Sunday, December 28, 2003, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

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Two views of Iraq: As critics zero in, Wolfowitz is unflinching

By Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post

In September, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz appeared in Manhattan at an event sponsored by The New Yorker magazine. As he began to speak, he was interrupted by shouts of "War criminal!" and "Murderer!"

"I can't resist," he said evenly. "This is what is wonderful about this country. It is ... "

Another shout: "Shame on you."

Wolfowitz drove on: " ... and what is finally wonderful is 50 million, roughly 50 million Afghans and Iraqis, are finally able to speak this way without having their tongues cut out."

A few minutes later, a young man ran to the base of the stage, jabbed a finger at Wolfowitz and shouted, "You should be tried for treason, you Nazi!"

Wolfowitz looked a bit distant as he coolly responded, "Frankly, my own reading of history is that exactly this kind of tactic is what the Nazis did and what the totalitarians did in trying to stop people from listening and talking."

Saddam Hussein, he went on to say, was a malevolent dictator who clearly needed to be removed for the good of both the American and the Iraqi peoples: "I think anyone with the slightest bit of moral sense understood what an evil man Saddam was and how much better off the world would be with him gone."

No deputy secretary of defense has ever held the prominence that Wolfowitz has had over the past two years. He is widely seen inside the Pentagon as the most likely replacement if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld steps down.

And no figure in the administration, except possibly Vice President Dick Cheney, is as closely identified with the drive to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. "This is Wolfowitz's baby," said one person who has served as a senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. "He feels responsible for it."

To understand Wolfowitz, notes a friend and former colleague, it's important to understand that Wolfowitz believes there is real evil in the world, and that he is confronting it. The lesson that Wolfowitz took away from the Cold War, says Eliot Cohen, who knew him at Johns Hopkins University, where Wolfowitz was a dean, is "that the world really is a dangerous place, and that you have to do something about it."

Paired with that is his belief that the United States can best respond to totalitarianism by emphasizing freedom and democracy. Wolfowitz possesses "a basic optimism about the potential of human beings for moderation and self-governance, and a belief in the universal appeal of liberty," Cohen says.

That combination of a hardheaded view of some men with an idealistic faith in mankind, Cohen concludes, adds up to "a distinctively American take on the world."

So when Wolfowitz talks with great intensity about Iraq, it isn't just because his political future and his place in history are likely to be determined by the course of events there. He sees the invasion as part of a larger campaign against terrorism, and that post-Sept. 11, 2001, fight as the third great American struggle against totalitarianism, the new century's successor to the great fights against Nazism and Soviet communism.

A recent conversation with him skipped among those three eras, moving from the Holocaust to the crimes of Saddam to the Cuban missile crisis.

The similarity among all three struggles is that "we're dealing with a fundamental existential threat to our way of life, to our values," he says. The main parallel is "not so much in the nature of the enemy we're confronting as in the nature of the challenge it presents to us. That is, it really does require mobilization of a major effort on our part. It requires contemplating a long-term struggle."

This isn't just theorizing. Wolfowitz's own life runs through all three of those confrontations. Though he didn't say so that day in New York when he was accused of being a Nazi, he lost most of his extended family in the Holocaust.

Wolfowitz, 60, shies away from discussing it. Asked about it, his response is seemingly off point. "The event that happened in my college years that had the biggest single impression on me, even more than Kennedy's assassination, was the Cuban missile crisis" — that is, the prospect of nuclear holocaust.

Some observers speculate that one lesson Wolfowitz took from the Holocaust is that the American people need to be pushed to do the right thing, because by the time they entered World War II, it was too late for millions of victims of the Nazis.

Asked about this, Wolfowitz agrees but expands on the thought — and connects it to Iraq. "I think the world in general has a tendency to say, if somebody evil like Saddam is killing his own people, 'That's too bad, but that's really not my business.' " That's dangerous, he continued, because Saddam was "in a class with very few others — Stalin, Hitler, Kim Jong Il. ... People of that order of evil ... tend not to keep evil at home, they tend to export it in various ways and eventually it bites us."

Wolfowitz can mystify some of his colleagues in government. "A lot of us know him and like him as a person, but some of the policies he advocates are very difficult to understand or deal with," said a senior State Department official. "He's a man full of contradictions."

But Wolfowitz sees no contradiction between policies and idealistic goals. Rather, he contends, they can reinforce each other. Indeed, Wolfowitz is most confrontational when he is most idealistic.

Nowhere is that more evident than in his advocacy of transforming the politics of the Middle East, a policy attacked as unrealistically idealistic. As he put it to the Jerusalem Post earlier this year, "The idea that we could live with another 20 years of stagnation in the Middle East that breeds this radicalism and breeds terrorism is, I think, just unacceptable."

To Wolfowitz, trying to change the Middle East is far from unrealistic. Rather, it is using universal ideals to achieve the practical end of curtailing terrorism. Just as much of East Asia democratized in the 1980s and 1990s, so too is there a chance that the Middle East could change radically. "It could," he says. "And it's certainly worth a try."

"Change has to start someplace," he says. "The status quo ... produced (Osama) bin Laden and produced thousands of people eager to kill themselves in order to kill Americans."

Another charge, sometimes muttered in the military, is that Wolfowitz and his hawkish colleagues would act differently had they ever been in combat. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, for example, says that if Wolfowitz and others in the administration had experienced combat, they might have thought longer about invading and occupying Iraq.

"I think it would have changed them," says Zinni, a prominent critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq, who believes it's a moral issue. "They were my contemporaries. They should have been there, and they found a way not to serve. And where are their kids? Are their kids serving? My son is in the Marines."

Wolfowitz responds calmly, noting that he has visited soldiers severely wounded in Iraq. "I am not at all unmindful of what it means to send American kids into combat," he says. "I think that those people who have experienced war have an even deeper distaste for it. And that is something I have a lot of respect for and a lot of time for."

But other considerations must be kept in mind. And that takes him back to the Nazis: "Certainly the failure to confront Hitler was largely from fear of what the consequences would be, and that led to much greater consequences."

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