Washington — Deep immersion in the Pentagon's budgetary battles has not robbed Paul Wolfowitz of his mischievous sense of humor or his knack for peering around the corners of the future. The deputy secretary of defense still seems to enjoy being an idea man in the war business.
Ideas animate modern armies. Professional soldiers need to understand why they are ordered to do things in ways that conscript forces did not. Societies no longer facing immediate threats of annihilation need digestible explanations for continuing to spend money on a sizable protection force.
This is the role of military doctrine, and Wolfowitz is at the heart of the effort to fashion the most far-reaching changes in U.S. military strategy since the Cold War ended. A highly regarded professor of international relations and university dean, Wolfowitz adds intellectual heft to Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's controversial, corporate style of driving change from the top.
He also served in the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations, helping in the late 1970s to craft the force structure that would defeat Iraq in 1991.
Out of the long Rumsfeld review comes a new concept, enunciated by Wolfowitz in an interview and certain to become an arguing point in the coming budget battles with Congress: "We are trying to move from a threat-based strategy to a capabilities-based strategy."
It may not sing for you, but this shift and the more publicized decision during the review to drop the planning requirement for the United States to fight and win two major regional wars simultaneously will force the Pentagon to redraw its contingency plans, redesign its training and reshape its units. It is what academics call a "paradigm shift." Military men tend to look on it as "reinventing the wheel."
"Both of these changes are related to how you think about military forces in a world in which you are not dealing with a specific enemy, as we did during the Cold War," Wolfowitz said.
For the past decade, he continued, "we tried to load everything we thought we needed to have on the fact there are threats from Iraq and from North Korea. But those threats don't really define what an intelligent strategic thinker would say you would need to have 10 or 15 years from now. There is too much uncertainty to do that."
Instead, "we're not trying to identify who we might go to war with. If we ever do need to, it is important that we have certain capabilities" with which to fight any enemy. "And if we have those capabilities, we may discourage anybody from developing challenges to them. An analogy might be piracy. There are few pirates on the seas because it is not a business worth getting into" when you have to fight the world's navies.
Moreover, "we don't want to make it easy for anyone with a few missiles or a nuclear weapon to think they have equalized the playing field" and be tempted to use those weapons in combat or for blackmail. Alluding indirectly to the Bush push for missile defense, Wolfowitz added: "You have to have the capability to deal with that possibility, but it is not derived as the percentage of the Soviet military-industrial complex you want to destroy."
Planning to fight North Korea and Iraq simultaneously led the Pentagon to sink too many resources into "near-term war-fighting capabilities and not budget adequately for the kind of constant day-to-day peacekeeping activities that are unavoidable or for the kind of capabilities we will need 10 to 15 years from now," he said.
Rumsfeld recently hinted how extensive and expensive contingency planning had been under the old scenario. He suggested to reporters that the Pentagon had budgeted to be able to occupy Baghdad and Pyongyang at the same time, a vast undertaking that was in fact covered in Pentagon plans.
Such budgeting is at least related to national security needs. Less congenial to Wolfowitz is galloping non-discretionary spending on retiree health care and other indirect benefits ladled out by Congress. But he tiptoed around these in our talk, so as not to make Rumsfeld's appearances on Capitol Hill even more difficult.
"We have to leave it at some point to the budget wizardry of others," says the defense intellectual who follows in the footsteps of Albert Wohlstetter (his mentor), Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and in cinematic fiction Dr. Strangelove. He is sure to be compared to each of them as he labors on to turn ideas into swords, and shields.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.