Bill Keller - The Sunshine Warrior - Wolfowitz before the Iraq War

one argument some make for invading is that Bush has already gone too far out on the limb to back down.

When Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, steps out of an Air Force Gulfstream into the Kansas heat, it is not just an overdue courtesy call and not just a peace overture to a rankled service. (He has just killed the Army's prized new $11 billion artillery piece, the Crusader.) It is one more engagement in the war over the coming war.

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?

An exasperated look crosses Wolfowitz's wide, boyish face; Ritter's comments are ''simply amazing,'' he says. Then he stops himself. He acknowledges that Ritter knows something about Iraq and concedes that Saddam has probably not been able to rebuild his nuclear program, not yet. But he notes that when inspectors went in after the gulf war, they found he was far closer than anyone imagined, that in fact he was pursuing four separate avenues for manufacturing a nuclear weapon. And chemical weapons, which he has employed against his own people, or biological weapons are threat enough, and much easier to construct in a secretive, fearsome police state. This is, Wolfowitz tells the majors, a man who has been known to have children tortured in front of their parents. (The line would later turn up in the president's address to the U.N.)

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.

Bill Keller - The Sunshine Warrior


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