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You have to give Paul Wolfowitz some credit. It’s not every deputy secretary of defense who can inspire more than 1,000 New Yorkers to queue up on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon just to hear a wonk speak. (Does anyone even remember who held that job under Clinton?) But then, few deputy defense secretaries have ever wielded as much power or aroused so much ire as “Wolfowitz of Arabia,” the key intellectual architect for the Bush administration’s war on Iraq.
It was Wolfowitz who immediately after the 9/11 attacks insisted that the Iraqi regime had to be overthrown as part of a global war on terror, arguing that the fall of Saddam would spark a chain reaction of democracy rippling across the region and help usher peace to the Middle East.
Wolfowitz may still have faith in this fantasy, but with Americans growing increasingly anxious over the mounting casualties and skyrocketing costs in Iraq, he and other Administration officials have been waging a rearguard PR battle to defend the war. And the fact that Wolfowitz agreed to be interviewed yesterday by New Yorker staffer Jeffrey Goldberg at a free forum at the New School in the heart of liberal Greenwich Village was in many ways a measure of how far the White House is willing to go to appear accountable to its critics.
Predictably, “Wolfy” drew boos, hisses, and some persistent heckling by a small but bellicose group of protesters who managed to make it past the heavy security check (more than half the audience was turned away due to lack of space).
“Sieg Heil, you Nazi son of a bitch!” one man screamed before being forcibly ejected by security guards, the first of six hecklers to get the boot. But their Tourette’s-like outbursts of “Liar!” and “War Criminal!” or even “Free Mumia!” only seemed to win sympathy for Wolfowitz from the mostly liberal crowd, many of whom said they’d come in hopes of hearing him make his case for the war “unfiltered” by the media. “Take some medication!” shot back one annoyed woman, drawing a round of applause and laughter.
A former political science professor, Wolfowitz looked on with bemused smile, no doubt more than happy to find Goldberg’s polite probing on issues like the missing weapons of mass destruction deflected by all the wacko interruptions. In contrast to the Administration’s previously tight-lipped, love-it-or-leave-it stance on the war, in the past month, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz have been making the rounds before Congress and on talk shows, attempting to save face as they backtrack on key positions. But the PR blitz has done more to muddy the waters than clear them. First Cheney suggested on Meet the Press that there was a possible link between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of 9/11. Then Bush acknowledged his administration had in fact found no link between Iraq and 9/11.
Wolfowitz did little to clarify things. When asked by Goldberg whether he was “fuzzing the line between groups which pose a global terror threat,” like Al Qaeda, and “regional actors” like Saddam, who, Goldberg noted, had given support to militant groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, Wolfowitz replied, “I think it’s the terrorists who are fuzzing the lines. The lines between these groups are very furry.”
Saying that it would be a mistake to limit the fight to Bin Laden and his followers, Wolfowitz maintained, “The lesson of 9-11 is that there is an interlocking network of groups which has the potential to do enormous harm.” Later he asserted that “Iraq, by the way, did have contacts with Al Qaeda, though we don’t know how clear they were”- an admission that drew more snickers from the crowd.
(The only specific tie Wolfowitz offered was the now-familiar example of Abu Mussab al Zarqawi, the alleged Al Qaeda planner from Jordan who reportedly went to Baghdad to have his leg amputated. Although Powell citied him in his UN speech prior to the war, the US government has never established any link between Saddam Hussein and Zarqawi’s alleged terror network.)
Last May Wolfowitz made headlines around the world when a Vanity Fair reporter quoted him blaming “bureaucratic reasons” within the US government as the reason why the Bush Administration made the threat of Iraq’s WMD its primary justification for going to war. Both Wolfowitz and the Pentagon immediately cried foul, claiming his remarks had been misquoted and taken out of context. At yesterday’s forum, Wolfowitz again insisted that the decision to go to war was based on a combination of three factors: the threat of Iraq’s WMD, its nightmarish human rights record, and Iraq’s connections to terrorism.
But Wolfowitz did little to dispel the notion that Iraq’s WMD capabilities were exaggerated for political reasons. Indeed, this time he seemed to put the blame on the UN’s bureaucracy: “Basically, what happened is people said the UN will give you a resolution on weapons of mass destruction but not human rights, not [Iraq’s support for] terrorism,” he said, then accused America’s former allies (<a.k.a>. Old Europe) of “avoiding” human rights.
The threat of Iraq’s WMD, Wolfowitz suggested, was simply the easiest thing for all parties to agree on. “I’ve rarely seen the intelligence community as unanimous as they were on the issue of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons,” he said (apparently ignoring numerous published accounts of dissent within the State Department and CIA), prompting Goldberg to ask, “So what happened? Did they just mess up?”
Wolfowitz replied that those with knowledge of weapons programs were likely still too terrified of having their family members tortured or killed to come forward. Any hope of pressing the deputy secretary further during the Q&A session was largely sandbagged by several young LaRouchies, who ambushed the mike to preach about the imminent demise of “liberal imperialist neocon” agenda. When one woman stood up to ask what Wolfowitz had to say to the families of the American soldiers who now feel the war was not justified and who are now “living on food stamps,” he snipped, “at least she memorized the question.”
“The wounds of those who died in combat by letting Iraq go back to the Baathists,” Wolfowitz stated.
Taking issue with those who say the US has no “endgame” in Iraq, he responded, “The answer to security in Iraq is fewer American troops and more Iraqis defending themselves,” — making no mention of a broader UN role, despite Bush’s efforts this week to enlist international support.
The event closed with a mixture of applause and shouts of “Resign!” and “Sieg Heil!”
Outside, as several of the ejected hecklers banged drums and held up a large red “Stop Bush!” banner with a swastika for the`S’, several audience members said they were disappointed by Wolfowitz’s “half-truth” responses, but gave him credit for sticking it out before a hostile crowd. “At least it was more entertaining than the Dalai Lama,” shrugged Jim, a 45-year-old contractor who declined to give his last name, referring to that other famous person who was speaking in New York City on Sunday.
SARAH FERGUSON lives in New York and writes for the Village Voice and other publications. She can be reached at: email@example.com