Along the Tracks

Friday, April 04, 2003

Big Bad Wolfowitz

Does it not appear that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has a target painted on his forehead which only appears in the lights of television crews? How many stories have we seen which ask, basically, “Why is Paul Wolfowitz so evil?”

I keep wondering, “What is with this media obsession over the ‘evilness’ of Paul Wolfowitz?”

Last night, in a Frontline expose, “Blair’s War,” the PBS producers couldn’t help themselves from bashing Wolfowitz. He was the sinister force behind Bush’s focus on Iraq over the past year and a half. He was the one who blew up NATO by requesting its assistance in protecting Turkey from the Iraqi threat. He is the one behind the administration’s “unilateralist” approach to the world. He hides under children’s beds and screams “Boo!” in the middle of the night.

Okay, they didn’t say that last part - but they might as well have. Between the big, two-hour background piece on Saddam and last night’s “Blair’s War,” the Frontline crew has used its precision weapons to pound the enemy - Wolfowitz.

And Frontline is far from alone. You can hardly watch a background piece on Bush foreign policy without Wolfowitz’ being named as the “hard-liner” or “hawk” who has hijacked the whole affair. Newspapers and magazines are full of such items, and columnists and commentators constantly jump into the fray with invective that is almost mind-boggling - we are, after all, talking about a second-level policy strategist, not some Cabinet member or senator or business tycoon. What’s going on?

I wish I had an answer. In my debate on WBGU’s “The Journal,” a couple weeks ago, Tony Wilgus, the peace activist from Findlay, Ohio, pointed out that Wolfowitz had already begun thinking about a post-Cold War strategy of pre-emption during his time in the first Bush administration, shortly after the first Gulf War. Wilgus intended this to be a rhetorical point in his favor - as do many liberal commentators (and anti-war “conservatives,” in fact), using the “background” reporting flooding the zone in “unbiased” journalistic endeavors like Frontline. But what is never explained is why there is something sinister about foreign policy strategists thinking about and developing foreign policy strategies. Isn’t that what they are supposed to do?

If it was not immediately clear that the end of the Cold War required a retooling of American foreign policy (which was set up assuming a Cold War environment), it certainly was amply demonstrated by the floundering which occurred throughout the 1990s. Russia was made the proxy stand-in for our Cold War “enemy” - even though Russia had experienced a democratic revolution and was ripe for a close, growing relationship. Thus, 10 years later, Russia is a wary and inconsistent actor in world affairs, rather than a true ally. The danger of proliferation, particularly from aggressive regimes, was either ignored (Iran, Syria) or papered over (Iraq, North Korea). Terrorism was deemed a “law enforcement” problem. States which worked with terrorists were handed the excuse of “plausible deniability,” and practically given free reign to use these methods of low-level warfare against Israel, the United States and our allies. The AIDS epidemic exploded across Africa, but the U.S. had little more than speeches to offer a continent for which there was no apparent “national security interest.” China - a true potential rival, even threat - was handed missile and computer technology. The floundering economies of Latin America were left to muddle through their own difficulties, with no broader plans for trade growth and investment - again, no apparent national interest when viewed through the Cold War lens.

This was the world inherited by the presidency of George W. Bush. To be truthful, little changed from the above for the first eight months of Bush’s leadership. But people who had been thinking about these issues for a decade were now in position to advise on new policies - and enact them. A few economic initiatives - an immigration agreement with Mexico, a Latin American free trade agreement - were in the discussion stages, and Russia was being courted as a new friend, rather than a dangerous rival. And the policy strategists were working on a new posture for America as the lone superpower.

September 11 did not initiate the changes which we now see, but accelerated them. To put it bluntly, America had fallen behind the times, and now needed to catch up. Those who feel the new American foreign policy has not been vetted by enough discussion have a point - things are moving swiftly, and the debate often falls behind events. But the reason for this is almost never noted: The Clinton administration avoided any serious consideration of America’s post-Cold War role, and in doing so, allowed the various tangents mentioned above to drift wildly beyond control.

Today, the Bush administration is trying to reharness these problems. Thank goodness it has Paul Wolfowitz and other dedicated public servants on staff to work through the difficulties being reaped from a decade of ignorant bliss.

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