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Blunder Bust

Paul Wolfowitz has always been lucky in his adversaries. Back when he was making his dishonest case for war in Iraq, the would-be watchdogs were snoozing American reporters. When his administration required legal cover for its dubious plans, the would-be critics came from an enfeebled Democratic Party. And, when it came time to sell that wildly unpopular endeavor to the world, the face of the opposition turned out to be a feckless French politician whose own anti-unilateralist credentials were less than rock-solid. Unfortunately for the 3,200 Americans who've been killed and the 24,000 who've been wounded in the ensuing misadventure, the adversaries in Tikrit and Anbar proved far more effective. But now that the war's intellectual architect has moved from bungling things at the Pentagon to bungling things in international development, he's again parrying criticism from folks who aren't exactly easy to love: The overpaid, untaxed bureaucrats of the World Bank. The thing is, that doesn't make them wrong.

The vision of pinstriped Bank staffers booing and hissing their boss last week--when Wolfowitz apologized for helping his girlfriend score a massive raise and a set of guaranteed promotions--is itself amazing. Bank types are usually targets, rather than instigators, of angry springtime protests. Their style of dissent typically involves some muted griping before tucking into a delectable lunch at headquarters' opulent international cafeteria. Wolfowitz may not have brought participatory democracy to the masses in Baghdad, but he seems to have inadvertently bequeathed it to the pampered denizens of 1818 H Street. As criticism of the Bank president mounts, it's therefore no surprise that his defenders have adopted the same tactic they used back in 2003: impeaching the thoroughly impeachable motives of Wolfowitz's most visible critics. "Lets not lose sight of the larger issues--and the grosser scandal" of the corruption long tolerated by the Bank, wrote David Frum. The Wall Street Journal has dedicated two chandelier-rattling editorials to what it terms a "Euro-bureaucracy-media putsch." "The forces of the status quo are now making their power play," the Journal thundered. "The real fight here is over his attempts to make the bank and its borrowers more accountable for results."

But to get a sense of just how serious the Wolfowitz scandal is in terms of those very results, ignore the senior management. Instead, imagine you're the poor schlub who serves as the Bank's representative in one of those impoverished, not-part-of-the-war-on-terrorism African countries that Wolfowitz has so vocally championed. Here in this sweaty, distant posting, you've been funneling loans to the country for things like rural electrification. But there's a problem: The minister for public works has been skimming 10 percent from all the contracts. His deputy gets another 5 percent. And so on and so forth, until all the country has to show for its electrification debts are a few gangly power lines that don't even work most of the time. So now you're paying him a visit in the finance ministry to chat. Arriving at the brand new secretariat, built last year by the minister's brother's construction firm, you're ushered back to his air-conditioned suite, past the empty offices nominally occupied by the presidential cronies who've been recently hired as consultants. As a servant pours you a cup of coffee--grown on the plantation the minister somehow managed to buy during a Bank-promoted privatization in the late 1990s--you read him the riot act.

Now, in light of the allegations swirling around the Bank's anticorruptionist-in-chief, just how likely is it that your message will get through? It's far more likely that it will be understood as more empty rhetoric--not unlike all that chatter about popular democracy and anti-imperialist equality mouthed in undemocratic, inegalitarian postcolonial capitals in the days before the Washington consensus. As you drone on, the minister may well be wondering why it is that, if you're so smart, you're counting electric poles in his godforsaken country rather than hooking your own girlfriend up with a sweet job back in D.C. If he's a polite sort, maybe he furrows his brow and promises to thoroughly examine your allegations as you wind up your lecture. As soon as he gets back from a holiday trip to Brussels, of course. So much for ending corruption.

This is the real outrage when people as bright and as sanctimonious as Wolfowitz adopt the entitled attitude of their Bushie colleagues. It's one thing when some newly arrived hack from the Mississippi Republican Party staff starts feathering his nest via dubious Interior Department regulatory policies. Everyone knows the right loathes regulation in the first place; if that contempt slides into corruption every now and then, no one's ideals are going to be shattered. But a guy like Wolfowitz--with his Ph.D. and his stirring talk of democratization and his sermons about the moral outrages of even a U.S.-backed dictator like Suharto--is something else entirely. Convenient as it may have been for his battered post-Pentagon reputation, he was right to focus on corruption when he arrived at the World Bank. So when he bungles the handling of a basic personnel matter, he cuts the legs out from underneath a worthy, desperately needed initiative--just like the high-profile lying, domestic mao-maoing, and battlefield ineptitude of the Iraq policy rubbished the noble ideals Wolfowitz espoused in his previous incarnation.

In the self-pitying style of the modern neocon, Wolfowitz says his critics are really just angry about the war. "We have much more important things to focus on," he said last week. "For those people who disagree with the things that they associate me with in my previous job, I'm not in my previous job." No, but only in the childish dreamscape of the Bushies could he expect to sally forth into a world that ignores his very public history. If Wolfowitz had previously been a top official of Jacques Chirac's administration, he might find observers to be especially attuned to conflicts involving, say, French oil firms or francophone dictators. Likewise, it's only natural that Bank-watchers be alert to questions of cronyism and honesty when their new boss is Donald Rumsfeld's former deputy. Leave it to Wolfowitz to pout about how unfair it is that he hasn't been greeted like a liberator.

The current set-to demonstrates that "do as I say, not as I do" remains the refrain for Wolfowitz: Military service is right and true, but better for others to do the dying; bureaucratic accountability is crucial, but it's up to someone else to face the music. And transparency is key, but let's leave it to other folks to open their books. Inevitably, the combination of hypocrisy and bone-headedness backfires. Back at the Pentagon, Wolfowitz and his boss were actually correct when they tried to shake up a hidebound defense culture that was too enamored of big-ticket items and too focused on old-fashioned wars. Today, in a defining irony, it's pretty clear that said bureaucracy has been strengthened by the disasters the Bush crowd unleashed. Likewise, at the World Bank, the forces of the status quo ante are actually part of Wolfowitz's own campaign to keep his job: Over the weekend, he trotted out a trio of African officials to praise his generosity. They may well be clean-government exemplars whose love for Wolfowitz is a pure expression of shared values, not increased budgets. But, by now, their more sticky-fingered colleagues doubtless want him to stay, too: How better to keep the money flowing--and keep the corruption-watchers scarce--than to retain an embattled president who owes them a favor?

Whatever winds up happening this week, Wolfowitz will eventually be justifying his career, on someone else's nickel, in some wing of Washington's vast think-tank-industrial-complex. The D.C. elite is perhaps only institution more willing than the Bush administration to tolerate insiders' failures. If his bumbling Pentagon colleague Douglas "fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth" Feith (as Tommy Franks once labeled him) can wind up teaching international relations at Georgetown, Wolfowitz will be fine, too. As he lectures his students, Wolfowitz will mention the incident involving the girlfriend and the promotion, if at all, as the kind of minor accident that happens to good people chasing big dreams.

A shrewder professor--say, the young Wolfowitz of three decades ago--might note that the affair was actually a predictable byproduct of Bush-era governance. Like the man who nominated him, Wolfowitz surrounded himself with abrasive cronies whose major asset was loyalty. Like the man who nominated him, Wolfowitz is so convinced of his moral mission that he views critics as evil. And like the man who nominated him, Wolfowitz cares a lot more about the big picture than about the hard work of managing. Indeed, back in 2003, Bush himself declined to name Wolfowitz administrator of Iraq because of misgivings about his leadership skills. Instead, as Isaac Chotiner pointed out, he installed him atop a 13,000-employee outfit that doles out $25 billion a year. And we're surprised that he's in trouble?

Even in his weakened state, it's hard to imagine Bush abandoning his old ally. That's not the way his administration works--especially in the face of critics like Wolfowitz's, with their global-bureaucratic certitude and their command of the French language. But the fact remains that he should go. His misdeeds may look minuscule at an institution that once leant to the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko. But, as Wolfowitz once told us about remaking the Middle East, you have to start somewhere. If Wolfowitz really wants to do something about corruption, if he really wants to set an example for all those Third-World 10-percenters, if he really wants to deserve the money he'll make once he settles into that senior lecturer gig and delivers speeches to international-affairs clubs in Cleveland and Omaha, he should do the honorable thing: He should quit.

By Michael Currie Schaffer