Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING WOLFOWITZ....As regular readers know, every few months I like to find an excuse to post a reminder of Paul Wolfowitz's testimony before Congress on February 28, 2003, three weeks before the Iraq war started. Here's a summary of the New York Times account:

Mr. Wolfowitz...opened a two-front war of words on Capitol Hill, calling the recent estimate by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of the Army that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, "wildly off the mark." Pentagon officials have put the figure closer to 100,000 troops.

....He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo....He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force....And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it....Mr. Wolfowitz spent much of the hearing knocking down published estimates of the costs of war and rebuilding, saying the upper range of $95 billion was too high.

....Moreover, he said such estimates, and speculation that postwar reconstruction costs could climb even higher, ignored the fact that Iraq is a wealthy country, with annual oil exports worth $15 billion to $20 billion. "To assume we're going to pay for it all is just wrong," he said.

This is, I think, the prime reason to oppose Wolfowitz's nomination to head the World Bank. Lots of people favored the Iraq war, after all, but how many of them displayed such convincing evidence of their appallingly poor judgment on such a wide range of topics in such a public venue? Do we really want a guy like that running anything, let alone the World Bank?

And yet....here I have to confess one of my dark secrets: I'm not a Paul Wolfowitz hater. I'm not a fan, mind you, but then again, I'm not a fan of anyone George Bush is likely to nominate to head the World Bank. At the same time, Wolfowitz has always struck me as a bit different from the rest of the neocon/hawk fraternity. Guys like Kristol and Cheney and Rumsfeld, for example, talk a lot about democracy but mostly use it as a thinly disguised excuse for installing friendly pro-American leaders in countries that just happen to have lots of oil. Wolfowitz, conversely, really seems to believe this stuff.

Along these lines, then, ever since Bush nominated Wolfowitz to head the World Bank I've been curious about his tenure as ambassador to Indonesia, since it seems to be his most relevant experience. Today, Laura Rozen points to a nice piece in the Washington Post:

At the height of President Suharto's autocratic rule, then-U.S. Ambassador Paul D. Wolfowitz publicly offered advice in 1989 that could have landed domestic critics in prison, pointedly telling the dictator that his record of rapid economic growth was not enough.

"If greater openness is a key to economic success, I believe there is increasingly a need for openness in the political sphere as well," Wolfowitz said in May 1989 farewell remarks at Jakarta's American Cultural Center as he prepared to leave Indonesia after three years as ambassador.

....Abdurrahman Wahid, who became president in 1999, was so taken by Wolfowitz's 1989 speech that he asked to be introduced. Wahid, a leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization and staunch proponent of political pluralism, said in an interview Friday that they became friends and he remains proud of that relationship today despite differences over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

....Wolfowitz was a highly visible emissary. He taught himself to speak and read the Indonesian language. He was not only a fixture on the Jakarta social circuit but also tramped through its villages and hiked its volcanoes. He won third prize in a cooking contest sponsored by the country's leading women's magazine, Femina, appearing in its glossy pages in an apron and explaining his secret for Madame Mao's chicken.

Laura herself doesn't say what she thinks of the Post story, but it's worth reading the whole thing, which also includes plenty of criticism of Wolfowitz for not promoting human rights during his ambassadorship and for being too close to Suharto. But while Wolfowitz deserves that criticism, I think we often discount how hard it is for partisans to go off the reservation even in minor ways. The fact that Wolfowitz was willing to criticize Suharto at all, or that he's willing to tell a pro-Israel audience that they should be more mindful of Palestinian suffering, says something about what he really believes.

Of course, there's still that appalling judgment (see Wolfowitz, Paul, Congressional Testimony of, op cit). And the atmospherics are horrible too. By nominating Wolfowitz, George Bush has said "fuck you" to the rest of the world about as clearly as he possibly could without actually saying the words themselves.

But still, I wonder: could Wolfowitz actually end up being good at the job? Maybe. My guess is that he'll either be a complete disaster or else an inspired surprise sort of the way Earl Warren turned out to be a surprise to the president who nominated him. The only problem is, I can't figure out which is more likely.

UPDATE: Jason Vest provides a bleaker look at Wolfowitz's tenure in Indonesia in the Village Voice.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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