I needed two forms of picture ID to enter the Pentagon, but I only brought one. The journalism students I accompanied last week -- participants in Hillel's Spitzer Conference J-Track program -- all had driver's licenses and university identification. I faced multiple security personnel and their machine guns blocking my entrance, and all I could come up with beside my driver's license was my Costco card.
"That'll work," the guard said, and waved me through.
There was still more screening, X-raying and waiting before three service personnel -- Army, Navy and Coast Guard -- joined our group and began the tour.
The first thing you see inside our nation's central defense building is a Dunkin' Donuts. There are several of them in the 34-acre structure, as well as a Starbucks, a credit union, barber shop, post office, a few chapels -- the idea is that none of the building's 23,000 workers would have to exit the premises to eat, run errands or even pray.
Another unexpected feature of the vast complex is the network of museum-quality displays that line the corridors. Think about it: you have to do something to decorate 17 1/2 miles of hallway.
One series of glass display cases narrated the life and career of Gen. Douglas MacArthur; another featured scale models of every U.S. military aircraft ever used. If you wanted to know the history of the Australia-New Zealand-United States security treaty (ANZUS), complete with historic weapons of World War I and II, there's probably no better place than the hallway leading to the Marine Corps director of personnel.
One striking aspect of these displays was their honesty. That MacArthur display didn't shirk from mentioning the hubris that got the general fired. A series of magazine covers told the story of the Vietnam War from start to miserable end. There were mementos of battles won and lost, and a heart-rending image of the Battle of Tarawa, the bloodiest and, in its time, most controversial engagement of World War II.
The point of our visit to the Pentagon was to be a very brief meeting with Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the No. 3 man at the Department of Defense. Earlier this year, Feith announced he'd be stepping down from his post in July. Depending on whom you believe, Feith, a lawyer, is either a) one of the far-seeing neo-cons who helped guide the administration's interventionist Middle East policy, or b) a member of a Jewish cabal that bent U.S. foreign policy to Israel's will or c) in the words of Gen. Tommy Franks' memoir, "the f------stupidest guy on the face of the earth."
These days, most observers are prone to choose Option A.
Let's run through recent developments. Some 66 percent of Iraqis took part in the first free elections in their country's history. Palestinians not only voted in their first free election, they chose a man who stood for compromise over rejectionism . Lebanese are massing in the streets to kick out their Syrian overlords. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi has forsworn nuclear weapons. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has promised open elections with real opponents.
Among the justifications for the preemptive invasion of Iraq, the one that struck me as both the most appealing and the most quixotic was the idea that toppling Saddam Hussein could send a shockwave of change through a backward Middle East. This is exactly what has happened.
"When Qaddafi saw pictures of Saddam Hussein being pulled out of his hole, he said to himself, 'I'm the next one,'" Israel's Consul General Ehud Danoch told me. We Americans often focus on U.S. casualties and the war's numerous blunders. But Danoch said we shouldn't underestimate the power of that single image in the minds of Arab leaders.
"They see the success going on over there," he said. "They see a despot who was captured."
President George W. Bush deserves a lot of credit for staying the course, but other factors played a part: the influence of the Internet, of satellite TV, of Al-Jazeera -- the Dubai-based TV channel that the administration considers anti-American but which Arab rulers see as anti-authoritarian -- and, of course, luck. Yasser Arafat's timely death removed yet another obstacle to Mideast progress.
But if luck is the meeting of preparation and opportunity, the Pentagon planners deserve credit for doing the former.
Our guides finally showed us into a Pentagon conference room, where Feith appeared for some brief remarks. I asked him if he credits the Iraq War with setting these far-reaching Middle East developments in motion.
"Well," he said, "I don't think it's a coincidence."
As he ticked off the litany of changes taking place, I was struck by how confident, even upbeat, he seemed.
Americans are still taking casualties; the freedoms won could become opportunities for religious extremism, civil war or a new generation of despots; and then there's Iran and Saudi Arabia, neither of which seem to be making any great leaps forward. But as Feith made clear, the outlook in the Middle East is now very different than it was before the current administration entered the Pentagon.
It may not be time to break out the champagne, but maybe a few Dunkin' Donuts are in order.