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Bush's Brainiest Hawk: Paul Wolfowitz

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On Sept. 15, 2001, President Bush summoned his top national-security advisers to Camp David to plot America's retaliation for the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

As the group began to hammer out a strategy for war against the Taliban, Paul Wolfowitz, the 57-year-old Deputy Defense Secretary, took a different tack. An Afghan war in his view had the makings of a quagmire.

The larger threat to American security was sitting not in a cave in Afghanistan but in a Baghdad bunker. And so, just four days after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz urged Bush to go to war against Iraq.

Wolfowitz's presentation didn't persuade his colleagues. But he made a lasting impression on Bush. After telling aides that the first phase of the war would be limited to removing the Taliban, the President privately encouraged Wolfowitz--"Wolfie," as Bush calls him--to keep pressing his case.

"When he speaks, his intellect is moving so fast that sometimes he's editing as he goes along," says a senior Administration official. "But you always want to listen carefully to what he's saying."

In public and behind the scenes, Wolfowitz spent the following months laying out the case for taking the war to Baghdad. In doing so, he cemented his reputation as the Administration's most influential strategist. Since 1973, when he left his teaching job at Yale to join the Nixon Administration, Wolfowitz has served under every President except Clinton.

Along the way, he has won some powerful patrons--including Donald Rumsfeld, his current boss, and Dick Cheney, who hired Wolfowitz as his No. 3 during the first Bush Administration. Wolfowitz has built a following, thanks to his prescience. In the 1970s he advocated bolstering the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf to deter Iraq from someday invading Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

He helped shape the hard-line Reagan-era policies toward the Soviet Union that conservatives credit with ending the cold war. In 1990 he called for pre-emptive strikes against enemy states trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction--precisely the shift in U.S. strategy that the Administration announced last fall.

But other proposals by Wolfowitz have been dismissed as reckless--such as his suggestion during the first Bush Administration that the U.S. send troops to Lithuania if Moscow tried to block the republic's secession.

Though often caricatured as Washington's most menacing hawk, Wolfowitz is popular for his self-deprecating humor. "Bad pennies keep turning up," Wolfowitz said in an interview with TIME this month, mocking his own lengthy resume.

A trained mathematician who speaks four languages, Wolfowitz is at ease discussing anything from Civil War battles to how he performs Eskimo rolls in his kayak. "Paul is one of the smartest guys I've ever known," says I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.

Says a senior official who has worked with Wolfowitz in both Bush administrations: "He's had an intellectually coherent set of views he's pursued over a long time. On Iraq, on the Soviet Union--those ideas have stood the test of time." In fact, Wolfowitz has wavered on how to handle Iraq.

He ripped the Clinton Administration for providing insufficient military support to the Iraqi opposition, yet after assuming his current post in 2001, Wolfowitz initially downplayed the wisdom of committing U.S. forces to oust Saddam.

Only after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz told TIME, did he appreciate the need to remove Saddam before he could slip weapons of mass destruction to terrorists: "9/11 basically brought home to all of us, including me, just what the stakes were in leaving threats like that untended."

When Bush decided last fall to push for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, it was Wolfowitz who insisted on the key U.N. demand that Iraq make its scientists available for interviews outside the country. Bush, an aide says, "wasn't totally comfortable" when he first met his team's resident egghead.

But like Bush, Wolfowitz is driven by a belief that the U.S. should use its power to promote freedom and battle tyrants. "I believe this country is what it stands for, more than anything else. It's more than a physical entity," Wolfowitz says.

"If we're not true to our principles, we're not serving our national interest." Wolfowitz believes that the spread of "representative self-government" is inexorable and will benefit the U.S. Removing Saddam and building a democratic Iraq would have a domino effect, he thinks, giving rise to Arab democracies and defusing anti-American anger.

It's a risky gamble, but with each passing day, his boss appears more prepared to bet that Wolfie is right.

--Reported by James Carney and Mark Thompson/Washington

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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