defense had been awake for just over an hour when he and two civilian Pentagon advisers walked into a large office for a briefing on electricity.

Wolfowitz wasn't happy. The office was in one of Saddam's opulent palaces. Six months after the fall of Baghdad, there were still three-story busts of the former Iraqi leader perched atop the four corners of the massive structure. Virtually all of the images of the deposed dictator throughout Iraq had been defaced or otherwise destroyed in the celebrations that accompanied the toppling of his regime. But not these. Here in the heart of the "Green Zone"--the nerve center of the new American-run occupation, right in the middle of Iraq's capital--a smug, half-smiling Saddam took the measure of the activity below.

"Why haven't we brought those statues down?" Wolfowitz barked before the formal electricity briefing began. His tone was one of exasperation, not anger. It drew a meek response--the kind you give when you know you're about to make a lame excuse--from one of the soldiers.

"Sir, we asked the engineers about bringing them down on the Fourth of July, and they said they thought it would be too dangerous."

"Not this engineer," Wolfowitz shot back. "Get them down."

The meeting itself was unremarkable. That it took place at all, however, was significant. A little more than an hour before the briefing began Wolfowitz had nearly been killed in a rocket attack on the al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. One of the 17 rockets that had penetrated the reinforced walls of the hotel missed his room by 50 feet but killed Lt. Colonel Charles Buehring, a communications adviser to Iraq administrator Paul Bremer.

Wolfowitz insisted on keeping his schedule that day, adding only a stop at the 28th Combat Support Hospital to visit the wounded. One of the wounded was Elias Nimmer, an Army colonel working on health care financial management issues for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Nimmer had been living in Room 916 of the al Rashid and had rolled from his bed to the floor when the attack began. This quick thinking saved his life. One of the rockets hit his room directly. Nimmer's injuries were serious. He had emergency surgery to remove shrapnel, including several pieces lodged in his spine.

Ten hours after the attack, Wolfowitz walked into Nimmer's hospital room and found a man barely able to move. The soldier was receiving oxygen and his face was flecked with cuts from the attack.

"Where are you from?" Wolfowitz asked. (The conventional "How are you?" was plainly unnecessary.)

"Are you asking where I live or about my accent?" Nimmer replied.

"I hadn't noticed your accent, but why don't you answer both questions."

"I live in Northern Virginia, but I grew up in Beirut," explained the colonel.

"How do you feel about building a new Middle East?"

IT WAS, PERHAPS, AN ODD QUESTION, coming just 10 hours after both men had narrowly escaped death. Not to Wolfowitz.

For nearly a quarter century he warned about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. And for more than a decade he has advocated democracy for Iraq and the Middle East.

These ideas are no longer as controversial as they once were. When Wolfowitz, then a mid-level bureaucrat at the Defense Department, authored a paper in 1979 warning that Iraq was "the country most capable of undermining stability" in the Middle East, he did so at a time when the U.S. government was supporting Saddam Hussein. When Wolfowitz began to speak of the possibility of Islamic democracies throughout the region, his views were dismissed as utopian.

As Wolfowitz prepared to leave the Pentagon last week to become president of the World Bank, Saddam Hussein was in jail awaiting trial, newly elected Iraqi leaders were holding debates in parliament, the Lebanese were hailing the departure of Syrian troops from their country after 29 years, and democratic rumblings could be heard throughout the region. But last week also saw a spike in insurgent violence, news that Abu Musab al Zarqawi had narrowly escaped capture, and the release of the final report of the Iraq Survey Group, reminding us again that many prewar claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program were in error.