War Stories

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Why Paul Wolfowitz may be a good choice to run the World Bank.

Meet the new boss

What to make of Paul Wolfowitz being tapped to run the World Bank?

On the one hand, this is a man who has displayed strikingly poor analytical judgment as deputy secretary of defense. You may recall his smug assurances to congressional skeptics that our troops would be welcomed to Iraq with flowers and that the war’s cost would be reimbursed by post-Saddam oil revenues. There was also his dismissive riposte to the prediction by Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, that a few hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed for post-war stabilization. “It’s hard to conceive,” Wolfowitz testified, “that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army. Hard to believe.”

Wolfowitz is not an economist. He has had little experience in development work beyond a stint as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Indonesia. And because he was the intellectual architect of the war in Iraq, the European members of the World Bank’s board are sure to see his appointment as an affront. There has long been a deal: The United States picks the head of the World Bank; the Europeans pick the head of the International Monetary Fund. Vetoes are rare and awkward. Bill Clinton rejected an IMF candidate; some Europeans will be tempted to return the favor now—though they’ll probably refrain, knowing how George W. Bush responds to international naysayers. Besides, they may recognize that Wolfowitz is not so bad a choice for World Bank boss.

Of all the administration’s war-pushing neoconservatives, Wolfowitz has seemed the most genuinely, if somewhat naively, idealistic—the one who really believed that toppling Saddam would have a domino effect throughout the Middle East. He may even consider himself vindicated by recent developments—though this would be a bit self-deceiving. Before the war, Wolfowitz theorized that democratic governance in Iraq—presumably presided over by his comrade, Ahmad Chalabi—would light the fuse that spread Western values across the region like wildfire. He also assumed that a democratic Iraq would be a modern Iraq, led by secular Shiites, and wistfully recited de Tocqueville to this effect.

Still, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney seemed to favor war chiefly for old-fashioned geopolitical reasons. His fellow Pentagon senior neocon, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, seemed focused on Israel’s well-being. But Wolfowitz appeared to take seriously—or more seriously than did his colleagues—democratic rationales that are consistent with the values of the World Bank.

Wolfowitz is a sort of optimistic globalist who believes in the World Bank’s essential tenet: that the developed world can improve the troubled, less-developed world with the aid of rational principles. Another intriguing sign: In a conversation with Eric Alterman at a Manhattan book party last week (duly summarized on Alterman’s blog), Wolfowitz suggested that he’d pushed for more aid to Liberia and Sudan than the administration at first had been willing to dispense.

Some who know Wolfowitz tell me that he wanted to fill the impending vacancy at the bank. He may be, in this sense, a latter-day Robert McNamara—a war-weary Pentagon master seeking refuge to wring the blood from his hands. McNamara suffered something close to a public breakdown when he moved from secretary of defense to president of the World Bank in 1967, as the Vietnam War spiraled out of control. Lyndon Johnson had been complaining to aides for months that McNamara had “gone dovish” on him. It’s unlikely that Wolfowitz has exactly turned tail on George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld. Still, Wolfowitz is a smart guy, smart enough to know that Iraq has not gone at all as he thought it would, and perhaps he sees McNamara’s personal exit strategy as a model to emulate.

There’s another dimension to this transfer. Wolfowitz may have wanted to leave the Pentagon, but it’s possible that his days there were numbered. (McNamara, too, was never quite sure whether he was fired or he quit.) Are we seeing the opening stages of a second-term shift of power in the Defense Department—a belated (though, if it comes, unacknowledged) reckoning with the first term’s grand mistakes?

A few months ago, Doug Feith announced that he would be leaving his job this summer, for personal reasons. Now Wolfowitz heads toward the door. Will the neocon triumvirate’s third peg, Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary for intelligence, be the next to fall? And what of Rumsfeld himself? The face-saving has been accomplished. His archrival, Colin Powell, was booted while he stayed on in triumph. He escaped official blame for Abu Ghraib. Having thus emerged from the firestorms unscathed, he too may be working up an appetite to spend more time with his family.

Rumsfeld’s fingerprints, which were smeared all over Bush’s first-term foreign policy, have thus far left no marks in the second term. There are three possible explanations: Rumsfeld is insinuating himself more subtly than before; Condoleezza Rice shares his views, so he doesn’t need to raise a fuss; or, just maybe, the winds are shifting over the Potomac.