Friday, April 27, 2007

Wolfowitz's fatal attractions

The scandal surrounding Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, and a female companion who he secured a cosy billet in the U.S. State Department for, is one among many sordid dramas being played out in Washington DC. The unifying theme of it all could be called the implosion of the Bush administration.

It is an index of the precipitous fall in public esteem of the U.S. president and all those associated with his signature campaign – the war in Iraq – that Bush’s ringing endorsement of Wolfowitz was, like a similar testimonial handed out a few days before to his embattled Attorney-General, read as sure sign that the World Bank president’s political demise was nigh.

Wolfowitz came to the World Bank with a formidable reputation as a strategic hawk, the original author of the infamous doctrine of the “New American Century”. When his name was announced early in Bush’s second term, editorial comment even in sympathetic quarters held that an uncompromising proponent of “hard power” may not be the most effective steward of the foremost agency of “soft power”.

But for those of more sober judgment, what seemed germane was Wolfowitz’s distinguished record of delusional thinking. He had few credentials in the development domain, except the monumentally misconceived forecast made in the second week of the invasion of Iraq, that “we’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon”. For sheer idiocy, this must rank close to the prediction made by his neo-conservative confrere Richard Perle in September 2003, that a grand square in Baghdad could well be named after Bush within a year.

Robert McNamara was the analogy that sprang to mind when Bush chose to place one of the principal architects of the Iraq tragedy at the helm of the World Bank. It was an inexact comparison, since McNamara had with Vietnam’s Tet offensive in 1968, realised his folly. And as World Bank president for 13 years, McNamara brought in many of the values of the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s civil rights agenda and its “war on poverty”. Though his approach, when not distinctly quixotic, was U.S. foreign policy by other means, McNamara is widely credited with bringing poverty front and centre and vastly expanding the lending of the institution.

In contrast, Wolfowitz brought the Manichean worldview of the Bush administration with its sharply etched distinctions of good and evil, its refusal to admit error and its propensity to dissemble for any cause deemed worthwhile. Unlike McNamara again, Wolfowitz had few credentials as a manager or institutional leader. Indeed, it transpires, his approach towards leadership, best expressed during a visit to Iraq in July 2003, was different only in its shades from that of a gang-lord. With the sheen of “victory” yet to wear off, he pronounced then, that leadership was not about “lecturing and posturing and demanding, but demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will regret having done so”.

It is now known that soon after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., Wolfowitz had shocked moderate elements in the Bush cabinet with his unseemly eagerness to attack Iraq. But if this frenzy was confined at least then within the inner cabals of the Bush White House, there was little that was secret about the response he favoured. The U.S., he proclaimed, needed to go beyond “capturing people and holding them accountable”: it would necessarily have to start “removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism”.

It was the statement of an obsessive ideologue, which had the U.S. Secretary of State, a distinguished soldier who knew what war was about, scrambling to undo the potential for damage around the world.

For a while it seemed likely that European shareholders, whose voting power in the World Bank has increased over the years, would turn down Wolfowitz’s nomination. But the European Union and its main powers proved disinclined to do battle then, since a global division of spoils was at stake. A challenge to U.S. hegemony over the World Bank would have threatened the E.U.’s customary prerogative to name the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Besides, the E.U. was also then manoeuvring to place a partisan in its cause, Pascal Lamy, at the head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Details of the generous package of benefits that Wolfowitz personally worked out for his female companion were intimated to the World Bank board soon after they became operative. But the board chose to sleep over it, only to rouse itself into a simulated sense of outrage when an internal audit reported that the deal was out of line with rules. Wolfowitz had by then managed to tick off just about every significant shareholder in the institution with his crusade against corruption, rightly seen as an effort to bend the rules of the World Bank to the U.S.’s militarist agenda.

That the Wolfowitz scandal has not been resolved over two weeks, despite all the feints and manoeuvres of its principals, suggests that the ongoing shift in the global power balance, is yet too slow to produce the summary justice warranted for a man who bears constructive responsibility for some of the worst war crimes of the new millennium. Like the Bush administration itself, it is indubitable though, that Wolfowitz is soon going, deservedly, to be consigned to the garbage dump of history.

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