May 15, 2020
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz joins IPS class via Zoom
By Bill Brink
Paul Wolfowitz knows his way around a classroom. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago, taught the subject at Yale, and served as the Dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. So when he began his lecture to the students in IPS Taube Professor Kiron Skinner’s “America and the World” course last week, he opened with a pop quiz.
There were two acts of terror in September 2001, he said: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and what else?
Wolfowitz was referring to the use of the US Postal Service to spread anthrax. He was the Deputy Secretary of Defense at that time, and the anthrax threat influenced the way the US government approached Iraq, a subject he discussed via Zoom with Professor Skinner’s students. He also clarified his role in the planning of the war.
“I wasn’t the architect of anything,” said Wolfowitz, now a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “I certainly generally believed in what we were doing. I had great doubts about the way we were going about it.”
Wolfowitz’s time as Deputy Secretary of Defense marked the culmination of nearly three decades of government service, a path down which he might not have initially traveled. After majoring in Mathematics at Cornell, he was accepted to MIT to study physical chemistry, he said, but opted to study political science at the University of Chicago instead. Afterwards, while teaching at Yale, what began as a one-year leave of absence became the beginning of a long government career when he joined the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1973 to work on nuclear nonproliferation.
Wolfowitz found nuclear arms control fascinating, but decided that if we wanted to prevent nuclear war, we needed to prevent conventional war first. In 1977, he became the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Regional Programs, where he began his work on Persian Gulf security. Secretary of State Al Haig brought in Wolfowitz as the head of the policy planning staff at the Department of State in 1981, and Wolfowitz became the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs after George Shultz replaced Haig two years later.
In that role, Wolfowitz thought he would spend most of his time dealing with China and Japan. Instead he spent more time on the Philippines than either of them, going toe to toe with Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When in 1986 Wolfowitz became the ambassador to Indonesia, Shultz told him, “You earned it.”
Wolfowitz’s career brought him back to the Middle East in 1989, when he worked for President George H.W. Bush as the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and it was during this time that he got a feel for Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein. Later, in 1993, when ex-President Bush visited Kuwait to commemorate the victory in the first Iraq war, the Kuwaitis discovered a car bomb on the motorcade route. Subsequent investigations pointed, Wolfowitz said, to Iraqi intelligence.
“I know of only two possible motivations for doing that,” he said. One was revenge. “And the second possibility, which I think is more likely, is for Saddam to assert to his own people that he hadn’t lost the war, that he was still fighting." Either attitude represented a danger for us.
After seven years at Johns Hopkins, Wolfowitz returned to government, this time as Deputy Secretary of Defense. He’d held the role for less than a year before the September 11 attacks. Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan were one issue, but, Wolfowitz said, the anthrax attacks altered the way the government felt about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq at the time as well.
“[Hussein] had kicked out the UN inspectors in 1998, so there was no basis for saying there wasn’t a threat there,” Wolfowitz said. “And to the contrary, his own rhetoric was pretty threatening. Every single world leader that you can think of condemned the 9/11 attacks. … The only world leader who did not condemn those attacks happened to be the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.”
In retrospect, Wolfowitz pointed to two mistakes in Iraq. He questioned why the US did not employ the counterinsurgency tactics, which proved effective when General Creighton Abrams Jr. switched from search-and-destroy to clear-and-hold near the end of the Vietnam War, in Iraq. Had the US employed General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency plans from the beginning, Wolfowitz said, the Iraqis could have built and managed their country. Wolfowitz also said that the Iraq war did indeed require more troops – but more Iraqi troops, not Americans.
“We needed a light force that could do counterinsurgency, that could deal with the local people, that didn’t need to have big heavy equipment,” he said.
Nearly 20 years after the beginning of the second Iraq war, the Middle East remains vital to the rest of the world. Wolfowitz compared it to a Go board: Leaving the most important squares on the board empty spells defeat.
“You’ve got to think about what you leave behind,” he said.
Afghanistan, which the US invaded in 2001 with the intent of vanquishing al-Qaeda and the Taliban, remains an issue, and were Wolfowitz advising President Trump on Afghan policy, he would recommend bringing Pakistan in line.
“I would encourage you to really beat hard on your State Department and Defense Department and CIA colleagues to give you some serious options of getting the Pakistanis to start behaving differently,” Wolfowitz said in response to a question from a student about the decision to remove troops from Afghanistan.
Another student asked Wolfowitz about sanctions on Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program, considering Wolfowitz’s experience with Iraq.
“It’s important to be confronting Iran over its malevolent activities throughout the region, throughout the world, but especially through the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria and in Iraq,” Wolfowitz said. “So far, I can see no serious sign that even though the maximum pressure seems to be a good idea, it’s getting us what we want. Having said that, from the point of view of the Persian Gulf states who are all rather weak compared to Iran, it’s built up their confidence that the United States has their back. Sometimes too much so.”
The Middle East’s oil reserves make it important to the rest of the world, including what Wolfowitz called the greatest threat to the United States: communist China.
“It’s a surveillance state, it’s a brutal surveillance state,” he said. “They’ve made pretty clear how they treat their people, their subjects.
“I think any Chinese war planner that thinks about invading Taiwan has to think, ‘Well, the next thing America might do is cut off all our energy.’ I don’t know that we would or could, but I’d like to be in a position where they’d have to worry about that.”
After his tenure as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Wolfowitz served as president of the World Bank, as chairman of the Department of State’s International Security and Advisory Board, and as Chairman of the US-Taiwan Business Council. Given the breadth and scope of his career, he advised students to forget about what they’re going to be someday, and instead, to do something they love.
“If you’re happy with what you’re doing, you’ll do well at it,” he said. “If you do well at it, people will discover that you can do well at other things, and you will end up with opportunities that you could not have planned on.”