Strategy guru Albert Wohlstetter spent decades arguing for military flexibility and precision targeting. But have his Washington disciples learned his real lessons?
This article was published in The Boston Globe on May 18, 2003.
IN 1959, RICHARD PERLE was just another California high-school kid struggling to pass Spanish. But even then, the future Pentagon adviser and TV pundit was gripped by subjects far weightier than the next sock hop. Albert Wohlstetter, a classmate’s father, had written an article in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘‘The Delicate Balance of Terror,’‘ and Perle found it riveting. When they met poolside at the Wohlstetter family home in the Hollywood Hills, Perle says he was dazzled by the older man’s ‘‘uncontrollably analytical’‘ mind. ‘‘Maybe if I hadn’t been seduced by the discussion about strategic policy, I might have passed Spanish,’‘ he says.
Though his name is not well known, Albert Wohlstetter was one of the great defense intellectuals of the 20th century. A systems analyst with a background in mathematics, he spent his career studying the intricate logic of using military force, and training his disciples to do the same.
Many of those acolytes now hold considerable sway within the Bush administration. Foremost among them is Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and chief architect of current Pentagon policy in the Middle East, who studied under Wohlstetter while earning his doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago. (‘‘Paul thinks the way Albert thinks,’‘ says Perle.) Other former Wohlstetter students include Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush administration’s special envoy to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Paul Kozemchak, an official with DARPA, the Defense Department office charged with ‘‘radical innovation.’‘ A host of other notables, ranging from Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi to the high-tech weaponry guru and longtime Pentagon strategist Andrew Marshall, traveled in Wohlstetter’s circles.
Of course, the people shaping administration policy aren’t dusting off their old grad-school seminar notebooks before making decisions. But it is clear enough that Wohlstetter, who died in 1997, taught his disciples a great deal. His legacy can be seen in the precision-targeted yet muscular prosecution of the war in Iraq, and the specialized weaponry and information technology that made it possible.
‘‘This is the first war that’s been fought in a way that would recognize Albert’s vision for future wars,’‘ Perle says. ‘‘That it was won so quickly and decisively, with so few casualties and so little damage, was in fact an implementation of his strategy and his vision.’‘
At the height of the Cold War, Wohlstetter rejected the prevailing wisdom of the nuclear priesthood. He did not believe that the threat of massive retaliation would necessarily deter attack, or that a nation’s security was proportional to the number of megatons in its arsenal. Because he presumed the enemy could and would use its weapons, he concentrated on designing options for leaders who might find it prudent to use force themselves. He pushed aggressively for the development of nimble military units and high-precision weaponry, so that problems could be neutralized quickly and surgically-either by credible threat or actual attack- before they got out of control.
While he devoted most of his career to overcoming a Soviet threat that no longer exists, he spent his last years developing arguments that appear to have directly influenced the Bush administration’s view of the post-Cold War world. He rejected the United Nations as a reliable vehicle for reining in rogue states and was suspicious of arms controls treaties like the 1972 ABM treaty that Bush withdrew from last year.\ In a 1995 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, he insisted on calculating the price of inaction when faced with dangerous tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. ‘‘The increasing spread of genocidal terror can be discouraged or dealt with only by coalitions that exclude the perpetrators of genocide and their supporters and are equipped and willing to back coalition diplomacy with precise and discriminate force,’‘ he wrote.
FOR A MAN OBSESSED with analyzing how the world might end, the Manhattan-born Wohlstetter sure knew how to live. A famous epicure, he became legendary for ambling his way to overseas strategic conferences so that he got the chance to dine at as many three-star restaurants as possible.
Wohlstetter and his wife, Roberta-a noted analyst herself and author of a classic study on the failure of US intelligence to anticipate Pearl Harbor-met as law school students at Columbia in the mid-1930s. They were both studying law to please their parents. That didn’t last long, but their partnership over the years produced brilliant analysis and dazzling dinner parties featuring experimental ethnic cuisine, live jazz or chamber music, and guest lists ranging from poets to engineers. (Albert originally went to college on a modern-dance scholarship, according to his daughter Joan, who recalls that growing up she would often come home to hear music playing and find her parents ‘‘doing the mambo or pasa doble around the house.’‘)
In the 1950s, Albert and Roberta emerged as two of the brightest stars at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica during the think tank’s heyday. But mastery of other matters eluded them. Perle says Wohlstetter’s brother used to tell the story of a dinner party Albert and Roberta held after moving into a new apartment in New York City. The food and wine were out of this world. They just failed to notice that they didn’t have any chairs.
But when he was analyzing a strategic problem, nothing escaped Wohlstetter’s attention. In the early `50s, RAND gave Wohlstetter the ho-hum assignment of analyzing the location of Strategic Air Command bomber bases. He began with the common-sense view that we would want to have bases as close as possible to Soviet territory. Then he scoured for data on every conceivable factor-length of supply lines; costs of construction, training, and maintenance; vulnerability to local political instability; ability to respond to surprise attacks. Once he’d processed the data, he came to the counter-intuitive conclusion that the US military was often better off relying on long-range missiles launched from bases inside the United States. His work eventually led to the withdrawal of SAC bombers from overseas and the development of the ‘‘fail-safe’‘ concept, under which bombers are automatically launched when there is any warning of an enemy attack but can easily be called back.
By the late `50s, Wohlstetter had devised the equally groundbreaking concept of ‘‘second-strike deterrence.’‘ At the time, most people were concerned with amassing more and bigger weapons, but Wohlstetter argued that what really matters is what’s left after you’ve been attacked-what you can muster for a second strike. Before Wohlstetter, few people paid much attention to cement, shelters, and hardened silos. ‘‘In the `50s, people were pushing to acquire 10,000 Minuteman missiles,’‘ says Henry Sokolski, a former Wohlstetter student who now runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. ‘‘Albert pointed out: What’s the use if they’re all going to be in parking lot and get wiped out. Doesn’t it make more sense to get 1,000 and put them in the ground?’‘
By the 1960s, his work had attracted the attention of members of the Kennedy administration, whom he advised during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In `64, Wohlstetter left his full-time work at RAND to join the political science department of the University of Chicago, where he remained until he retired from teaching in 1980.
Over the years, he advised Democratic and Republican administrations alike. To his displeasure, he found that his second-strike theories were used by other policy makers to justify a theory he disagreed with strenuously: Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. This concept held that as long as the United States could guarantee a second strike that would wipe out huge civilian population centers, the Soviets would not launch a nuclear attack. Wohlstetter thought the logic was unsound and needlessly put millions of lives at risk. What about a war begun accidentally, or a conventional Soviet attack on a US ally? Who’s to say the Soviets would factor the worth of civilian lives into strategic decisions? Besides, will enemies always act rationally?
Instead, Wohlstetter argued the focus should be on building the most accurate weapons possible, both nuclear and conventional. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1970s the dominant view was that increasing the accuracy of nuclear weapons would only make nuclear war more likely. Wohlstetter railed against this thinking, insisting it was better to target Soviet weapons rather than Soviet civilians, and arguing that decision makers needed to be able to respond to regional conflicts with non-suicidal options.
In the age of detente, Wohlstetter often found himself derided as an implacable hawk. Colleagues say Wohlstetter’s ego sustained him just fine through this period. (‘‘He was almost totally consumed with himself-very narcissistic,’‘ says Leonard Binder, a fellow professor at the University of Chicago who now teaches at UCLA.) By the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and protgs like Perle and Wolfowitz serving in the administration, Wohlstetter’s views gained new traction. In 1985, Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter each received a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Wohlstetter began to focus on the new dangers facing the remaining superpower. He was particularly concerned with the Persian Gulf, having led a Defense Department study in the 1970s showing that the Pentagon had overestimated American military access to the region and undervalued its strategic import. Following the Gulf War, he lambasted the first Bush administration for allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power.
It was a view shared by Wolfowitz and Perle, among others. Wohlstetter also called on the United States to aid Iraqi dissidents aiming to overthrow Hussein, allying himself closely with Ahmed Chalabi. (Perle, now a leading supporter of Chalabi’s bid to lead the new Iraq, says Wohlstetter introduced him to the Iraqi exile.) And Wohlstetter became obsessed with the ethnic cleansing going on in Bosnia, hammering Western leaders for preventing the victims from arming themselves. For him, Iraq and Bosnia were closely linked, and emblematic of the dangers confronting a post-Cold War America. In the 1995 Wall Street Journal piece, he wrote: ‘‘The successful coalition in the Gulf War stopped too soon and... left in place a Ba’ath dictatorship nearly sure to revive its programs for getting weapons of mass terror that would menace its neighbors and some countries far beyond them. That told Slobodan Milosevic, who is not a slow learner, that the West would be even less likely, four months later, to stop his own overt use of the Yugoslav Federal Army to create a Greater Serbia purged of non-Serbs.’‘
‘‘A lot of his work has been enormously vindicated in the last year and a half,’‘ says the Wall Street Journal editor emeritus Robert L. Bartley, a longtime friend. Still, he stresses that Wohlstetter was not a neoconservative, since his true loyalty was to rigorous analysis, not fixed political doctrines.
Some even question how closely Wohlstetter’s most influential disciples paid attention to his lessons.
‘‘Many of the people who populate this administration are Albert’s intellectual children, but I’m not sure the father would approve of the great risk they’re taking,’‘ says Augustus Richard Norton, a former Wohlstetter student and current Middle East scholar at Boston University.
Norton suggests that the case being made by some in the administration that democracy will spread from Iraq throughout the Middle East ‘‘like an influenza’‘ shows none of Wohlstetter’s emphasis on weighing measurable factors, such as the socioeconomic preconditions for democracy. ‘‘I must say that a number of the people who have been speaking publicly about what it is we will accomplish, and what the logical connections are, probably would have gotten F’s from Albert,’‘ Norton says. ‘‘There’s a lot of very flaky thinking out there.’‘
Perle concedes that protgs like Wolfowitz are too busy to undertake the kind of intensive, multifactor analysis that Wohlstetter perfected. Asked who is filling that vacuum, Perle says, ‘‘You don’t see much of it right now, I’m sorry to say.’‘ Still, he says, Wohlstetter ‘‘would think the administration broadly has it right.’‘
Charles Wolf Jr., who worked with Wohlstetter during his days at Rand and is still plugging away there on a study of North Korea, agrees that Wohlstetter would have much to contribute to the analysis of today’s international crises.
In fact, he says, ‘‘I would welcome Albert’s resurrection.’‘