Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz isn't a Muslim, isn't considered a friend of the Arab world, and argued in favor of U.S. forces pressing the attack in Afghanistan during Ramadan. So guests at a Pentagon Iftar dinner--the communal meal that breaks the fast each day during the Islamic holy month--might have been excused for wondering what he was doing as the featured speaker.
Nevertheless, the audience of 50 listened politely as Wolfowitz noted that America had defended Muslims six times in the last decade, from the Balkans and Iraq to Somalia and Afghanistan. And it's no secret that Wolfowitz dearly wants to add a seventh campaign to the list: a new drive to end the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Wolfowitz is arguably the fiercest hawk in the Bush Administration, and his dustups with Colin Powell's more cautious State Dept. have made headlines as debate rages over where the war on terror should head next. Despite the obstacles to unseating Saddam, no one is counting Wolfowitz out. "Anytime Paul Wolfowitz speaks, it's like E.F. Hutton: Everybody listens," says Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, a longtime associate and now one of the pragmatic ex-soldiers at State who sometimes clash with the more hawkish academics and corporate managers at Defense.
Wolfowitz' position on Iraq was forged long before September 11: He advocated helping oust Saddam in 1991 and was one of the first voices to favor taking on Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Wolfowitz also hews to a hard line on the need to defend Taiwan against a possible invasion from China. "When anything happens, he always assumes that it must be solved by the U.S. military," says Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The current frenzy over Iraq leaves the soft-spoken Wolfowitz a bit unsettled. For one thing, it's too early to talk about marching to Baghdad, he insists. "I would not be at all surprised if next spring or summer, we are still seeking terrorists hiding" in Afghanistan, Wolfowitz told BusinessWeek in a Dec. 18 interview.
In truth, Wolfowitz, 58, is far more than an anti-terror hard-liner. The former dean of Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies has been tapped by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to kick-start the Pentagon halting efforts to transform itself into a 21st century fighting machine. And he has established himself as the intellectual godfather of the Bush Administration's nuclear strategy, which calls for a reduction in nuclear warheads and construction of a missile shield.
As one of a tiny group of foreign-policy gurus who guided then-Texas Governor George W. Bush during the campaign, Wolfowitz argued that with the end of the cold war, the emphasis should be shifted away from mutually assured annihilation. He even advocated slashing nuclear arsenals. In fact, the cuts the Bush team has proposed, to roughly 2,000 warheads, are what the Clintonites sought for a third strategic arms reduction pact.
On the other hand, Wolfowitz is one of the architects of Bush's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, considered by many Democrats to be the cornerstone of arms control. Despite predictions of a cataclysmic reaction by Russia, China, and allies to the withdrawal, the response has been muted, except in Washington. "I think Wolfowitz is very bright. I think he's honest. I think he's wrong," says Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.).
But even those who disagree with him note that Wolfowitz's experience and knowledge make him a formidable opponent. Wolfowitz' service to six Administrations has included three tours of duty at the Pentagon, beginning in the Carter years, when he focused on Persian Gulf rivalries after the fall of the Shah of Iran; two jobs at State, where he helped oust Philippines dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos; and an ambassadorship to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation.
One key to Wolfowitz' influence is that he engages colleagues with a loose, Clintonesque management style, encouraging debate rather than rapid decisions. "I often found myself in his office thinking, `Paul, it's time to throw me out,"' says one ex-aide. "But the result is he always has a leg up on the other principals at the table who haven't thought through the ideas to their second and third order of consequences."
That style has helped build a loyal coterie that has fanned out throughout the Administration, giving Wolfowitz enormous bureaucratic clout. His former aides include Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley; Zalmay M. Khalilzad, the National Security Council's director for South Asia; Vice-President Dick Cheney's top two national security aides, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Eric S. Edelman; and Air Force Secretary James G. Roche.
This time around, Wolfowitz chose a top job at defense instead of state. "Trying to bring the military into the 21st century is too much to resist," he says. But Wolfowitz could fast become a lightning rod for the military brass, defense contractors, and Congress if he guts some pet programs that aren't working. On Dec. 14, for example, the Pentagon axed an overbudget Navy missile defense system for ships that was much beloved by some Star Warriors: They hoped it would be the base for a national missile shield.
The Brooklyn-born Wolfowitz isn't spoiling for a fight--at the Pentagon or overseas. In fact, he prefers deterrence as a management tool and in foreign policy. He believes "you should be the guy nobody wants to screw with," an associate says. "You have a lot fewer problems." And he is persistent. "If he gets an idea and thinks something is right, he will stay with it," says a top Administration official. That's the sort of determination that could make for some sleepless nights in Baghdad. By Stan Crock, with Paul Magnusson, in Washington and Dexter Roberts in Beijing