Out of America

Fall of Wolfowitz Marks Twilight of the Neo-Cons

In contemplating the near-certain downfall of Paul Wolfowitz, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Does one weep at the outrageous hypocrisy of it all: the president of the World Bank, self-appointed apostle of "good governance" and scourge of corruption, caught in a blatant act of nepotism and cronyism - exactly the vices he wants to stamp out in the Third World countries his organisation lends money to?

Or does one roar with laughter at the incongruity of it all: sex at the World Bank, as Wolfowitz the cerebral ideas man (even if his ideas about Iraq were as misbegotten as they get) is brought down by matters of the flesh, as he arranged promotions and lavish pay rises for his girlfriend Shaha Riza?

Or does one simply lie back and enjoy the spectacle of a president hissed at and heckled as he tried to explain himself to his staff at an impromptu meeting in the front atrium on Thursday? Is this how international development experts behave? Has there ever been such a lowering of the tone at the annual spring meetings of the bank and the IMF here, normally devoted to less emotional matters, such as debt reduction formulae, exchange rate aberrations and discreetly expensive lunches?

Not, of course, that one should feel too sorry for bank employees themselves, whose handsome tax-free salaries and generous allowances must soften the pain of working even for a boss like Mr Wolfowitz. As for Ms Riza, on the bank's payroll but on secondment to the State Department, she received a rise last year from $132,000 (PS66,500) to $193,000, a higher salary than even the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (and Condi pays taxes).

Mr Wolfowitz apologised - which was more than he ever did for his advocacy of the Iraq invasion, of which he was a prime architect. But there is surely no way he can serve out a full term until 2010, even if the bank's executive board lets him off right now with a reprimand. International institutions tend not to be advertisements for good governance. But even they cannot function properly when 90 per cent of the staff want the boss to resign.

I was one of those who thought that, for all his Iraq baggage, Donald Rumsfeld's former deputy at the Pentagon might make a decent president of the World Bank. Mr Wolfowitz is a firm believer in helping poorer countries, and as a former ambassador to Indonesia had first-hand experience of the Third World and the problems of development. And was it not an earlier Secretary of Defence, identified with an equally unpopular war, who became the best head the bank has ever had?

But Robert McNamara saw the job as penance and atonement for the sins of Vietnam. Not so Mr Wolfowitz, who has admitted neither error nor responsibility for his war. In a deeper sense too, the fall of Paul Wolfowitz is a metaphor for the double standards that are a hallmark of the shatteringly inept administration to which he belonged. It blithely launched a war, even though those who did the launching had taken extreme care not to be sent to Vietnam when they were young men of fighting age.

His appointment was a gift from George W Bush, an unswerving believer in the principle of jobs for the boys and someone who values loyalty above all else. This administration prides itself on executive efficiency. In fact, never has America been run by a more incompetent bunch, the gang that brought us Michael Brown and the Katrina clean-up fiasco. It preaches liberty and democracy, but props up dictators and presides over outrages like Abu Ghraib. Mr Wolfowitz's public strictures against corruption and his private favouritism are part of the same hypocrisy.

The rout of the neo-cons is thus all but complete. Former UN ambassador John Bolton, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Pentagon intelligence manipulator Douglas Feith, even Richard Perle, the "Prince of Darkness" himself - for different reasons they've been discredited or have simply vanished from the scene. Now the man President Bush fondly refers to as "Wolfie" joins their number. True, a few remain in government, but no one listens to them any more.

In retrospect, I now admit, Mr Wolfowitz was a wretched choice. The bank's staff are drawn from more than 100 countries. They are just the sort of educated people, with wide experience of the world as it is, not as neo-cons dream of it, who instinctively opposed the Iraq war. Could they shut out of their minds the biggest foreign policy issue of their age - and support the man who pushed harder for war than anyone? Last week's turmoil has provided the answer: a resounding no.

(c) 2007 The Independent

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