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David Ignatius

'Our Old Fox'

By David Ignatius
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page A25

Paul Nitze, one of the last of a particularly elegant species of dinosaur, died this week at 97. He was the sort of figure who defined the foreign policy consensus of his time and whose absence defines the foreign policy disarray of today.

Nitze was a mandarin -- rich, smart and utterly intolerant of people he regarded as fools. He would berate people he didn't like around Washington, deriding one as "slimy and unrespectable" and another as "a hustler and a real 5 percenter." I was never sure whether that last epithet referred to the person's effort level or commission rate, but it was clearly an undesirable trait. "People think I'm mean," Nitze once told me. "But I can't tolerate sloppiness and dishonesty. And I don't have to."

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He could afford to be intolerant because he had married an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, and then multiplied that wealth through a series of spectacularly good investments, such as helping to found the Aspen ski resort. He was the preppy version of the Golden Boy: He loved to tell the story of how he had taken a drunken bet from one of his chums at Harvard and paddled a canoe all the way from the Ipswich River in Massachusetts to the landing of the New York Yacht Club. He nearly died along the way, but he made it in eight days.

"I have been an uncommonly fortunate man in a troubled world," Nitze wrote in the concluding paragraph of his 1989 memoir, "From Hiroshima to Glasnost." What made him different from many other wealthy people was his determination to give something back to his country. From 1940 on, he was either in government or waiting in the wings.

I became friendly with Nitze 20 years ago, when I was covering the diplomatic beat for the Wall Street Journal and he was the Reagan administration's guru on arms control. He offered a running tutorial on strategic issues -- especially his conviction that the Soviet Union was pushing for a "counterforce" nuclear capability that could knock out U.S. missiles in a first strike. That sense of vulnerability to Soviet attack seems almost incomprehensible now that communism has collapsed and we realize that the Soviet state was in most respects quite feeble. But at the time, no Georgetown dinner party was complete without a discussion of the "throw weight" of Soviet missiles.

Nitze was "our old fox," as one Reaganite described him. Having thundered about the need for more U.S. nuclear weapons, Nitze then began trading them away. His first bargain was hatched in the famous "walk in the woods," where he and a Soviet negotiator explored a deal for a radical reduction of medium-range missiles. That gambit failed, but arms control gathered force through the '80s, as Nitze had hoped. His trump card was Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program, which had been created partly in response to Nitze's warnings about American vulnerability to Soviet attack. Nitze used Star Wars as leverage to help negotiate the breakthrough arms control agreement that Reagan concluded with Mikhail Gorbachev.

What gave Nitze influence in strategic debates was that he was the last prominent member of the Cold War foreign policy elite known as the Establishment. That group's liberal wing had been shattered by the train wreck of the Vietnam War. In the recriminations that followed, most Establishment Democrats became more dovish. Nitze became more of a hawk. He attacked former friends and colleagues in the Democratic Party and made new alliances on the Republican right. Yet he never lost the Establishment conviction that wise heads could solve the most intractable problems -- if they debated them civilly, and dressed appropriately for dinner.

When you survey the foreign policy landscape today, what's striking is that there aren't any Nitzes left. That's good in some respects: The country is less elitist today, and the very idea of a foreign policy Establishment is grating. But the careful process by which the United States debated its strategy over the decades of the Cold War is also gone, along with the class that framed the debate. That lack of a coherent strategic consensus is clear on deadly issues such as Iraq, Iran and the war on terrorism. Before, we had a surfeit of strategy but, mercifully, no war. Now we have a war but no strategy.

One challenge for the next administration, whether it's headed by George Bush or John Kerry, will be to put the strategy-making process back together. Paul Nitze may be gone, but we need more than ever his qualities of intellectual rigor and unstinting commitment to the nation's security.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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