The subject of his remarks, which the former political-science professor delivers seminar style to the majors and more formally to the generals, is his recent visit to Afghanistan. But Iraq is never far out of sight. Introducing Wolfowitz to an auditorium full of new one-stars and their wives, General Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, points out that as a young Pentagon analyst Wolfowitz directed a secret assessment of Persian Gulf threats that marked Iraq as a menace to its neighbors and to American interests. This, Shinseki informs them with everything but a drumroll, was in 1979, a dozen years before Desert Storm.
Wolfowitz then proceeds to use Afghanistan to illustrate how far the military's pinpoint-targeting ability has advanced since that war, when American air and ground forces, unable to communicate with one another, succeeded in destroying only a single one of Saddam Hussein's Scud missile emplacements (and that one was a harmless decoy). The message is that next time around, if there is a next time, what was demonstrated in Afghanistan -- that choreography of unmanned aerial vehicles, precision-guided weapons, indigenous insurgents and special-operations soldiers on the ground -- should, in the first hours of an attack, prove far more adroit at disabling Saddam's most fearsome weapons.
Soldiers tend to cock an eyebrow when civilians who have not known combat talk confidently about the coming conquest, but the closest thing to an open challenge this day comes during Wolfowitz's session with the majors -- from a British officer who raises a hand and asks about Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector. Ritter has been in London arguing that Iraq's destructive capability is already neutralized. So where is the threat worth spending American blood?
Revisiting Ritter's argument a few days later in his Pentagon office, Wolfowitz seems genuinely puzzled by the notion that we need evidence of imminent danger to justify getting rid of Saddam. He has encountered this argument earlier -- from the State Department and the C.I.A., in fact, before President Bush stifled that particular line of internal debate by declaring Saddam an intolerable threat, end of story. By the conventions of American foreign policy, a pre-emptive strike against an uncertain threat is perhaps the most radical new security notion of the post-cold-war era. But Wolfowitz says he believes Sept. 11 has awakened us to a world where certainty is an expensive luxury.
''There's an awful lot we don't know, an awful lot that we may never know, and we've got to think differently about standards of proof here,'' Wolfowitz tells me. ''In fact, there's no way you can prove that something's going to happen three years from now or six years from now. But these people have made absolutely clear what their intentions are, and we know a lot about their capabilities. I suppose I hadn't thought of it quite this way, but intentions and capabilities are the way you think about warfare. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the way you think about law enforcement. And I think we're much closer to being in a state of war than being in a judicial proceeding.''
Wolfowitz is always careful to say that the president has not decided exactly what to do about Iraq and that he himself is not completely convinced yet that a military liberation of Baghdad is worth the risk. But in an administration that is not exactly a hotbed of Saddam coddlers, Wolfowitz has been on the case longer, more consistently, more persistently, than anyone. His tenacity is one reason that the internal debate has moved, astonishingly fast, from a theoretical possibility to questions of method and timing. So fast, in fact, that one argument some make for invading is that Bush has already gone too far out on the limb to back down.
In the first days after Sept. 11, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and others within the administration contended it was too early to put Iraq on the agenda -- that there was a war to win in Afghanistan first and that there was no evidence Iraq was complicit in the attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers -- Wolfowitz argued that Iraq was at the heart of the threat. He suspected then that those who were saying ''not yet'' really meant ''not ever.'' Now that the president has declared ''regime change'' the party line, Wolfowitz says, he takes his more skeptical colleagues at face value when they say ''not yet.'' But, he adds, ''it seems to me that people who want to say, 'I'm in favor of a regime change, but not now,' have a certain burden to answer the question, 'O.K., well, when?'''
The answer to that question remains a secret, if it has been decided at all. But on the way home from Fort Leavenworth at the end of July, we stopped at Scott Air Force Base, the military's main transportation dispatching hub, where Wolfowitz spent a couple of hours closeted with the men who, soon thereafter, began routing shipments of men and materiel to the gulf. Just in case.
In Washington, some people go straight to caricature, without getting much chance to be interesting or complicated. Paul Wolfowitz, who is interesting and complicated, has been cast since Sept. 11 in the role of zealot. Except for one humanizing incident when he was booed for mentioning the suffering of Palestinians at a pro-Israel rally, Wolfowitz has been summarily depicted as a hawk (The Economist preferred ''velociraptor''), conservative ideologue, unilateralist, nemesis of Colin Powell's State Department and, sometimes, ''Israel-centric.'' These epithets capture something of Wolfowitz's views and something of the company he keeps. His mentors have been hard-liners, many of his friends are devout Reaganites and the tracts he has signed when out of public office were written by those who now happily talk of a new American imperialism. One close friend of Wolfowitz's is Richard Perle, the combative defense analyst who might actually relish being called a velociraptor; he heads an adjunct group of advisers, the Defense Policy Board, that has been a vehicle for introducing controversial, even incendiary, viewpoints into the government tent. Perle, in fact, was offered the No. 3 position in the Defense Department, under secretary for policy, and after he declined the job, it went to Douglas Feith, a lawyer and firebrand who worked for Perle in the Reagan Defense Department. President Bush may employ many people who worked for his father, but this is decidedly not his father's Pentagon.
The shorthand version of Paul Wolfowitz, however, is inadequate in important ways. It completely misses his style, which relies on patient logic and respectful, soft-spoken engagement rather than on fire-breathing conviction. The stereotype also overlooks a critical distinction in his view of the world. Unlike many conservative gloom-mongers, he does not see the world plummeting toward an inevitable clash of civilizations.
From a few months' immersion in the subject of Paul Wolfowitz, it seems to me he has brought at least three important things to the table where American policy is made, qualities that have made him, though he holds the rank of deputy, a factor in moving America this close to invading Iraq. One is something of a reputation as a man who sees trouble coming before others do, his long anxiety about Iraq being one example.
The second thing he brings is an activist bent. It is forged partly of humanitarian impulse, a horror of standing by and watching bad things happen. He often talks about Kitty Genovese, the New York woman murdered in 1964 while dozens of neighbors watched from their apartment windows without lifting a phone to call the police. His inclination to act derives, too, from his analytical style, a residue, perhaps, of the mathematician he started out to be. In almost any discussion, he tends to be the one focusing on the most often overlooked variable in decision making, the cost of not acting. On Iraq, that has now been taken up as a White House mantra.
The third striking thing about Wolfowitz is an optimism about America's ability to build a better world. He has an almost missionary sense of America's role. In the current case, that means a vision of an Iraq not merely purged of cataclysmic weaponry, not merely a threat disarmed, but an Iraq that becomes a democratic cornerstone of an altogether new Middle East. Given the fatalism that prevails about this most flammable region of the world, that is an audacious optimism indeed.
Wolfowitz's moralistic streak and the generally sunny view of the world's possibilities may explain the affinity between the born-again and resolutely unintellectual president and this man he calls ''Wolfie,'' the Jewish son of academia who dabbles in six foreign languages and keeps Civil War histories at his bedside. A senior official who has watched the two men interact says that Wolfowitz and the president have reinforced each other in their faith in ''a strategic transformation of the whole region.''
If the interventionists are right, America can reasonably expect to be more secure, respected and very, very busy -- and much of the foreign-policy old guard will have been proved wrong. But if Wolfowitz and those with him are wrong, if Iraq comes down around their ears, America will be standing deep in the rubble, very alone.
If you spend much time with Wolfowitz, you will probably hear him tell the joke about Saddam Hussein's barber, an old one that dates from the years of Communist collapse. The story goes that every time Saddam shows up for a trim, his barber asks about Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania's cult-of-personality tyrant, who has recently been executed in a popular uprising. Irritated, Saddam demands to know why the barber insists on bringing up this toppled dictator at each visit. ''Because every time I do, the hair goes up on the back of your neck, and it's easier to cut it.''
Wolfowitz loves the story because he feels if Romania can throw off a despot and muddle toward modernity, how much more promising is Iraq, with its bitterly oppressed but educated, energetic people and the ability to pump billions of dollars worth of crude oil a year? Look at the Iraqi Kurds, he says, who have created in their American-protected enclave in northern Iraq a comparatively open society ''by Middle East standards,'' despite suffering the U.N. sanctions against the country.
Wolfowitz says he worries deeply about the risks of going into Iraq -- about disabling the small arsenal of Scud missiles before one possibly delivers poisons to Israel or the Saudi oil fields, about persuading Israel (as he personally helped do during the gulf war) not to join the war even if attacked, knowing that would tend to mobilize the Arab world against the United States, about the potential mess of urban warfare and civilian casualties. ''I think the getting in is the dangerous part,'' he says.
He worries considerably less about the day after.
''I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Iraq, properly managed -- and it's going to take a lot of attention, and the stakes are enormous, much higher than Afghanistan -- that it really could turn out to be, I hesitate to say it, the first Arab democracy, or at least the first one except for Lebanon's brief history,'' he says. ''And even if it makes it only Romanian style, that's still such an advance over anywhere else in the Arab world.''
This is a notion regarded with deep skepticism at the State Department, where Powell and others tend to see the aftermath of an invasion as a long, world-class headache administered by an American general. Not only within the State Department but elsewhere where foreign policy is discussed and formulated -- including the Capitol Hill offices of leading senators of both parties -- there reigns the view that Iraqi democracy is a utopian fantasy, that the country will fragment like a grenade into ethnic enclaves, that American garrisons will be targets for an eruption of Arab fury, that oil supplies will be endangered, that Americans lack the patience and generosity to midwife a free and pro-Western Iraq.
''This is a very risky operation at best,'' I was told, typically, by Henry Siegman, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. ''And the expectation that we will then be splendidly situated to resolve all the region's problems is wildly optimistic.''
Iraqi democracy, it should be said, is not the president's declared purpose of ''regime change'' in Iraq, which is to get rid of a very bad man with a fondness for terrorists and a hunger for weapons of hideous power. But it is, to many in the administration, including Wolfowitz, a large part of the enticement.
''You hear people mock it by saying that Iraq isn't ready for Jeffersonian democracy,'' Wolfowitz says, citing a line that Colin Powell has been known to use. ''Well, Japan isn't Jeffersonian democracy, either. I think the more we are committed to influencing the outcome, the more chance there could be that it would be something quite significant for Iraq. And I think if it's significant for Iraq, it's going to cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, but across the whole Arab world, I think.''
The idea of Iraq as a launch pad of Arab democracy and a counterweight to Islamist extremism has gained some credence in Washington. As unromantic an expert as Dennis B. Ross, who ran the Middle East account for President Clinton, thinks Wolfowitz is right, that liberating Iraq would not only chasten despots and encourage democrats but that it could also unleash a joy in Iraq that would help alleviate the wider Arab anger against America. So does Henry Kissinger, whose cold realism has not often meshed with Wolfowitz's sense of the world.
A democratic Iraq, however, is sure to be unnerving to some of America's less-than-democratic allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Wolfowitz does not demonize the Saudi royal family, as a briefer did in July at one of Perle's Defense Policy Board meetings, but he seems more pleased than not that democracy in Iraq (and a free flow of competing Iraqi oil) makes the Saudis uneasy. He does not sound so sure that rocking the stability of tyrannies in the Arab world, even West-leaning tyrannies, is a bad thing.
In January, Bob Woodward, the investigative eminence for The Washington Post, and his colleague Dan Balz wrote a voluminous reconstruction of the decision making in the Bush administration during the weeks following Sept. 11. Most senior officials, including the president, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, gave interviews for the series. Paul Wolfowitz, following the advice of the Rumsfeld press office, declined. That may have some bearing on the fact that he was one of the few officials to come across in the series as less than commanding. He is portrayed as single-mindedly obsessed by Iraq. At one point, Colin Powell and General Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are described sharing an eye roll over Wolfowitz's war fever.
The narrative reaches a climax in the Laurel Lodge at Camp David, where the president gathered his war council the weekend following the attacks. During the meetings, Wolfowitz keeps pushing Iraq toward the front burner. He is so persistent, so seemingly deaf to the politics of the moment, that he even interrupts Rumsfeld to push his point. During a break, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, on a signal from the president, takes Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld aside to ask that the Defense Department speak with one voice, which is a polite way of telling Wolfowitz to shut up.
The story has congealed into Washington wisdom, confirming the image of Wolfowitz as a man possessed.
Wolfowitz and two others who were in the room told me an alternative version of the day. It is not exactly incompatible (though both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz say the Card scolding never happened, while Card, through a spokesman, confirms it), but it casts the day in a somewhat different light. They say that during a break in the meetings, the president listened in as Wolfowitz expounded on the Iraqi threat for a small group gathered around the fireplace of the rustic lodge. The president asked Wolfowitz why he hadn't made those points in the meeting and encouraged him to do so. Far from being an unwelcome voice, he was invited to speak up.
Some students of Washington intrigue have deduced from all this that Wolfowitz was set up. Rumsfeld brought him to Camp David specifically to make the Iraq case, knowing full well that the State Department, the C.I.A. and some of the brass would be opposed, knowing that a war with Iraq was more than the president could bite off in the first phase. The defense secretary wanted to define the ultimate problem as something bigger than Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan. So he pushed Wolfowitz forward. Wolfowitz would end up with the knives in him -- better a deputy than Rumsfeld himself -- but he would get the case for Iraq out where the president could consider it. And, sure enough, the president did define the terrorism problem early on as a global one including state sponsors. (Rumsfeld denies any such Machievellian design and says he doesn't even remember his deputy talking at the meeting.)
The larger point is that even as early as Sept. 15 of last year, the president was intrigued by what Wolfowitz was saying. By April, sooner than anyone expected, the president was telling journalists that ''regime change'' was his goal for Iraq. And when the president earlier this month assembled his war advisers in the Laurel Lodge, Iraq was on everybody's front burner.
In Washington, no career-conscious official would ever suggest that he had influenced the president. It is essential to the mythology of executive leadership that presidents make up their own minds, and this administration is more hypersensitive than most to any suggestion that the president needs to be propped up by smart people. In any case, on the question of a more muscular American presence in the world, Wolfowitz is hardly a lone voice. His most important Washington patrons -- Cheney, whom he served in the first Bush Pentagon, and Rumsfeld -- have increasingly taken over the role of drum majors on Iraq. But the new worldview evolving in the Bush administration Washington -- interventionist, idealistic, less sensitive to alliance diplomacy -- is one created more at the Pentagon than the State Department and one to which Wolfowitz has brought intellectual weight. Morton Abramowitz, a veteran diplomat who has worked with, and occasionally sparred with, Wolfowitz, calls him ''the pre-eminent house intellectual.''
Wolfowitz says that the new approach reflects the president's own instincts, which he maintains were evident even during the 2000 campaign to anyone who cared to look beyond the awkwardness of a foreign-policy novice -- and the scorn he heaped on nation building. Wolfowitz, who was one of the so-called Vulcans, the small cadre of thinkers who advised the campaign on defense and foreign policy, clearly finds the younger Bush more open to big, bold, activist ideas than his father.
''He's much more comfortable with speeches that lay out visions,'' Wolfowitz says. ''I think he really believes in them. So there's that sort of Reaganism, if you want to call it that, in him, but a little more on the pragmatic side than Reagan when it comes to actual policy.''
When the new Bush administration was coalescing, Colin Powell called Wolfowitz and offered him the job of ambassador to the United Nations. Given this administration's standoffish relationship with the U.N. and Wolfowitz's own wariness of multilateralism, that could be regarded as a trap rather than an honor, but Powell insists it was a sign of his great admiration for Wolfowitz's ability to think big and argue an issue to the ground. Wolfowitz has been similarly effusive in his praise of Powell, especially since news reports of their battles over Iraq.
And not only Iraq: the tensions between State and Defense are rooted in starkly different views of how America should deal with the world. The State Department tends to see the world as a set of problems to be handled, using the tools of professional diplomacy and striving for international consensus. This Defense Department tends to define leadership as more (in the Pentagon's favorite buzzword of the moment) ''forward leaning,'' including a willingness to act unilaterally if need be and to employ muscle. Rumsfeld and Cheney, who have been friends since the Nixon administration, are visceral advocates of this more assertive view, but Wolfowitz is its theorist -- its Kissinger, as one admirer put it.
''What I think distinguishes him, and it's very alarming to some people, is that there is this spirit in Washington that foreign policy consists of managing problems,'' said Charles H. Fairbanks, a Johns Hopkins political scientist who has known Wolfowitz since college. ''Paul Wolfowitz is really free of that tendency.''
In 1992, in what would turn out to be the last year of the first Bush administration, Wolfowitz, then under secretary for policy in Cheney's Defense Department, presided over the writing of a new ''Defense Planning Guidance,'' a broad directive to military leaders on what to prepare for. An early draft proposed that with the demise of the Soviet Union the United States doctrine should be to assure that no new superpower arose to rival America's benign domination of the globe. The U.S. would defend its unique status both by being militarily powerful beyond challenge and by being such a constructive force that no one would want to challenge us. We would participate in coalitions, but they would be ''ad hoc.'' The U.S. would be ''postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated.'' The guidance envisioned pre-emptive attacks against states bent on acquiring nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. It was accompanied by illustrative scenarios of hypothetical wars for which the military should be prepared. One of them was another war against Iraq, where Saddam had already rebounded from his gulf-war defeat and was busily crushing domestic unrest.
After the draft was leaked to The New York Times and was roundly denounced as bellicose and unilateralist, the language was softened. But a number of years later, in an essay published in The National Interest, Wolfowitz contended that most Americans had come around to favoring the kind of Pax Americana envisioned in that document. He argued that American interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere had demonstrated a growing consensus for an American leadership, which entailed ''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 now seems to have become the Bush doctrine, sprung from Sept. 11, and Iraq stands to be its most serious test. The evidence suggests that the world consensus is somewhat shakier than Wolfowitz predicted. Allied support is confined to the loyal Tony Blair, who may pay a high price at home for it; the American public is supportive, but in no hurry; the president's father's inner circle is sounding cautions.
Wolfowitz regards all of this as little different from the hand-wringing before Desert Storm or before the intervention in Bosnia. ''If we get to the point where we're talking about reconstructing a post-Saddam Iraq, I think we'll have an awful lot that we agree on,'' he says. ''And a lot of the differences of today, which revolve around how you get there, will seem like ancient worries.''
In its early days, the Bush administration set in motion a review of Iraq policy, but it dragged on without much direction, so that by Sept. 11 the Bush policy on Iraq was essentially the one inherited from the Clinton administration. At the C.I.A., the holdover director, George J. Tenet, was pushing the idea of ''stateless'' terrorism, which implied less, not more, emphasis on the role of state patrons. At State, Colin Powell seized on an idea that had been gestating in the Clinton administration -- smart sanctions'' -- that would have eased restrictions on food and medicine sales to Iraq but would have clamped down hard on smuggling of equipment for Saddam's rearmament. There was general agreement within the administration that sanctions were an abject failure, doing little to impede Saddam's military ambitions while creating a P.R. nightmare of hungry children. It is not clear that anybody had much faith that sanctions could be fixed, but smart sanctions created the impression of doing something. Iraq was, frankly, nobody's high priority -- not Rumsfeld, who was preoccupied with missile defense; not Cheney, who was consumed by the domestic agenda; not Condoleezza Rice or Powell, who had Russia and China to think about. When the Sept. 11 terrorists struck, Wolfowitz was the first into this vacuum.
Friends of Wolfowitz's say his initial reaction was that Iraq was probably a party to the attacks. He had already studied the work of Laurie Mylroie, an investigator who has labored to connect Iraq to earlier terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and now an ardent student of clues connecting Saddam to Sept. 11. The Clinton administration treated Mylroie as, in her words, ''a nut case,'' but Wolfowitz -- then spending the Clinton years as dean of the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins -- listened to her 90-minute briefing on the evidence trail and wrote a sympathetic blurb for her book blaming Iraq for the first trade-center attack. After Sept. 11, he encouraged his friend R. James Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director, to visit England as a consultant to a Justice Department mission and sniff out evidence of Iraqi connections. Woolsey contends that evidence connecting Iraq with terrorist assaults on America, while circumstantial, is ''about as clear as these things get.'' Few others go that far, Wolfowitz included. He can describe the evidence in detail, the clandestine meetings between Iraqi intelligence and figures who may have been Al Qaeda operatives, and says he finds it intriguing but not conclusive.
But the more general connection between Saddam and terrorists -- his hosting of the murderous and recently deceased Abu Nidal, his subsidies for Palestinian suicide bombers -- is enough, in Wolfowitz's view, to make their future collaboration against America almost a given. While Iraq might arm a missile or a bomber with one of those horrible weapons, Wolfowitz says, the more likely delivery system is via the terrorist international. And that, too, is an underlying assumption in the administration's case for war.
Throughout his career, Wolfowitz has managed to push hard against the prevailing view while avoiding the kind of confrontation that gets you marked as not a team player. But several people who know Wolfowitz say he seemed galvanized by Sept. 11 into a bet-your-career sense of purpose.I think Paul tended to be Mr. Interagency Stealth in the past, and now he's Mr. Open Warfare,'' says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert who once worked for Wolfowitz as a policy planner. ''Right after Sept. 11, the idea that Iraq was where we had to go next was the lunacy that had to be fought back. Now, in this town, there's a near consensus about it. They've accepted the Wolfowitz goal, and now they're just haggling about how it's to be done. That was a result that could only be achieved by open warfare.''
A result of his being so out front, of course, is that along with the considerably higher stakes of human life and strategic order, one thing riding on the future of Iraq is Wolfowitz's future. If, as some of his friends believe, Wolfowitz, who is 58, would like to ascend to a cabinet job -- Rumsfeld would be 72 at the start of a second Bush term; Powell has dropped hints of being a one-termer; and a shuffle could land him as national security adviser or C.I.A. director -- his prospects are paradoxically wedded to those of Saddam Hussein.
Wolfowitz grew up in a household in which Hitler and Stalin were not abstractions. His father, a mathematics professor at Cornell and an innovator in the field of statistics, was a Polish Jew who emigrated from Russian-held Warsaw in 1920. He often told his children how lucky they were to have escaped the totalitarian horrors of Europe for the benign security of America. There were many Wolfowitzes consumed in the Holocaust, and according to Wolfowitz's sister, Laura, the world's perils and America's moral responsibility were constant topics at their dinner table.
As a teenager, Wolfowitz was a lonely John F. Kennedy Democrat in his conservative Ithaca, N.Y., high school. He says the only time he ever marched in a demonstration was when he was 19, at Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights spectacular in Washington. He remains, by his own description, a ''bleeding heart'' on social issues and a civil libertarian. The day I watched him under questioning from those eager majors at Fort Leavenworth, he argued against the use of torture in interrogating terror suspects and against the deployment of the military in domestic crises.
But his sense of America's large place in the world, like his father's, has always hewed close to that of the late Senator Henry M. Jackson, the pioneering Democratic hawk nicknamed Scoop, who believed in an American obligation to support democracies and in the willingness to use military force sometimes to accomplish that. (Jackson was also Richard Perle's mentor.) Wolfowitz, who switched parties during the Reagan administration, now describes himself as ''a Scoop Jackson Republican.''
Wolfowitz followed his father into mathematics, taking courses from him at Cornell, shifted to chemistry and ''probably would have ended up a very unhappy biochemist'' if not for the intervention of Allan Bloom, the charismatic political philosopher, who was a resident scholar in the elite student dormitory where Wolfowitz lived. Bloom emboldened Wolfowitz to follow his childhood fascination with world affairs, to the enormous dismay of his father, who regarded political science as roughly equivalent to astrology.
Wolfowitz earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago, a seedbed of what is now called neoconservative thinking in economics, political science and strategic studies. His mentor there was Albert Wohlstetter, perhaps the most influential thinker about military strategems of the nuclear age and godfather of the anti-détente school during the cold war.
Student deferments kept him out of the military draft during the Vietnam War, and he looks back on that war with a kind of scholarly detachment that is in striking contrast to, say, Colin Powell, who served two tours there and regards Vietnam as the paradigm of good intentions gone wrong. Wolfowitz was sympathetic to the war and only later came around to the view that it was ''a very costly overreach.'' At the same time, he wonders if the American role in Vietnam might have given anti-Communist forces in Asia time to gather strength. ''We know the costs of Vietnam,'' he says. ''They were horrendous.'' And then he adds a quintessentially Wolfowitz kicker: ''But we don't know what that part of the world would have looked like today if it hadn't been.''
After three years teaching political science at Yale, Wolfowitz was recruited through Wohlstetter's profuse grapevine to work in Washington at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In the waning days of the Nixon administration, the agency was one link in a network of conservative insurgents. Their target was the diplomacy of patient coexistence with the Soviet Union. Their ringleader was Perle, operating out of Scoop Jackson's office. Their Antichrist was Kissinger, the mastermind of détente. The insurgent view was that the Soviet Union should be not simply contained but challenged on all fronts. They argued that American intelligence agencies had played down the aggressive designs and military advances of the Soviet Union to conform to the White House drive for arms control.
In the waning days of the Ford administration, the C.I.A. (director: George H.W. Bush) sought to appease the hard-liners by commissioning ''Team B,'' a group of kibitzers with license to second-guess the intelligence reports on the Soviet Union. Wolfowitz was one of the 10 members. The report they produced was more than Bush bargained for. It painted the Soviet Union as an expansionist boogeyman. In hindsight, much of the Team B report was worst-case hyperbole; it credited the Soviet Union with developing superweapons it never had and ignored the handicaps of a failing Soviet economy. But Team B became a political bludgeon to batter the proponents of arms control and drive up American military spending. Wolfowitz, who contributed a thoughtful and unhysterical chapter on the importance of intermediate-range missiles to the Soviet strategy, says he never bought Team B's alarmist contention that the Soviet Union believed it could fight and win a nuclear war. But he says the report was a useful guerrilla attack on conventional thinking, including the tendency of intelligence agencies to assume that rival countries think the same way we do.
It was a similar Team B-style exercise that led to his current job. Rumsfeld was impressed by Wolfowitz's work for him on a commission set up by Congressional hawks in 1998 to prod the Clinton administration toward deploying missile defense. (Rumsfeld is a missile-defense devotee; Wolfowitz somewhat less so, since he worries it would not stop low-flying cruise missiles.)
Wolfowitz abandoned the Yale tenure track and threw himself into the practice of national security, moving back and forth between Defense and State. His earliest jobs were in the wonkish realm of policy analysis -- gazing at the horizon. He had a knack for luring bright, opinionated thinkers, some of whom rank high in the current administration. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was captivated by Wolfowitz's political science course at Yale and worked for him at the in-house think tanks in both the State and Defense Departments. Condoleezza Rice's deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, who is chairman of an influential committee of cabinet deputies that meets several times a week on national-security issues, worked for Wolfowitz in the Cheney Defense Department and was a fellow Vulcan in the campaign.
Contrary to his ideologue image, Wolfowitz is described by colleagues as open to new ideas and encouraging of dissent. Dennis Ross went to work for Wolfowitz shortly after writing a paper trashing the work of Team B. ''What I always found in him that separated him from everybody else on that side of the political spectrum is not that he didn't have predispositions, but that he was much more open, much more intellectually open, to different kinds of interpretations,'' Ross says. Charles Fairbanks, who also worked for Wolfowitz in the policy-planning office of the State Department, recalls him as ''sort of on the one hand, on the other hand on most issues,'' but ardent on the subject of certain regimes he regarded as outside the norms of civilized behavior, including the radical Baath party of Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi's Libya. ''I once presented talking points on Libya, which I considered very tough. He said: 'You don't understand. I really want to destroy Qaddafi, not just constrain him.'''
His protégés cite several examples of Wolfowitz's homing in on subjects before they grew into major issues, often when they were politically inconvenient. For example, as the Soviet empire was unraveling and the first President Bush was clinging to the waning figure of Mikhail Gorbachev, Wolfowitz and his boss, Cheney, believed that Boris N. Yeltsin represented a better prospect of a real end to the cold war.
And then there is Iraq. When he arrived at the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil embargo, Wolfowitz was surprised to find that the Persian Gulf region was scarcely on their minds.
''There was a fairly big NATO office,'' he recalls, ''and a modest size East Asian one and then a cats-and-dogs office. I said, 'Where's the Persian Gulf office?' 'Oh, we don't plan forces for the Persian Gulf.' This was 1977. And one of the unspoken reasons, I think, was Vietnam. But one of the spoken reasons was, the shah takes care of the Persian Gulf for us. And I said, 'Well, that's a little shortsighted.'''
So he assembled a small group, including Dennis Ross, and they wrote a secret assessment of threats. Much of the report was about possible Soviet moves into the region, but planted in the midst of this is a bright red flag about Iraq. Examining Iraq's outsize military and unresolved territorial claims, the report talked about possible attacks on Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, which would give Iraq control of the West's oil lifeline. The U.S. was seen as woefully unprepared to respond. The report recommended beefing up forces to provide ''a credible and visible balance to Iraq's local power.''
The report was not well received by the Carter administration, which was then busy courting Iraq as an offset to the new revolutionary regime in Iran. But Wolfowitz persisted, and one result was a decision to permanently pre-position cargo ships in the gulf region loaded with tanks, artillery and ammunition. By the time of the gulf war, some of the equipment was rusty, but as Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, points out, it was the first heavy weaponry to hit the ground against Saddam's army.
When Iraq swooped into Kuwait in 1990, Wolfowitz was Cheney's under secretary for policy. He was the strongest advocate for dispatching warships early as a sign of American resolve, and his was a persistent voice for putting American troops on the ground. After Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, Wolfowitz argued unsuccessfully that America should support the Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south in their attempts to finish off Saddam.
There is an entertaining echo of his frustration in ''Ravelstein,'' Saul Bellow's roman à clef about Wolfowitz's college guru, Allan Bloom. In the novel, Wolfowitz has a walk-on part as a former student who has made it big in Washington and periodically delights his old tutor by phoning in tidbits of inside dope. Professor Bloom/Ravelstein returns from one such phone call during the gulf war to inform his friends: ''Colin Powell and Baker have advised the president not to send the troops all the way to Baghdad. Bush will announce it tomorrow. They're afraid of a few casualties.''
Neither Wolfowitz nor anyone else in the administration was calling for sending American troops to Baghdad, since that far exceeded their mandate from Congress and the United Nations to liberate Kuwait. But Wolfowitz was dismayed by the decision to quickly extricate American troops and let the situation in Iraq run its course. When Clinton, who inherited the aftermath of the war, continued to stand by as Saddam suppressed the Kurds, Wolfowitz wrote a blistering op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, calling it ''Clinton's Bay of Pigs'' -- a rebuke he could as aptly have applied to the first President Bush. In language unusually fierce for Wolfowitz, he derided ''our passive containment policy and our inept covert operations'' and clearly implied that ousting Saddam should be American policy without quite saying it. The following year he was explicitly proposing ''the military option,'' unilateral if necessary, to rid the world of Saddam.
Until America came directly under attack last year, Wolfowitz says, he was still thinking in terms of providing arms, training and air support for indigenous rebels, not sending in American divisions.
''I certainly would not then have favored us sending occupying forces into Iraq,'' he says. ''But we might have overthrown a terrible regime. It might have worked out well. It could hardly be worse than what we've had for the last 10 years. And if it had been a mess, we could've said, O.K., well, we gave them their chance.
''In contrast, we're at a point now, I think, that if Iraq is liberated, our responsibility for it is going to be so large that our responsibility for the outcome -- and our stake in the outcome -- is going to be much larger.''
Wolfowitz's pentagon jobs under various presidents persuaded him that Iraq was chronic trouble. His vision of Iraq as an opportunity, though, evolved from his work in the State Department.
Two years into the Reagan administration, Wolfowitz asked Secretary of State George P. Shultz to move him from the world of theory into the world of practice, as assistant secretary of state for East Asia. Shultz says he hesitated -- Wolfowitz was known for his brains, not his management skills -- but agreed. Wolfowitz quickly found himself riding shotgun on another campaign against the geopolitics of Henry Kissinger, this time on how to deal with China. Shultz and Wolfowitz agreed that Kissinger put too much value on China as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, with the result that the U.S. bent over backward to preserve ''the relationship'' by making concessions on issues like Taiwan. The new team argued, in essence, that it was possible to be a hard-liner on the Soviet Union without pandering to China. Once China was downsized as a factor in the cold war, the administration felt freer to turn more attention to Japan, first, but also to the emerging Asian democracies of South Korea and Taiwan.
For his next act, Wolfowitz applied to be ambassador to Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population and a place that his wife and college sweetheart, Clare, had chosen as the focus of her anthropological studies. (They are now separated, but she speaks of him with intense admiration.) He threw himself into the public diplomacy, learning the language well enough to take questions at public gatherings and even entering a cooking contest sponsored by a women's magazine. (He won third place for a dish he dubbed Madame Mao's Chicken.) He especially prides himself on a public speech that called on the Indonesian strongman, Suharto, to introduce political openness -- a message he diplomatically saved for the end of his tour as ambassador but one that still infuriated Suharto.
Wolfowitz has talked for years about the incubation of Asian democracies and the more recent currents of freedom in Indonesia as reason to hope for something similar in the Islamic Mideast. Since Sept. 11, this has been a favorite theme in his speeches.
Wolfowitz was still a young Pentagon wonk when President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt braved the wrath of the Arab world to visit Jerusalem and deliver a speech of peace to the Israeli Parliament. To an American Jew raised with a high sense of individual moral obligation, this was such an admirable piece of statesmanship that Wolfowitz bought Arabic language tapes and studied them in his car on his commute to the Pentagon so that he could appreciate the valor of Sadat's speech in the original.
You hear from some of Wolfowitz's critics, always off the record, that Israel exercises a powerful gravitational pull on the man. They may not know that as a teenager he spent his father's sabbatical semester in Israel or that his sister is married to an Israeli, but they certainly know that he is friendly with Israel's generals and diplomats and that he is something of a hero to the heavily Jewish neoconservative movement. Those who know him well say this -- leaving aside the offensive suggestion of dual loyalty -- is looking at Wolfowitz through the wrong end of the telescope. As the Sadat story illustrates, he has generally been less excited by the security of Israel than by the promise of a more moderate Islam.
''As a moral man, he might have found Israel the heart of the Middle East story,'' Stephen Sestanovich says. ''But as a policy maker, Turkey and the gulf and Egypt didn't loom any less large for him.''
After Sept. 11, Wolfowitz supported the successful effort to include the localized killers of Hamas and Hezbollah on America's global terror list and was part of a large administration chorus (basically, everyone except the State Department) that argued for bypassing Yasir Arafat. But he has not hesitated to tell Israel when American interests trumped theirs. He supported selling sophisticated surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia, despite intense Israeli lobbying against the sale -- and those Awacs planes proved invaluable in the gulf war. Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing former prime minister, still complains that Israel was wrong to succumb to Wolfowitz's diplomacy during the gulf war, when he persuaded Israel to hold its fire as Iraqi Scuds were landing. Netanyahu, who generally admires Wolfowitz, thinks this forbearance emboldened his country's enemies. If there is a new war, persuading Ariel Sharon to show similar forbearance may be more difficult, but Wolfowitz will be foremost among those arguing the case.
Alongside the conference table where we did our talking, Wolfowitz has mounted a painting that, from across the room, resembles a tranquil Maryland landscape. On closer inspection, the dark foreground is a river of corpses. Wolfowitz, a Civil War buff, had it copied from a painting called ''The Bloody Lane,'' a rendering of the deadliest battle in American history, Antietam, which shattered the momentum of the South and emboldened Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It seems like sobering company for a man who deals in the gruesome cost-benefit analysis of warfare.
Wolfowitz says that he agonizes a good deal over the dangers of dispatching Americans to war, that he respects the traditional conservatism of men in uniform who know the Antietams of the globe firsthand. Interventions that are only indirectly about American interests, like Somalia, he says, should be ''as close to risk-free as possible,'' and, he suggests, ''maybe somewhere along the way we should have a volunteer force that is specifically volunteering for missions other than defending the country.'' The opposite of the Peace Corps, you might say.
Wars that defend our safety may command a higher price. What price? Would the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Saddam be worth, say, the lives of thousands of American soldiers, if that is what the experts estimated it would take to disarm him by force?
Wolfowitz posed the question himself and answered no. Weapons of mass destruction would not be enough to justify the deaths of thousands of Americans. And in any case, thousands killed would mean the mission had gone badly wrong.
But Wolfowitz was not letting the discussion end there. Later, he e-mailed me an afterthought about that grisly calculus of going to war against Iraq.
''So if that's what you estimate the costs of action to be, then you have to have something more on the other side of the ledger than just the possession of weapons of mass destruction,'' he wrote. Whether that ''something more'' that would justify that greater sacrifice meant evidence that Iraq was on the verge of using its weapons, or the prospect of establishing Iraq as an outpost of democracy, or a smoking gun tying Iraq to Sept. 11, he did not specify. ''In the end, it has to come down to a careful weighing of things we can't know with precision, the costs of action versus the costs of inaction, the costs of action now versus the costs of action later.''
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