Fighting Words

A Brave Woman Scorned

The campaign against Shaha Riza is the nastiest character assassination I have ever seen.

Paul Wolfowitz 

It appears that, with a relatively fair wind from the media, the campaign to destroy or discredit Paul Wolfowitz’s presidency at the World Bank is almost certain to succeed one way or another. Though now I wonder why I use the word fair in relation to all this wind. The fork is nicely shaped and double-pointed: Even if there is nothing actually venal or corrupt about Wolfowitz’s more-apparent-than-real “conflict of interest,” the mere appearance of it has itself become real, and thus—pull a very solemn face at this point—he has lost the confidence of his subordinates and thereby the ability to do his job. For the sake of the world’s poor, one injustice must therefore follow another.

What was the first injustice? Allow me to quote from the statement of Shaha Riza to the “ad hoc committee” of the World Bank’s board of executive directors—a statement that ought to be more widely known than it is. She makes the following points in the order cited, and I have never seen any of them refuted:

1) My professional status at the Bank predates the arrival of the new President. I began work in the Bank in 1997.2) There is no Bank regulation or staff rule that required me to leave the Bank in order to resolve this situation.3) I was not given a choice to stay and, against my personal preference and professional interests, I agreed to accept an external assignment in 2005 upon the insistence of the Ethics Committee.4) Against Bank rules and the agreement I signed with the Bank, the details of the assignment and my personnel file have been leaked to the press and staff. As you well know my salary and grade level are quite common for World Bank staff that have years of experience, background and education similar to mine.

Riza then proceeds to reproduce extremely positive testimonials from senior officials about her performance, including at least one very unequivocal recommendation for promotion. She does this with some diffidence but under immense provocation. Why should she not be allowed to list her virtues and qualifications? In what is an amazing breach of ordinary media etiquette (where longstanding unmarried couples are routinely described as being “partners” or sometimes “companions”), this very reserved and private lady has been called—in reputable newspapers—not only a “mistress” but a “girlfriend.” One really is compelled to ask whether there is any decency left.

So, I was delighted to see that it was an Arab Muslim gentleman who rode in on a white horse to offer at least a smidgeon of gallantry amid all this murk and slander. Sari Nusseibeh is well-known to every friend of the Palestinian human-rights movement as a prolific author and activist and academic, fighting to keep his corner of Jerusalem—he is president of Al-Quds University—free of corruption and violence and bigotry. (His terrific new memoir Once Upon a Country is highly recommended for those who want to appreciate the dilemma of the Palestinian democrat.)  In an open letter, so far published only in the Washington Post, he describes his 15-year acquaintance with Riza, going back to her days at the National Endowment for Democracy, and says what I also know to be true: She is a solid friend of any voice for reason and justice in the Middle East.

Like Dr. Nusseibeh, I first met her when she was at the NED and hosted a lunchtime event for a celebrated Iranian author—since even more celebrated for her book Reading Lolita in Tehran. On subsequent occasions, I was honored to be present when she brought Palestinian lawyers and physicians and publishers to meetings at the World Bank, hoping to help them acquire the sinews of a future statehood. Her shyness did not altogether conceal a very solid core, and her dislike of any symptom of corruption or authoritarianism was very marked. She is now attacked for volunteering to visit Iraq after 2003 to assist democratic forces in that country—a rather brave thing for a divorced woman with a child to be doing. I cannot think of anyone who should have been asked to go instead, and I feel almost polluted when I point out that her interest in the question long predates her relationship with Wolfowitz. These are facts that could and should have been known to any reporter. But no—a high-risk visit to a desperately wounded country is presented as “the girlfriend” getting a cushy job. For shame.

Anyone who knows anything about this also knows that it is part of a power play by certain European and Asian interests at the bank to challenge American dominance of the institution. Two previous managing directors, Shengman Zhang and Caio Koch-Weser, were allowed to have their spouses working there without any demur. Riza’s job did not require her to report to the office of the president in any case. Wolfowitz nonetheless offered to sign a statement, as soon as he was appointed, recusing himself from any involvement in her work. It was certain bank high-ups who laid the trap for him by insisting that she lose her post and who have now sprung the trap by blaming him for following their well-documented recommendation that she be compensated for this unfairness. In the intervals, they have disgraced themselves by feeding a gullible or biased press and destroying the privacy of a woman who is worth more than all of them put together. Her “confidentiality agreement” with these characters was torn up without even a hint of scruple.

I have been living in Washington for a quarter of a century and have said some mean things about people and had some mean things said about me. Fair enough. I sat and thought for quite a while today and decided that this is the nastiest and dirtiest and cheapest campaign of character assassination I have ever seen. Yet almost everyone in my so-called profession seems to regard it with a smirk or as a feather in the cap. Good grief. If it succeeds in ruining two careers and poisoning two lives, I do so much hope that it makes the perpetrators—bankers and reporters working as a team—deliriously happy.