Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Saturday, March 19, 2005

MSNBC - Eric Alterman,and Dr. Wolfowitz a Cocktail Party (No this is not a joke)

MSNBC - Letter to the publisher#050308: "Wolfowitz on the record
My tuna sushi canapés with Paul…

Though he was clearly the celebrity guest of the moment at the book party that Tina Brown and Harry (“Sir Harold”) Evans threw for Edward Jay Epstein’s terrific new exploration of Hollywood, called "The Big Picture," Paul Wolfowitz was more whispered about than talked to last night. So I felt bad for the guy when I saw him standing by himself and went over to see what cocktail party banter might yield in the way of global understanding. (I began with, and remain committed to, the admittedly controversial hypothesis that Wolfowitz is a genuinely misguided idealist—perhaps the only one-- in the administration’s top echelon.) In any case, I knew we had nothing to discuss vis-à-vis Iraq, or even George W. Bush, so I steered the conversation toward matters we might engage. There was no talk of anything being off the record, so here’s what I learned:

1) I asked if he thought it was important that so many people associated with the ideas behind U.S. foreign policy were Straussians. He definitely demurred. Wolfowitz does not consider himself to be a Straussian. He says he does not find political philosophy all that exciting and Allan Bloom found him to be a disappointment in this regard, but a “successful disappointment,” which appealed to Bloom. He says when he gets together with real Straussians he becomes impatient with the level of abstraction of the discussion. He does not think Strauss is in any way important to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

2) History and governance. I asked Wolfowitz if he thought it helped to be a scholar when making policy. Did he find himself reasoning by historical analogy? His answer, “No and yes,” which means, mostly no. He thinks history can provide a framework but everything is basically too different from everything else to use it as much of a guide.

3) Indonesia. Wolfowitz is extremely proud of his work in Indonesia and the Philippines. I got the distinct impression that he does not think this story has been told accurately—and he wishes that George P. Shultz had done more with the story in his memoir. He was constantly being warned, vis-à-vis Marcos, that the Reagan administration was doing to Marcos what Carter had done to the Shah and the results would be similar. He managed to convince everybody to do it anyway, with a happy result, he thinks.

4) Somalia. Wolfowitz is also proud of what “41` did in Somalia, as a purely humanitarian mission before it got screwed up later. That led me to ask about:

5) Liberia. Why, I asked him, didn’t the Bush administration act more precipitously in Liberia? It could have saved tens of thousands of lives and scored political points against people like me who have, to put it politely, a hard time taking the humanitarian arguments for the Iraq war seriously. Wolfowitz did not really disagree with this. He said he was glad he was able to get the administration to act when it did. He clearly wanted to leave the impression that he would have liked it to happen earlier -without explicitly criticizing his own administration for not having done it. He spoke of the logistical difficulties of finding the necessary troops and of what happens after you get rid of the bad guys. (Hmmmm)

6) The Sudan. Wolfowitz also clearly indicated that he would like to see something happen to save the people who are still savable in Dafur, etc. Again, he said nothing clearly quotable on this point; but it was my clear understanding of the way he put things that he wanted to leave this impression as well.

7) Hold onto your underpants, Jeff Jarvis: When I asked Wolfowitz who he read outside of official channels that he found particularly profitable, he reeled off the names of a bunch of Iraqi blogs. I asked him if he read Juan Cole. He made a munched up face like his sushi had gone bad. He said that yes, he had read him, but did not do so much, because of all the—I forget his exact words, but I’m thinking “awful crap” –through which he had to slog in order to get the information that Cole presented. I said I thought it would be useful since even if one disagrees, Cole certainly knows what he’s talking about, and his view is closer to the rest of the world’s than are those published in the MSM. He made another bad sushi face.

8) Walter LaFeber and Don Kagan. Though he was a mathematician at Cornell, Wolfowitz and I originally bonded over our mutual admiration for my academic mentor, the diplomatic historian, Walter LaFeber and a former member of that same department, Donald Kagan, with whom I studied a bit a Yale. We talked of LaFeber’s brave and honorable role in responding to Cornell’s great crisis of 1969 and of an analogous situation Wolfowitz witnessed at University of Chicago. I noted that LaFeber had taught two of the past three NSC advisers, Sandy Berger and Stephen Hadley. Wolfowitz said he was proud of having been able to hire both LaFeber and Kagan to teach at a seminar in Telluride, once.

8) Speaking of burying the lede, here is some possible actual news: There was a lot of talk of whether Wolfowitz would take over the World Bank. Henry Kissinger came over and told him he was glad he turned down the job (and made a bad sushi face when shaking my hand and learning who I was—to the everlasting joy of myself and, I hope, my parents). Rick Hertzberg suggested earlier that he did not think it would be such a good idea if Wolfowitz became the lead singer of U2. But here’s the possible news part: I said it was about time the Bush administration found a replacement for General Zinni and wouldn’t Paul make a perfect choice to be its Special Envoy to the Middle East peace process. One of the main reasons I decided Wolfowitz was of a fundamentally different character than the rest of these guys was the way he braved the rude boos and jeers from a demonstration of right-wing Jews by speaking to them of the need to respect and address the causes of Palestinian suffering. Given the obvious influence he enjoys with the president and all of his advisers, the natural trust of Israel he gets from his pedigree, and the fact that he did what he did so publicly, he would be, I think, not only acceptable to “moderate” Palestinians and almost every stripe of Israeli, but also to the powerful Israel lobby in Washington. Wolfowitz did not blanch at all at my suggestion. He said he would be happy to do anything the president asked him to do. Somebody please run with this idea so I can go down in history as having lit the spark that solved the Palestinian problem...

9) Wolfowitz insists that the talk of Dick Cheney’s power is way overblown. He thinks Cheney is extremely respectful of the chain of command in every area and exercises what executive authority he has less frequently than did Al Gore. He says he thinks Cheney thinks of himself as Bush’s “top staffer.” I cannot tell you, from his body language, whether he really believed this. He gave no hints that he didn’t.

10) A funny moment: As I was excusing myself to go home, Wolfowitz and Tina Brown had taken up a conversation of someone whose name I missed, but the gist was that it was a woman whose incompetence had served her so well that she was constantly being promoted upward. I swear the name sounded to me, amidst the chatter, like “Condi.” I asked if that was who they meant. Boy, you shouldda seen the guy’s face... For the record, Ms. Rice, I was mistaken.

11) Weirdest wide angle party shot, but also one more reason this is the greatest city in the world, and also another argument that liberals are much more polite and civil than many if not most of our counterparts on the right: Kissinger/Alterman/Wolfowitz/Navasky."

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