A War of Choice, and One Who Chose It
By David Ignatius
Sunday, November 2, 2003; Page B01
It was a classic Paul Wolfowitz moment: He was speaking at a new women's rights center here nine days ago when someone asked for his advice on writing an Iraqi constitution. Wolfowitz, the professor turned Pentagon war planner, began quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's theories about democracy to the residents of this ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River.
"There are people in the world who say that Arabs can't build democracy," Wolfowitz told the crowd. "I think that's nonsense. You have a chance to prove them wrong. So please do it."
That interaction captured the missing element in many analyses of the Iraq conflict. Commentators in Europe and the Arab world write darkly about America's designs on Iraqi oil, or a conspiracy to enrich Vice President Cheney's old friends at Halliburton, or a plot to help Israel. It would be nice, in a weird way, if the Iraq war were anchored to such worldly interests. But it isn't.
The reality is that this may be the most idealistic war fought in modern times -- a war whose only coherent rationale, for all the misleading hype about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda terrorists, is that it toppled a tyrant and created the possibility of a democratic future. It was a war of choice, not necessity, and one driven by ideas, not merely interests. In that sense, the paradigmatic figure of the war is Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and the Bush administration's idealist in chief.
I traveled through Iraq with Wolfowitz on the whirlwind trip last weekend that concluded with a rocket attack Sunday on the hotel where we were staying in Baghdad. For people watching on television, that assault may have conveyed the vulnerability, and perhaps futility, of America's mission: We keep trying to help the Iraqis, it seems, and they keep shooting missiles back at us.
But seen through Wolfowitz's eyes, the rocket attack was just a blip -- no more daunting than the car bombs, assassinations and ambushes that are daily facts of life here for U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. More important to Wolfowitz were the dozens of Iraqis and Americans he met who are risking their lives for the U.S. mission and the ideals that Wolfowitz holds dear. In that sense, the trip was fuel for Wolfowitz's intellectual engine.
As we were flying back to Washington in a lumbering C-17, I asked Wolfowitz if he ever worried that he was too idealistic -- that his passion for the noble goals of the Iraq war might overwhelm the prudence and pragmatism that normally guide war planners. He didn't answer directly, except to say that it was a good question. And it's a starting point for some reflections on Wolfowitz and his war, seven bloody months after U.S. troops invaded Iraq.
Wolfowitz is a rare animal in Washington -- a genuine intellectual in a top policymaking job. He was dean of the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University before taking his current Pentagon post, and he has the kind of curious mind that makes him as good a listener as talker. He is also a man who for more than a decade, ever since he served as ambassador to Indonesia, has been fascinated with the Muslim world.
That passion undercuts the widespread notion that Wolfowitz is simply a neoconservative tool of Israel. He is instead a kind of amateur Orientalist: He reads about the Arab world, bleeds for its oppression and dreams of liberating it. He seeks out Arab intellectuals who can advise him on policy, and he says he opposes Israeli settlements. Wolfowitz, as an outsider, may romanticize the Arab world, but there's no denying his intellectual interest.
His idealism about the potential for change in the Middle East was on display throughout his recent trip. He told the gathering at the women's rights center in Hilla, for example, that democracy wasn't just about elections -- which are somewhat discredited in Arab countries by the experiences of Egypt, Jordan and even Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Ultimately, he argued, democracy was about justice.
"To Americans, the most important thing about democracy is to guarantee human rights and justice for all," he said. At other stops, he made a similar pitch about the role of courts and legal institutions in a free society.
Wolfowitz's emphasis on justice emerged in part from conversations he had in September with Jamil Mroue, publisher of the Daily Star in Beirut. Over a four-hour dinner in Washington, Mroue argued that if America simply stressed security in Iraq, it would be no different than the authoritarian rulers who govern in the name of security throughout the Arab world. The missing ingredient was justice, said Mroue. Taken with the argument, Wolfowitz arranged for Mroue to meet with his top aides.
Mroue is only one Arab influence on Wolfowitz's thinking. Wolfowitz's initial mentor on Iraq was Ahmed Chalabi, the long-exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a man with powerful ties to the neoconservative establishment in Washington. A brilliant if abrasive intellectual, Chalabi helped convince Wolfowitz that the Iraqi people longed for liberation and would rally behind an American invasion.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company