The architect of his own collapse

Retired Col. LAWRENCE WILKERSON served 31 years in the Army and was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. He is now a visiting professor at the College of William &

WHEN I WAS ASSIGNED to the U.S. Pacific Command in the mid-1980s, we military officers would often discuss the ambassadors in our theater of operations — a huge area embracing more than 30 countries and most of the Pacific and Indian oceans. One name came up constantly as one of the best of the best: then-U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz. He understood the culture, the people and the special circumstances of the world’s most populous Muslim country, and he did a superb job in dealing with that country within the context of U.S. national security interests.

Understand, then, my wonder over the last few years at Wolfowitz’s fall. From my position, first at the Pentagon, then at the State Department, I watched the talented Wolfowitz self-destruct. How could such a successful, intelligent ambassador transmogrify into the petulant old man I watched fighting unsuccessfully to keep his job as president of the World Bank?

There were early signs. In 1990, when both of us were at the Pentagon — I worked for Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wolfowitz for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney — I discovered that Wolfowitz was geared entirely to conceptual thinking and not to practical action, planning and detail and the disciplined routine that government requires.


But there was more. Powell was certain that the Soviet Union was expiring. Wolfowitz, Robert Gates at the CIA, Cheney and a host of retired military officers were certain the Soviets would be back. In Wolfowitz’s stand, however, I saw something different from the others: a stubborn refusal to see beyond the evil of the “evil empire.” For Wolfowitz, it was an ideological blind spot and that made it all the more obscuring.

I also saw more stark evidence of what a poor manager Wolfowitz was. He had no idea how to make the trains run on time — and seemed to have no inclination to do so. Talented people left his shop saying they could get nothing accomplished. Papers sat in in-boxes for ages with no action, and the need to deal with daily mini-crises was supplanted by the desire to turn out hugely complicated but elegantly expressed “concepts” and “strategies.” The rest of the workaday Pentagon largely ignored Wolfowitz’s policy shop as irrelevant.

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld picked Wolfowitz in 2000 as his deputy — to make all the trains in the Pentagon run on time — those of us who were familiar with Wolfowitz knew a train wreck would occur. It did, almost immediately, as nothing got through the roadblock of the deputy’s office.

Later, as post-invasion planning for Iraq was called for, Wolfowitz and the No. 3 man in the department, Douglas Feith, proved their administrative ineptitude. By that time, I was working for Secretary of State Powell, and there was increasing friction between us and the Pentagon. We watched Rumsfeld, in the arrogance of his power and the hubris of his brilliance, totally ignore the chaos beneath him, working with now-Vice President Cheney to drive all trains to Baghdad.

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had worked at the Pentagon for years before going to the State Department, once told me that Wolfowitz had to telephone him to discover what was happening in Wolfowitz’s own department. When Wolfowitz left the Pentagon under somewhat of a cloud because of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the bureaucracy breathed a sigh of relief — not because the architect of the war had departed but because we longed for a deputy who could get the trains unscrambled (half a trillion dollars worth of crashing trains at the center of the federal bureaucracy is a hell of a problem).

But when we heard that Wolfowitz was going to the World Bank as its president, we knew that it would be only a matter of time before disaster struck again — that Wolfowitz’s lack of administrative, managerial and leadership skills would derail him once more. Now it has happened.


Powell used to say that dreamers rarely succeed unless they build firm foundations beneath their dreams. But to do that, you need help and a willingness to get your hands dirty in the real world. That, though, was always beneath Paul Wolfowitz. And that is what undid him.