If the United States doesn’t step up under President Donald Trump, Paul Wolfowitz warns in a new interview for The Global POLITICO, our weekly podcast on world affairs in the Trump era, it would represent an “opportunity” blown, a missed chance that would result in “lost American influence” and a win for “hostile actors.”
Wolfowitz, a hawkish Republican known as the architect of the Iraq war for his role in advocating President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion, rarely wades back into the public fray these days over the troubled Middle East, and he insists he’s well aware that the American political consensus—in both parties—is now very much against deepening involvement in the region. “I don’t think we’re up to heroic ventures in the Middle East,” he tells me.
Yet Wolfowitz has not entirely given up on the idea that the United States is essential to stability in a region that has seen very little of it. Without American involvement, for instance, he fears Iraq could splinter apart entirely. “The alternative is to let a very important, critical part of the world go to hell literally and lose American influence,” he says. “We may not like to talk about oil, but this is the engine of the world economy and if it’s dominated by the wrong people, the consequences here in the United States are very serious.”
To liberals and other critics, Wolfowitz would be the last person they want Trump to listen to. Long a lightning rod because of the havoc unleashed by the Iraq invasion, Wolfowitz has never apologized for advocating the war, although he has said—and repeated in our conversation—that it was not carried out as he would have wanted it to be. In recent days he‘s jumped right back into the public debate, nudging President Trump from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to follow up his bombing strike in neighboring Syria with more aggressive action—and, he tells me, privately emailing with Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster, both longtime contacts since his Bush days, in hopes they will pursue a U.S. strategy of stepped-up engagement in the Middle East.
“I think there is a fantastic opportunity here. It’s only a first step, it’s only an opportunity,” he says of Trump’s surprise decision to unloose an American Tomahawk missile strike in Syria after President Bashar Assad’s regime again unleashed chemical weapons on civilians, a strike that turned Wolfowitz and many of his fellow neoconservatives into unlikely cheerleaders for the actions of an administration they had previously viewed as a threat. “If nothing is done to follow up on it, it will start to seem a little bit silly in retrospect; certainly the enthusiasm will seem silly. But more importantly it will look like a lost opportunity in retrospect.”
Like many other hawkish Republicans—“do me a favor,” he says, and don’t call him a “neocon,” which he believes is a charged word wielded by critics—Wolfowitz adamantly opposed candidate Trump in 2016, put off by his “America First” rhetoric, his rejection of the Iraq war as a disastrous mistake and his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocratic leaders.
Indeed, Wolfowitz tells me that he did not vote for Trump because he feared he would be “Obama on steroids” given Trump’s campaign-trail reluctance to project American power and leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere—and that he decided not to vote for Hillary Clinton either because he was not sure she would pursue tougher policies and thought she had joined Obama in misjudging Putin with their failed Russia “reset” policy.
But he’s now wondering whether the Trump presidency may offer more than he initially thought possible as Trump talks tough on North Korea, proclaims willingness to take further military action in the Middle East and seems to have marginalized anti-free trade, neo-isolationist advisers in favor of his more conventionally Republican national security team, led by CEO-turned-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Generals McMaster and Mattis, whose worldviews are very much shaped by their own participation in the Iraq war.
When I ask about Trump, Wolfowitz waxes surprisingly optimistic about his chances in a region that has humbled many an American president before him. “Look, he’s said a lot of things. He’s changed a lot of things,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s opportunistic, and I don’t think anyone would deny that he would like to be ‘the greatest president in modern times’ or ‘huge’ or you pick your adjective. And I think to achieve a Dayton-like peace settlement in Syria would not only be something that would be widely acclaimed, it would be hugely in the interest of the United States.”
It’s a reminder of what a head-spinning few weeks it’s been for anyone paying attention to American foreign policy, with Wolfowitz and others who openly proclaimed Trump unfit for the presidency now contemplating the opportunity his presidency presents to advance their policy agenda, and even those who were Trump’s harshest critics within the Republican Party only a few weeks ago now praising him.
“I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” Senator Lindsey Graham said the other day, citing Trump’s Syria strike as well as his tough rhetoric against Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea; this winter, Graham and his close ally Senator John McCain were issuing near-daily warnings about Trump’s foreign policy. Now, he says, “we have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.”
Still, Wolfowitz, perhaps tempered by the bruising experience of the Bush administration’s foray into Iraq, is far more measured than Graham.
Even his hopes in effect boil down to not believing what the president of the United States says, and he tells me repeatedly that he understands the United States is in no position to put major new troops into the Middle East or dictate a solution to the region’s troubles from afar. Besides, he acknowledges without much apparent irony, “there’s something a little weird in a world where people in Washington can come up with prescriptions for how to make peace in a strange country a long way away when it’s been through such a traumatic experience.”
Now 73, good-humored and gray, Wolfowitz has returned to the conservative American Enterprise Institute as a scholar since his time in Bush’s Pentagon and a short, rocky tenure as president of the World Bank. When we meet in a studio at AEI’s grandly renovated new headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue, he picks up on the phrase making the rounds in Washington that Trump’s critics take him literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters take him seriously but not literally.
“I think Mattis and Tillerson will take him seriously,” Wolfowitz says, “we already see that they don’t take him literally. They know that they can. I don’t know of a president who has tolerated—if that’s the right word—such strongly differing statements from his cabinet officers on national security issues from his own public pronouncements, which tells you something about how he takes those statements himself, it seems to me.” And that means, he says, “in many ways it matters much more what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson think it means than what the president had in mind when he said it.”
Wolfowitz came of age as a foreign policy aide to the hawkish Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and he still has the blood of a cold warrior running through his veins—Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, he says, is “something very serious, to be taken very seriously.” And he hopes that Trump’s recent clash with Moscow over Syria heralds a broader turn against Putin, noting: “[I]t’d be ironic now that he got somebody who is much harder on him than Hillary might have been.”
Still, he admits to a nagging fear that the United States will fail to challenge authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and Iran with the full force of its moral power, long a Wolfowitz theme. “If we give up the Western idea of freedom,” he warns, “we’re giving up one of the most important diplomatic tools in our arsenal.”