In late September, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz appeared in Manhattan at an event sponsored by the New Yorker magazine. As he began to speak, he was interrupted by shouts of "War criminal!" and "Murderer!" "I can't resist," he said evenly, surveying the audience. "This is what is wonderful about this country. It is -- "
Another shout: "Shame on you."
Wolfowitz drove on: " -- and what is finally wonderful is 50 million, roughly 50 million Afghans and Iraqis, are finally able to speak this way without having their tongues cut out."
A few minutes later, a young man ran to the base of the stage, jabbed a finger at Wolfowitz and shouted: "You should be tried for treason, you Nazi!"
If Wolfowitz was jarred by the attack, he showed no sign of it. Rather, he looked a bit distant as he coolly responded: "Frankly, my own reading of history is that exactly this kind of tactic is what the Nazis did and what the totalitarians did in trying to stop people from listening and talking."
Saddam Hussein, he went on to say, was a malevolent dictator who clearly needed to be removed for the good of both the American and the Iraqi peoples. "I think anyone with the slightest bit of moral sense understood what an evil man Saddam was and how much better off the world would be with him gone." Later in the same session, he added, "To me, it's almost beyond argument."
No deputy secretary of defense has ever held the prominence that Wolfowitz has had over the last two years. He is widely seen inside the Pentagon as the most likely replacement if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld steps down.
And no figure in the administration, with the possible exception of Vice President Cheney, is as closely identified with the drive to invade Iraq and depose Hussein. "This is Wolfowitz's baby," said one person who has served as a senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation power in Iraq. "He feels responsible for it."
To understand Paul Wolfowitz and the policies he advocates, notes a friend and former colleague, it is important to understand that Wolfowitz believes there is real evil in the world, and that he is confronting it. The lesson that Wolfowitz took away from the Cold War, says Eliot Cohen, who knew him at Johns Hopkins University, where Wolfowitz was a dean before moving to the Pentagon, is "that the world really is a dangerous place, and that you have to do something about it."
Paired with that is his belief that the United States can best respond to totalitarianism by emphasizing freedom and democracy. Wolfowitz possesses "a basic optimism about the potential of human beings for moderation and self-governance, and a belief in the universal appeal of liberty," Cohen says.
That combination of a hardheaded view of some men with an idealistic faith in mankind, Cohen concludes, adds up to "a distinctively American take on the world."
So when Wolfowitz talks with great intensity about Iraq, it isn't just because his political future and his place in history are likely to be determined by the course of events there. He sees the U.S. invasion as part of a larger campaign against terrorism, and that post-Sept. 11, 2001, fight as the third great American struggle against totalitarianism, the new century's successor to the great fights against Nazism and Soviet communism. A recent conversation with him in his Pentagon office skipped among those three eras, moving from the Holocaust to the crimes of Hussein to the Cold War's Cuban missile crisis.
"The differences are as great as the similarities" in those three struggles, he says. But there is a basic similarity in that "we're dealing with a fundamental existential threat to our way of life, to our values." The main parallel, he says, is "not so much in the nature of the enemy we're confronting as in the nature of the challenge it presents to us. That is, it really does require mobilization of a major effort on our part. It requires contemplating a long-term struggle." This isn't just theorizing. Wolfowitz's own life runs through all three of those confrontations.
Though he didn't say so that day in New York when he was accused of being a Nazi, he lost most of his extended family in the Holocaust, with his line surviving because his father had emigrated from Poland in 1920 as a child.
Wolfowitz, who just turned 60, shies away from discussing his family's losses. Asked about it, his response is seemingly off point. "The event that happened in my college years that had the biggest single impression on me, even more than Kennedy's assassination, was the Cuban missile crisis" -- that is, the prospect of nuclear holocaust. Pressed, he says, "It was a fairly poor family in Poland." Does he know how many relatives were lost, and where? "I really don't," he says.
Some observers of Wolfowitz speculate that one lesson he took from the Holocaust is that the American people need to be pushed to do the right thing, because by the time they entered World War II, it was too late for millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis.
Asked about this, Wolfowitz agrees but expands on the thought -- and connects it to Iraq. "I think the world in general has a tendency to say, if somebody evil like Saddam is killing his own people, 'That's too bad, but that's really not my business.' " That's dangerous, he continued, because Hussein was "in a class with very few others -- Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong Il. . . . People of that order of evil . . . tend not to keep evil at home, they tend to export it in various ways and eventually it bites us."
During the concluding phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, under Presidents Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Wolfowitz served in a series of posts at the State Department and the Defense Department.
"We learned in the last century that democracies cannot live peacefully and undisturbed in a world where evil people control whole nations and seek to expand their bloody rule," he said in a speech last month. "We may have forgotten that lesson in the euphoria over the end of the Cold War." But, he added, we were reminded of that harsh lesson by Sept. 11.
Middle East Goals
Wolfowitz has been in the limelight in recent weeks because it was his signature on a controversial Pentagon document that barred companies from Russia, Canada, France and Germany from bidding on prime contracts for postwar reconstruction in Iraq. In the interview, he expresses some puzzlement about the splash that move made. "Why it struck people as news was a little bit of a mystery," he says. It was the right policy, he continues, and it wasn't intended to punish any countries but rather to reward more than just American companies. "By the way, it wasn't my decision," he adds, though he says he agrees with it. "This was an administration decision. . . . I was simply signing the implementing instruction."
The contract action does fit into his view of the Cold War. One of the lessons of that conflict, he wrote in an essay three years ago, was the necessity of "demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will live to regret having done so."
That calculating approach surprises some who see him as an idealistic academic. Indeed, he is a second-generation Ivy League intellectual, a former Yale political scientist who is the son of a Cornell mathematician.
"Wolfowitz comes across as smart, likable, well-meaning and deep," Wesleyan University Professor Phyllis Rose wrote with a touch of puzzlement in a recent issue of the American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
He can also mystify some of his colleagues in government. "A lot of us know him and like him as a person, but some of the policies he advocates are very difficult to understand or deal with," said a senior State Department official who had worked with Wolfowitz. "He's a man full of contradictions."
But to Wolfowitz, there is no contradiction between calculated policies and idealistic goals. Rather, he contends, they can reinforce each other. Indeed, Wolfowitz is most confrontational when he is most idealistic. Nowhere is that more evident than in his advocacy of transforming the politics of the Middle East, a policy that frequently is attacked as unrealistically idealistic. As he put it to the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, "The idea that we could live with another 20 years of stagnation in the Middle East that breeds this radicalism and breeds terrorism is, I think, just unacceptable." Pentagon insiders say this vision of a democratic transformation of the troubled region is probably the biggest single area of discrepancy in policy views between Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, who is said to doubt that such a sweeping change is possible. Asked whether there is daylight between him and his boss on this issue, Wolfowitz said, "Democracy in the Middle East is the president's policy, and we both support it enthusiastically."
Some see Wolfowitz's views on the Middle East as dangerously naive. "Wolfowitz doesn't know much about the business he's in," says retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the region. "He knows very little about war fighting. And he knows very little about the Middle East, aside from maybe Israel."
Likewise, the latest issue of Parameters, the official journal of the U.S. Army War College, carried some tart commentary aimed at Wolfowitz and his colleagues. Jeffrey Record, a former staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote that "the Bush Administration, and more specifically the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, made faulty assumptions about postwar Iraq and failed to plan properly for Iraq's reconstruction." He particularly faulted "the 'liberation' scenario peddled by the Defense Department's neoconservative naifs."
Wolfowitz responds, "I think I know a lot about Islam, as a whole, and I know a lot about the Middle East. I've been following it for a very long time." He also notes that the experts frequently have been wrong about whether one Arab state would attack another, as Iraq did to Kuwait in 1990, or what the reaction of the "Arab street" would be to the U.S. invasion of Iraq this year.
But to Wolfowitz, trying to change the Middle East is far from unrealistic. Rather, it is using universal ideals to achieve the practical end of curtailing terrorism. Just as much of East Asia democratized in the 1980s and 1990s, so too is there a chance that the Middle East could change radically. "It could," he says. "And it's certainly worth a try."
"Change has to start someplace," he says. "The status quo . . . produced [Osama] bin Laden and produced thousands of people eager to kill themselves in order to kill Americans."
Another charge, sometimes muttered in the military, is that Wolfowitz and his hawkish colleagues would act differently if they had ever been in combat. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, for example, says that if Wolfowitz and others in the administration -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisers -- had experienced combat as young men, they might have thought longer about invading and occupying Iraq. "I think it would have changed them," says Zinni, one of the more prominent critics of Bush administration policy in Iraq. "I just wish somebody in that chain of command would have seen combat at that time." He believes this is a moral issue. "They were my contemporaries. They should have been there, and they found a way not to serve. And where are their kids? Are their kids serving? My son is in the Marines."
Wolfowitz responds calmly to this charge. He notes that he has visited soldiers badly wounded in Iraq. "I am not at all unmindful of what it means to send American kids into combat," he says. "I go up to Walter Reed enough to see some of the consequences."
And he is careful not to be dismissive of his critics. "I think that those people who have experienced war have an even deeper distaste for it. And that is something I have a lot of respect for and a lot of time for."
But there are other considerations that must be kept in mind. And that takes him back to the Nazis. "Certainly the failure to confront Hitler was largely from fear of what the consequences would be, and that led to much greater consequences."
Wolfowitz has shown physical courage on his two trips to Iraq, not only coming under rocket attack in his hotel in October, but also walking some streets and mixing with crowds.
But the specialty he has chosen is intellectual combat. In the campaign against terrorism, he said in a speech last month, "there is definitely an element of it that is in the realm of the battle of ideas, not just the battle of guns and bullets."
And so he charges into the fray. Appearing at Georgetown University in October, he stood on a stage and listened as a student denounced him. "I think I speak for many of us here when I say that your policies are deplorable," she said, standing at a floor microphone. "They're responsible for the deaths of innocents" -- here a wave of applause -- "and the disintegration of civil liberties."
When she finished, Wolfowitz calmly responded: "I have to infer from that you would be happier if Saddam Hussein were still in power." Here others in the audience cheered and clapped even louder. It was like watching a Parris Island drill instructor drop a recruit with a flick of his wrist.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.