Fighting Words

The Boy Who Cried Wolfowitz

A mispronunciation with undertones.

 “Yes that’s all very well,” said the chap from the BBC World Service, “but what about this man Vulfervitz who seems to run the whole show from behind the scenes?” For the fifth time in as many days, and for the umpteenth time this year, I corrected a British interviewer’s pronunciation. You see the name in print, you hear it uttered quite a lot in American discussions, you then give a highly inflected rendition of your own. … What is this? In my young day, the BBC had a special department for the pronunciation of foreign names for the guidance of those commenting on Thailand, say, or Mongolia. But this particular name is pronounced as it is spelled. “Very well,” said the BBC chap, with a hint of bad grace. “This man Wolfervitz …”

It takes a lot, I hope, to make me feel queasy. (I had, during my appointment at the BBC offices in London, already had to pass a door with a sign reading “Male Prayer Room,” which means that the British taxpayer is already funding not just religious observance on public property but the sexual segregation of same.) And this is not quite like old-line reactionaries going out of their way to say “Franklin Delano Rosenfeld.” Still, I don’t think I am quite wrong in suspecting that a sharpened innuendo is in play here. Why else, when the very name of Paul Wolfowitz is mentioned, do so many people bid adieu to the very notion of objectivity?

I noticed this first in an issue of the London Review of Books just after Sept. 11, when Edward Said blamed the random attacks on Muslims (or other turbanned individuals) on the speech made by Wolfowitz calling for “ending states” that sponsor terrorism. I have spent some time with those who monitor and investigate such hate crimes, perpetrated by those who think that it’s clever to go and shoot a Tibetan gas-station attendant in Montana in protest of al-Qaida, and I believe I can state with some confidence that such heroes would have difficulty identifying the name of their senator or even their former schoolteacher, let alone that of the deputy secretary of defense. Moreover (and to state the same point in a different way) if the number of inflammatory mentions of the Wolfowitz family name did have this inciting effect, we would be up to our thighs in the blood of pogrom victims by now.

Which seems not to be the case. However, in just the last few days there have been widely disseminated misrepresentations of perfectly clear statements made by Wolfowitz concerning weapons of mass destruction and further concerning the role played by oil in the motivation of United States policy toward Iraq. The interview from which both versions were drawn can easily be read in full on the Web site of the Department of Defense.     

In the first instance, it was asserted that Wolfowitz had come clean, as it were, and admitted that WMDs were just one part of a pretext for the attack on Saddam Hussein. This became a “pickup” across the media, to the effect that a cynical fear tactic had been preferred by the administration “for bureaucratic reasons.” The transcript reads differently:

The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.

But as Wolfowitz went on to say, and had said numberless times before, there were several other reasons such as the Baath Party’s connection with terrorism and the crimes of the regime against the Iraqi people. He could have added that the WMD consensus was shared by a majority of U.N. Security Council member states, by a majority of the U.S. Congress, and of the personnel of the Clinton-Gore administration. It is also clearly stated as the preamble to the supposedly sacrosanct U.N. Resolution 1441.

Wolfowitz did not, in this part of the interview, specify oil as a crucial element. But that did not prevent the Guardian of London isolating another remark that he did make, and re-arranging it so as to suit. Under the “gotcha” headline “Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil,” the newspaper reported that he had made a distinction between Iraq and North Korea, this distinction lying in the fact that Iraq “floats on a sea of oil.” This was presented as a clear admission. To quote the Guardian’s own climbdown the following day:

He did not say that. He said, according to the Department of Defense website: “The difference between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options with Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil. In the case of North Korea, the country is teetering on the edge of economic collapse and that I believe is a major point of leverage whereas the military picture with North Korea is very different from that with Iraq.” The sense was clearly that the US had no economic options by means of which to achieve its objectives, not that the economic value of the oil motivated the war.

It’s pretty disgraceful that a serious newspaper should have to instruct its readers, let alone its reporters, on the plain reading of intelligible words. But the introductory sentence of the correction admitted only to “misconstruing” what had been said. That’s a weasel word if ever I’ve seen one.

Many of these discrepant versions of Wolfowitz have been derived or quarried from an initial article on the neoconservative movement by my friend and colleague Sam Tanenhaus at Vanity Fair. The magazine is churlishly described, in a recent riposte by William Kristol in the Weekly Standard, as “the Manhattan celebrity/fashion glossy.” Why do I say churlishly? Because the Tanenhaus article was adorned with two excellent photographs by Nigel Parry, making both Wolfowitz and Kristol look quite sexy and potent. They presumably sat still for these portraits.

Coming back to where I began, though, I think that there’s genuine cause for alarm in the current vulgar conflation of “Kabbalah” with “cabal,” and with the practice of what, if anyone else were to be the target, the left would already be calling “demonization.”