Miscellany — From the March 2013 issue

A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz

Occasioned by the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war

Dear Paul,

I have been meaning to write to you for some time, and the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war provides as good an occasion as any to do so. Distracted by other, more recent eruptions of violence, the country has all but forgotten the war. But I won’t and I expect you can’t, although our reasons for remembering may differ.

Twenty years ago, you became dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and hired me as a minor staff functionary. I never thanked you properly. I needed that job. Included in the benefits package was the chance to hobnob with luminaries who gathered at SAIS every few weeks to join Zbigniew Brzezinski for an off-the-record discussion of foreign policy. From five years of listening to these insiders pontificate, I drew one conclusion: people said to be smart — the ones with fancy résumés who get their op-eds published in the New York Times and appear on TV — really aren’t. They excel mostly in recycling bromides. When it came to sustenance, the sandwiches were superior to the chitchat.

You were an exception, however. You had a knack for framing things creatively. No matter how daunting the problem, you contrived a solution. More important, you grasped the big picture. Here, it was apparent, lay your métier. As Saul Bellow wrote of Philip Gorman, your fictionalized double, in Ravelstein, you possessed an aptitude for “Great Politics.” Where others saw complications, you discerned connections. Where others saw constraints, you found possibilities for action.

Truthfully, I wouldn’t give you especially high marks as dean. You were, of course, dutiful and never less than kind to students. Yet you seemed to find presiding over SAIS more bothersome than it was fulfilling. Given all that running the place entails — raising money, catering to various constituencies, managing a cantankerous and self-important faculty — I’m not sure I blame you. SAIS prepares people to exercise power. That’s why the school exists. Yet you wielded less clout than at any time during your previous two decades of government service.

So at Zbig’s luncheons, when you riffed on some policy issue — the crisis in the Balkans, the threat posed by North Korean nukes, the latest provocations of Saddam Hussein — it was a treat to watch you become so animated. What turned you on was playing the game. Being at SAIS was riding the bench.

Even during the 1990s, those who disliked your views tagged you as a neoconservative. But the label never quite fit. You were at most a fellow traveler. You never really signed on with the PR firm of Podhoretz, Kristol, and Kagan. Your approach to policy analysis owed more to Wohlstetter Inc. — a firm less interested in ideology than in power and its employment.

I didn’t understand this at the time, but I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which your thinking mirrors that of the nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Your friend Richard Perle put the matter succinctly: “Paul thinks the way Albert thinks.” Wohlstetter, the quintessential “defense intellectual,” had been your graduate-school mentor. You became, in effect, his agent, devoted to converting his principles into actual policy. This, in a sense, was your life’s work.

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teaches at Boston University. He is the author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, to be republished next month in an updated edition.

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