Wolfowitz’s Overconfidence

A theory about why he was wrong about Iraq.

According to the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz habitually “belittled” the threat posed by al-Qaida prior to Sept. 11. In one much-quoted passage from Clarke’s new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, Wolfowitz complains at a White House meeting, “You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because [the] FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don’t exist.”

Why did Wolfowitz trust his own judgment over the findings of the FBI and CIA? Why, similarly, did Wolfowitz blandly assume that post-Saddam Iraq would quickly get back on its feet? Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg last fall offered a plausible explanation for the overconfidence of the Pentagon hawks (including Wolfowitz):

The assumption that events will conform to a preconceived model is a failing to which neoconservatives are notably vulnerable. Part of this may be Marxist residue that never quite washed off. The intellectual descendants of Trotskyists, the neocons find the idea of revolution from above, in which intellectuals and ideas play the crucial role, instinctively appealing. Many neocons also tend to buy into overly deterministic, Hegelian theories of history (see Fukuyama, Frank). In this sense, the assumption that Iraq was destined to become a liberal democracy with just a nudge from the United States is an error akin to Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick’s Hannah Arendt-inspired view that Communist totalitarian societies could never reform from within.

But James Mann’s absorbing new book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet furnishes an alternative, Wolfowitz-specific explanation. Mann doesn’t present it this way, but here’s Chatterbox’s construct: Wolfowitz was corrupted by early success. Twenty-odd years ago, Wolfowitz took two very lonely positions that proved to be spectacularly right. As a consequence, he developed an unshakable belief that once he’s thought through a problem (which, according to Mann, Wolfowitz does very slowly) he should ignore the cavils of lesser minds. Time will prove that he’s right.

The first lonely position was Wolfowitz’s early belief that U.S. policymakers should worry about Iraqi expansionism. Wolfowitz formulated this position in 1979, when he was working as deputy assistant secretary of defense for regional programs in the Carter administration. (Wolfowitz’s work for a Democratic presidential administration, and before that, the pro-détente Ford administration, would initially cause problems when he sought a job with the hard-line Reagan administration, whose hawkish views were more in tune with Wolfowitz’s own.) Defense Secretary Harold Brown was horrified by Wolfowitz’s idea, which was included in a study called Capabilities for Limited Contingencies in the Persian Gulf. A quarter-century later, however, Wolfowitz’s analysis looks eerily prescient:

Iraq has become militarily pre-eminent in the Persian Gulf, a worrisome development. … Iraq may in the future use her military forces against such states as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia (as in the 1961 Kuwait crisis that was resolved by timely British intervention with force). … [W]e must not only be able to defend the interests of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and ourselves against an Iraqi invasion or show of force, we should also make manifest our capabilities and commitments to balance Iraq’s power—and this may require an increased visibility for U.S. power.

In 1990, Dennis Ross, who wrote this passage at Wolfowitz’s direction, was traveling with Secretary of State James Baker when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. To Ross’ amazement, an Army general briefing Baker on the matter used an updated version of the report that he and Wolfowitz had put out 11 years earlier.

Wolfowitz’s second lonely position was taken in 1982, when he was heading the policy planning staff at Ronald Reagan’s State Department. It was a challenge to the widespread belief that China’s strategic significance as an ally against the Soviet Union rendered it untouchable on human rights and Taiwan. In fact, Wolfowitz argued, China had a weak army and would be of no great use to the United States in a war against the Soviets; perhaps it was time to regard China more as an embryonic great-power rival. Mann writes:

Here, once again, Wolfowitz was taking American foreign policy several steps beyond the usual cold war thinking of the era. When he studied the Persian Gulf in the late 1970s, Wolfowitz had started out with the predicatable cold war anxieties about a Soviet drive toward the oil fields of the Middle East, but he then had gone on to focus on a different possibility, the prospect that Iraq might try to dominate the oil fields by invading its neighbors.  So too with Wolfowitz’s China policy. … In both instances, Iraq and China, Wolfowitz was beginning to think about foreign policy issues that were to arise a decade later, after the Soviet collapse.

To Mann, Wolfowitz’s early ideas about Iraq and China contributed to Wolfowitz’s eventual advocacy of unilateral American power around the world. But Chatterbox thinks they may also have given Wolfowitz too much confidence in his ability to render risky judgments. Wolfowitz was not yet 40 when he staked out these positions. Within the foreign policy establishment, that made him a baby. Now he’s a “wise man” of 60, drawing on the lessons of his youth to address new foreign policy challenges. And the main lesson is: The Wolf Man is Never Wrong.

Chatterbox is wrong, on occasion, and promises to discard this theory if he encounters a better one.