Jacob Heilbrunn

Andrew Bacevich's Shrewd Letter to Paul Wolfowitz

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Andrew J. Bacevich has adopted the epistolary mode of communication in the latest Harper's, a magazine that can always be counted on for elegantly turned essays, to implore Paul Wolfowitz to come to terms with the conflict that he played a key role in promoting and, moreover, that he really only addressed once in a lengthy interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair, in which he conceded that weapons of mass destruction had been fastened upon by the George W. Bush administration as the most persuasive way to sell the war to the public. Now Bacevich is urging Wolfowitz, more or less, to come clean about the war, to reflect upon what went awry in an intellectually honest fashion. Addressing Wolfowitz as "Dear Paul," a privilege he grants himself based upon the fact that Wolfowitz gave him a job when he needed one several decades ago at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bacevich has composed a remarkably personal and penetrating missive.

As Bacevich observes, the post, however minor, offered him the chance to participate in meetings led by Zbigniew Brzezinski at SAIS where the great events of the day were discussed with various luminaries. Bacevich says it was a learning experience, not so much for what he learned about foreign affairs but about the people who professed to be expert about them. He reached the conclusion—rapidly, I suspect—that "people said to be smart...really aren't. They excel mostly in recycling bromides. When it came sustenance, the sandwiches were superior to the chitchat." Wolfowtiz, however, was an exception. He was bored with administrative work, Bacevich indicates, but when it came to discussing foreign policy, he had game—"at Zbig's luncheons, when you riffed on some policy issue..it was a treat to watch you become so animated."

The heart of Bacevich's essay, however, is about Wolfowitz's relationship with the legendary strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Bacevich suggests that Wolfowitz was never really a neocon; rather, his "approach owed more to Wohlstetter Inc.—a firm less interested in ideology than in power and its employment." Bacevich outlines what he sees as Wohlstetter's approach to international relations (though in a rare lapse he omits to mention the key role played by Wohlstetter's wife Roberta, the author of a highly regarded scholarly study of Pearl Harbor which had a decisive effect on Dick Cheney's thinking about unexpected threats—indeed, a good argument could be made that she was the more rigorous thinker of the two). As Bacevich presents it, Wohlstetter was interested in dominion abroad and believed that "transforming the very nature of war, information technology—an arena in which the United States has historically enjoyed a clear edge—brings outright supremacy within reach." He adds, "of all the products of Albert Wohlstetter's fertile brain, this one impressed you most. The potential implications were dazzling." Iraq provided the pretext to attempt to implement the Wohlstetter doctrine. A successful conflict would allow America to proclaim without fear of contradiction, "I am the greatest!" It failed.

What would Wohlstetter have made of it all?

Bacevich suggests that the ruthlessly pragmatic Wohlstetter, who died in 1997, would have taken a hard look at what went wrong—the war in Afghanistan dragging on into a second decade, Iran's influence increasing almost daily in Iraq, and U.S. and Israeli security interests "rapidly slipping out of sync." (Still, it's fair to wonder if Wohlstetter himself would have endorsed the war in the first place, which Bacevich appears to assume.) No one among George W. Bush's votaries has offered anything other than valedictory statements. But why not the most gifted of the bunch, Wolfowitz? Why doesn't he take a fresh look?  It is incumbent upon him, Bacevich mordantly concludes, to "give it a shot."

My own suggestion: Bacevich and Wolfowitz should carry on a prolonged correspondence about foreign policy that could be turned into a book. Neither of these two perspicuous observers would be able to evade the other. This would surely constitute one of the more illuminating exchanges that Washington, DC has witnessed in many moons.