Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Friday, May 18, 2007

Our Opinion

How to Fail in Empire Without Really Trying (Or, What Did You Do in the Long War, Daddy?)

The good news is, Paul Wolfowitz is toast. The bad news is, George W. Bush will name his successor. There is so much instruction, moral and otherwise, in this one more disgraceful tale of what has become the most disgraceful—but also, unhappily, disastrous and destructive—government in the history of American government that one doesn’t know where to begin. In this case, we’ll move swiftly on from the masterminds (such as they are, since the notion of “mind” in regard to the current US administration is more rueful longing than realistic description) to the accomplices—or, to put it in terms more amenable to current American fashion (and flight from reality), the “codependents.”

Notice the plural. There are many of them, a veritable planet’s worth (as befits the major international development bank), but, once again, it is the Europeans who’ve played the central role of spear-carriers to George Bush’s Nero. As with so much else, the Wolfowitz burlesque acted out at the World Bank (which wasted two years of the institution’s work) would never have happened had the Europeans on the bank’s board of directors shown some—any—independence from the imperial metropolis when the US president first nominated his then-deputy secretary of defense to head the organization.

At the time, it will be remembered, a profound institutional issue was exercising many of the bank’s shareholders, those from the developing world in particular. Why, these countries wanted to know, was the US continuing to exercise the sole right to name the bank’s president? After all, a plausible, and defensible, privilege granted in the final year of the Second World War, when both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were established at the Bretton Woods conference, hardly seemed so in a radically changed political and economic context six decades later. To point to the obvious, not only is the world drastically different today from what it was in 1944 (especially in the global distribution of actual economic weight), but the US has also changed enormously (in every real sense, for the worse). In fact, it takes considerable effort today even to imagine similarities in vision and purpose between the administration of FDR, which sponsored Bretton Woods, and that of George W. Bush, which openly proclaims its contempt for the very idea of international settlements in which the US must, like every other nation, on occasion follow as well as lead.

Given the preexisting discontent with the US monopoly on the World Bank’s presidency, the consternation was palpable following Mr. Bush’s announcement of his nominee in March 2005. Adding insult to injury does not begin to describe the clamor. The headline in the Financial Times (March 16, 2005) did not mince words: “Wolfowitz nomination a shock for Europe.” The most succinct comment on the Wolfowitz nomination was made by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prizewinning economist, who knew something both about the World Bank and its mandate, having served as its chief economist during the WTO Seattle protests: “The World Bank will once again become a hate figure. This could bring street protests and violence across the developing world.”

In the event, neither protests nor violence ensued, in the developing world or anywhere else. Nor did the World Bank become a figure of hate—at least, no more so than it has been for the last few decades. The world as a whole, it seems, was—once again and for the umpteenth time—willing to give the United States a pass, and the benefit of the imperial doubt, willing to let it lead and see where it aimed to take us, willing to sit down quietly and avoid rocking the boat of “international consensus,” which has proved so…consensual (the precise word is servile) to American wishes since the end of the Cold War (and the onset of this new, successor crusade, indeterminate in length, indefinable in purpose, impossibly—if interminably—waged against an abstract noun, although its victims, by the tens of thousands, are far from abstract).

One of the oldest tropes in European politics is of American “naïveté” in expectations of politicians and political reality. The truth is that the gullibility of European politicians, and of their governments, vis-à-vis the United States during the last quarter of a century has been spectacular—to such an extent that it makes one wonder whether it is actually gullibility or, more probably, a strategic surrender to US interests masquerading as (endlessly) violated innocence. As European electorates (in “new” as well as “old” Europe) are not as forbearing of US brutality in the world (and of the corresponding mendacity about it) as are their governments, the latter, for that reason, now constantly feign shock, shock, to learn of American actions after they’ve occurred (and of American motives after they’ve been revealed). And so, once again, the representatives of Europe’s governments presumably slumped into their armchairs slack-jawed when George W. Bush proposed to transfer the intellectual author of Operation Iraqi Freedom (and of the The Arabian Nights-like tale of Mesopotamian houris showering American soldiers in rose petals and feeding them baqlawa) from DoD to the World Bank in a bizarre, ideologically inverse, wannabe replay of the famous migration decades earlier of Robert McNamara, confirming Marx’s observation about history’s tendency to intellectual degradation the second time around. A day after the Financial Times headlined the “shock” to Europeans, however, The Wall Street Journal was editorializing a different point of view altogether. “Banking on Wolfowitz,” the newspaper titled its leader (March 17, 2005), subtitling it, “And you thought Iraq was difficult.” Clearly, according to the house organ of unreconstructed neoconism, the point to appointing Mr. Wolfowitz was precisely to shock and awe the World Bank.

Mission accomplished. And, once again, as ever with neoconism, the imperial agenda was camouflaged in sermons of virtue in the delusion that the natives abroad are as stupid as the empire’s own citizens back home, who gave up caring a long time ago about who lives and dies in the various expeditionary missions to civilize the barbarians as long as it isn’t them. When serving directly under Mr. Bush at DoD, Mr. Wolfowitz’s mantras were democracy and freedom, and his cause the war against terror. At the World Bank, serving Mr. Bush indirectly, the new mantras became “accountability” and “governance” and the war to be fought was against the depredations of “corruption” (invariably of the developing world, and of its brown, black, and yellow peoples, who must be edified in the high moral regimen of the white men and women running the Enrons and Halliburtons and BPs and Shells and Exxon-Mobils and stock exchanges and military-industrial complexes in New York, Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin). It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it; to quote the Wall Street Journal again, “…if anyone can stand up to the Robert Mugabes of the world, it must be the man who stood up to Saddam Hussein.”

The notion, of course, that Mr. Wolfowitz “stood up” to Saddam Hussein, in a High Noon kind of duel in the sun, would be laughable had it not become so tragic by now for the Iraqi people. As for “the Robert Mugabes of the world”—let alone Mugabe himself—it’s not at all clear, to be polite about it, what Mr. Wolfowitz has done, exactly, in the last two years to “stand up” to them. Then again, there are Journal editors who remain convinced that we’ll find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq one day. No retreat, no surrender. War is hell, whether against terrorism or corruption.

Nevertheless, even if you think that he’s performed a service to humanity despite all the destruction and infamy he’s helped to visit upon the world and his own country, you’d still think it was a bit rich for Mr. Wolfowitz to be lecturing other people, and governments, on “accountability” when he denounced the then-chief of staff of the US army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, for making “outlandish” (in other words, correct) assessments of the necessary US force strength in a “post-Saddam” (that is, occupied) Iraq, and then helped to supervise the worst foreign-policy disaster in the postwar history of the United States. (Yes, worse than Vietnam, as military strategists are increasingly pointing out, since the latter tragedy never provoked the infinite number of fronts against us the world over that this one has, and will.) Has Dr. Wolfowitz ever been brought to account—will he ever—for his tenure at the defense department? Or, for that matter, for his hugely unsuccessful couple of years at the World Bank, which have, quite literally, paralyzed the institution from his first day in office? We know better. (We don’t want to be accused of American naïveté.) Still, one would think that the good professor, being such an expert on arms and the man, would understand the advantages of discretion over bravado.

But that is not the way of the neocons, who are nothing if not impermeable in their pride. What was it that that Bush adviser once told journalist Ron Suskind? That Suskind was part of “the reality-based community,” who believed that “solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality,” but that that was “not the way the world really works anymore.” For Bushism, that anonymous adviser explained, “discernible reality” was an illusion: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (“Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004) This is breathtaking, mindless arrogance (and positively bone-chilling in its neo-Hitlerism). It is also, quite literally, lunatic nonsense.

It takes a real emperor to understand the pitfalls of empire. There is no more succinct description of Bushism’s imperial shipwreck(s) than Napoleon’s famous diagnosis that, “The great proof of madness is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means.” As Corsica’s most glorious son essentially invented French patriotism (among many other codes), he also understood the sheer artificiality of any notion of “great” (let alone “indispensable”) nations. “A celebrated people,” he warned, “lose dignity upon a closer view.”

Fortunately, for the world, reality does exist, and, for quite a while now, it has been laying Bushism, and the Bushists, lower and lower each day, as it’s been stripping the dignity of the celebrated people who have allowed themselves to be led by such men and women. Last month, The Economist dedicated a column to neoconism’s walking wounded. It titled its analysis, “Sidelined by reality” (April 19). The problem, the magazine stated, “can be traced back not just to flawed execution but to flawed thinking.” Well, yes, obviously.

Take Mr. Wolfowitz, for example. It has been argued that, despite his actions at DoD, he cares profoundly about fighting corruption in the developing world and, therefore, of alleviating poverty. Such an argument was made earlier this month—by an African, no less—in the op-ed pages of The New York Times. The article by Nuhu Ribadu, datelined Abuja, Nigeria, and entitled, “Why Wolfowitz Should Stay” (May 1), argued that, “Mr. Wolfowitz’s presidency…has been largely defined by his energetic support for a new Africa that is struggling to emerge.” It went on to aver that:

Over the last two years, Mr. Wolfowitz has effectively directed the bank’s energies toward fighting poverty and improving human life. He is a champion of using international development institutions to deal with some of the world’s major problems. And he has been a steadfast supporter of the efforts of African organizations to rescue our people from the scourge of misrule, which leads to poverty, disease and early death.

No one at is an expert on Africa, let alone Nigeria. Just a passing glance at the Times’s foreign-news pages, however, offers enough information for a very different perspective. We don’t know if Mr. Wolfowitz is “a champion of using international development institutions to deal with some of the world’s major problems.” What we do know are two salient facts: one, broadly biographical, the other, specifically programmatic. First, for the biography.

  • Mr. Wolfowitz’s dissertation (in political science) on desalination projects in the Middle East was actually about nuclear proliferation in the region.
  • In 1972, newly minted Dr. Wolfowitz went to work at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).
  • Five years later, Jimmy Carter appointed Mr. Wolfowitz deputy assistant secretary of defense (the first and last time Mr. Wolfowitz would work for a Democratic administration, although he remains a registered Democrat to this day).
  • In 1982, Mr. Wolfowitz was appointed director of policy planning at the state department.
  • Two years later, he became assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
  • In 1986, he was appointed ambassador to Indonesia.
  • In 1989, he became undersecretary of defense for policy.
  • In 1993, after Bill Clinton took over the White House, Dr. Wolfowitz temporarily retired to private life after over two decades in government as dean of the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins.
  • After George W. Bush’s election, he was appointed deputy secretary of defense.

As one can see by this brief biographical outline, Dr. Wolfowitz’s entire life has been spent on military and security issues. He is not an economist, and has never run a business. With the exception of his stint as ambassador to Indonesia, he has never had anything to do with—and would be the first to admit that he has neither basic nor extensive experience in—development issues. As such, being named head of the World Bank was, one would think, a professional bridge too far. Robert McNamara, at least, was an economist who had once been the youngest assistant professor at Harvard Business School and a famously successful president of the Ford Motor Company (the first outside the Ford family to hold that position) when LBJ named to him to head the Bank. Mr. Wolfowitz’s immediate predecessor, James Wolfensohn, was an investment banker with a degree, again, from Harvard Business School who had worked on three continents before going to the Bank. (As an Australian who was a naturalized American citizen when Bill Clinton appointed him, he also had a decidedly international view of the world.) It is an indication of the contempt with which the current US president faces most global issues (with the obvious exception of “terrorism”)—from climate change to the consequences of globalization to, yes, development in the developing countries—that he named such an evidently unqualified person to such an unquestionably important post.

It is hardly a coincidence, then, that, upon taking up his new position, Mr. Wolfowitz did not direct the World Bank’s “energies toward fighting poverty and improving human life,” but, rather, toward fighting “corruption” in the developing world—or, to use Mr. Ribadu’s formulation, toward “rescuing” people “from the scourge of misrule, which leads to poverty, disease and early death.”

First things first: the “scourge of misrule” is an innately slippery phrase. What does it describe, exactly? Robert Mugabe? Saddam Hussein? The Saudi state? Or, perhaps, the US occupation of Iraq? Or Afghanistan’s present “democratic” regime? Or, even more to the point, municipal government in New Orleans? In any case, the jury is out as to whether the “scourge of misrule” actually leads to poverty, let alone to disease and early death. It might lead to such; it often does lead to such; it will ultimately lead to such, but, ultimately, to echo Keynes, we’re all dead anyway. The truth is that the links between “misrule” and poverty are complex and, occasionally, even benign.

There is not an American historian who does not know that Tammany Hall, while stupendously corrupt, also made it possible for many of the huddled immigrant masses that ended up on New York City’s teeming shores not only to survive, but also to secure a government job and, thus, some sort of future for their (extended) kith and kin. The Irish cops and Italian sanitation men and Jewish teachers and Greek diner-owners (and, decades later, black bus drivers) who became the backbone of New York’s lower middle class would have taken a lot longer to do so had it not been for Gotham’s notorious “misrule.” Every sociologist knows that political corruption is simultaneously a political morass and a social network. That is why the repressive (Ba’athist idealists would say distorting) violence aside, the Ba’ath party under Saddam Hussein essentially functioned the same way as Tammany’s Democrats did—or as the Republican party did under Ulysses S. Grant during the Gilded Age. It is also why “good government” and “reform” movements are so often led by upper-middle, professional, and upper classes, as the depredations of “corruption” are perceived to be the work of benighted plebeians.

Funny, though, how those plebeians see things radically differently. We have no doubt, for example, that the more Hugo Chávez extends his Bolivarian revolution throughout Venezuelan society, the more corrupt that revolution becomes. We also have no doubt that there is, in fact, something authentically democratic about this effort, and that to extend the principles of democracy into social life, as Mr. Chávez is doing, requires a redefinition of “good governance.” Mr. Chávez is clearly not only a popular leader, but also one who has not been afraid to test his popularity fairly at the polls. While the US, and the World Bank and IMF—from which institutions Mr. Chávez recently and conspicuously withdrew his country—might abhor him, the manifest majority of his fellow citizens have repeatedly elected him to lead them. (The Western mediacracy habitually transmogrifies popularity into “populism” when the popularity in question threatens Western interests.) Thus, to the choice posed by so many fastidious NGO types in the West—corruption with Chávez or “good governance” without him—most Venezuelans would not hesitate to opt for the former. Actually, they would not hesitate to laugh out loud. Good governance, they would respond in disbelief? In Venezuela, before Hugo Chávez? Excuse us, señor(a), but you obviously don’t know anything about our country.

Or, we would add, about any country. Why did Lula win reelection in Brazil with the same 61 percent of the vote (minus a few tenths of a point) that he received in his original election, although his entire administration was mired in a vast corruption scandal the second time around? Or, to take a completely different example, in a different socioeconomic context, why has Vladimir Putin been so consistently popular in Russia although he has conspicuously (and with authoritarian sang-froid) flouted all the “rules” of “free-market” governance and Anglo-Saxon notions of capital(ist) order? The answer is the same in both cases (although for very different reasons), and would have been the same answer given by a Tammany wardheeler on the Lower East Side decades ago: the great mass of laboring people believe that economic democracy is impossible without some form of “corruption”—i.e., social intervention—in the (re)distribution of economic goods and services. (Greeks know all about the efficient redistributive social effects of partisan corruption from the recent two and half decades of rule under PASOK, which created unprecedented wealth—much of it linked to government contracts or “access”—for that notoriously indefinable, and therefore expansive, class of the mikro-mesaioi.)

What really sticks in the craw of Mr. Wolfowitz’s critics is that this is the man whose department of defense handed the US armed forces to Halliburton. This is also the man under whose “management” Iraq itself was handed over to systematic pillage. On May 12, the lead story on the front page of The New York Times read, “Billions in Oil Missing in Iraq, U.S. Study Says.” It began:

Between 100,000 and 300,000 barrels a day of Iraq’s oil production over the past four years is unaccounted for and could have been siphoned off through corruption or smuggling, according to a draft American government report.
Using an average of $50 a barrel, the report said the discrepancy was valued at $5 million to $15 million daily.

That’s roughly $1.8 to $5.5 billion per annum, or about $7 to $22 billion in the four years of the US occupation. Quite a swag. Of course, in an age-old Western tradition of ceremonial hand-washing that goes back to Pontius Pilate, the criminal appropriation of all this wealth is blamed squarely on—who else?—the occupied, not the occupiers. The report was prepared by the US Government Accountability Office and completely whitewashes US responsibility for this “misrule”—although, according to the Times, it does point a finger at (surprise, surprise)“smaller refineries not controlled by large Western companies in places like China, the Caribbean and even small European countries.” It’s the fault of the Chinese again, or of the Jamaicans, or of those perennially perfidious Europeans—but not of “large Western” oil companies because, of course, we all know how deeply moral and steeped in profound traditions of corporate integrity and social responsibility these companies are.

The Times article ends as follows:

[T]he lack of modern metering Iraq’s wellheads made it especially difficult to track smuggling there. [A] State Department official agreed that there were no meters at the wellheads, but said that Iraq’s Oil Ministry had signed a contract with Shell Oil to study the possibility of putting in the meters.
The official added that an American-financed project to install meters on Iraq’s main oil platform in the Persian Gulf was scheduled to be completed this month.
As sizable as a discrepancy of as much as 300,000 barrels a day would be in most parts of the world, some analysts said it could be expected in a country with such a long, ingrained history of corruption.
“It would be surprising if it was not the case,” said John Pike, director of, which closely follows security and economic issues in Iraq. He added, “How could the oil sector be the exception?”

How, indeed? After all, theft is “ingrained” in these semi-barbaric people. Allah be praised that Shell Oil will put everything right. (We just hope it doesn’t lead to the same results as in Mr. Ribadu’s native Nigeria, where the Goldman Environmental Prizewinning journalist and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the country’s military junta for his unceasing opposition to the environmental destruction of the Ogoni people’s homelands in the Niger Delta by, yes, Shell Oil.)

After reading this reportage—shameless both in its racism and in its exoneration of the US (and, more generally, the West) for destroying not only Iraq’s economic viability and social coherence, but its national unity—one understands why “they” hate “us” with a purple passion. Meanwhile, in the ether regions of unimpeachable Western morality and integrity, the head of the World Bank cooks up sweetheart deals for his…sweetheart, hires old cronies at will, hems and haws, denies and recants, threatens and conciliates, fulminates and abnegates, vows holy war and everlasting love, claims to be the victim of conspiracies and cabals one minute, and merely misquoted the next, while billions of people in the developing world are continually maligned for their “ingrained” corruption.

Two last points. Nuhu Ribadu is chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission—an appointed position. He was appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was also responsible for the recent elections in Nigeria, condemned by the EU, in the words of the head of its monitoring team, for “ballot box stuffing, alteration of official result forms, stealing of sensitive polling materials, vote buying and underage voting” (BBC, April 23). The head of the Transition Monitoring Group, the Nigerian citizens’ organization monitoring the polls, called the election a “charade.” Under the circumstances, Mr. Ribadu’s praise of Mr. Wolfowitz provokes many more questions than it answers.

Finally, this whole debacle might have had a constructive, and profoundly renovative, ending if, following Mr. Wolfowitz’s inevitable resignation from his position, the European members of the World Bank insisted that the US finally give up its right to name the institution’s head, just as they would, in turn, surrender their right to name the head of the IMF. But that did not happen, of course. Essentially because the Europeans, in the end, are as dishonest about their commitment to global democratic governance as the US is. Naturally, all this hypocrisy and patent self-aggrandizement is obvious to the entire world—which is why Hugo Chávez is laughing all the way to his own, newly founded development bank.

Page 1 of 1 pages