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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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Most of the world knows Paul Wolfowitz, if at all, only in caricature. Media reporting about him is overwhelmingly negative. Global conspiracy theories are rampant. Some place him at the center of a neoconservative cabal, the Big Jew conducting a secret Likudnik scheme to maneuver American foreign policy according to the wishes of Ariel Sharon and the Mossad. Others suggest he is a devotee of political philosopher Leo Strauss, and is running the world based on esoteric messages contained in ancient texts. Still others brand him, quite simply, the new American Imperialist.

The truth is more complicated.

Wolfowitz leaves as one of the most powerful sub-cabinet officials in the history of the United States. In some ways, he has been influential by accident. The views on foreign policy and national security that George W. Bush holds instinctively or because of his faith are, in many cases, the same ones Wolfowitz has come to after decades of study and experience. Bush believes in the possibility of a democratic Middle East because "the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth." Ask him to explain and you will likely hear about equality in the eyes of God.

Wolfowitz believes the same thing. "The values of freedom and democracy are not just Western values or European values," he has said. "They are Muslim and Asian values as well. Indeed, they are universal values." Ask him to explain and you will get a 30-minute response that includes several real-world examples--from Indonesia to the Philippines to Romania--and that is garnished with references to competing philosophies of human nature.

Wolfowitz's aides eagerly point out that he has been involved in the full range of issues that normally occupy the deputy secretary of defense--from budgets to acquisitions, from information technology to military transformation. But these are not what he will be remembered for. Instead, Wolfowitz will be remembered for Iraq. If, even after the successful elections of January 2005, the fragile Iraqi government fails, Wolfowitz--fairly or unfairly--will get much of the blame. But if Iraq succeeds, and if it continues to provide what Wolfowitz calls a "demonstration effect" for the region, he will rightly be able to claim credit. With the obvious exception of George W. Bush, no American policymaker has as much at stake in the future of Iraq as Paul Wolfowitz.

Much has been written about his policy positions on Iraq. Some if it has been accurate, more of it has not. To understand Wolfowitz it is helpful to observe him on the job, thinking and reacting, at different times through the painful transformation of Iraq from a brutal dictatorship to a fledgling democracy. On two trips to Iraq in 2003--one in July, the second in October--Wolfowitz saw firsthand a relatively stable Iraq with bustling markets and a newborn transitional government, then just three months later a volatile and violent Iraq threatening to descend into chaos.

WOLFOWITZ GREW UP IN NEW YORK CITY, one block from Columbia University in Morningside Heights. His sister remembers seeing the car of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (then Columbia's president) drive by as she and her younger brother roller-skated in the neighborhood. Their father, Jacob, taught math at Columbia, and he expected Paul to choose a line of work in either mathematics or the hard sciences. But the younger Wolfowitz found himself spending his free time reading about politics and world history. In 1963 he was on the Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach "I Have a Dream."

After graduating from Cornell with a degree in mathematics in 1965, Wolfowitz dutifully applied to study biophysical chemistry at MIT. But increasingly he realized that his real interests lay elsewhere, and he decided to pursue a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. He took two courses (on Montesquieu and Plato) from the famous political philosopher Leo Strauss, but studied mainly under political scientist Albert Wohlstetter, the preeminent nuclear strategist in the United States through much of the Cold War. It was a perfect match. Wohlstetter was a mathematical logician who was eager to work with a student of Wolfowitz's background. The association would serve as a springboard for the young man's career.

In 1972, Wolfowitz left Chicago for Washington, where he worked his way up through the foreign policy bureaucracy under both Democrats and Republicans. He served President Ronald Reagan for two years as director of policy planning in the State Department before being named U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. His time in Jakarta would have a lasting impact. Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country and most populous Muslim nation, demonstrated to Wolfowitz the possibility of moderate Islam.