Paul Wolfowitz: A sheep in wolf's clothing?

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The Independent Online

The jokes and the dark rumours have already begun. Maybe, World Bankers grimly joked, their next boss will stage a preventive (or should that be pre-emptive?) military strike on its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Others hear tales that the bank's entire communications department is to be axed, supposedly for talking badly about him. A little premature, one might note, since the new man must first be approved by the bank's shareholders - by no means a foregone conclusion - and does not take over until June.

The jokes and the dark rumours have already begun. Maybe, World Bankers grimly joked, their next boss will stage a preventive (or should that be pre-emptive?) military strike on its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Others hear tales that the bank's entire communications department is to be axed, supposedly for talking badly about him. A little premature, one might note, since the new man must first be approved by the bank's shareholders - by no means a foregone conclusion - and does not take over until June.

But the black humour and the fearful talk are a measure of the shock waves created last week when Paul Wolfowitz was chosen by George Bush as the next president of the World Bank. The most powerful deputy secretary of defence in modern times - certified neo-conservative ogre and identified with one of the most unpopular wars in modern times - was to become the head of the world's most important development institution.

The conclusion for Bush-haters has been inescapable. Not content with selecting the equally controversial John Bolton to be America's ambassador to the United Nations, this re-elected and supremely confident American President is again showing two fingers to the rest of us. The World Bank, set up along with the UN in 1945 to guide post-war reconstruction but whose president is by convention a US appointee, is destined to become a wholly owned operating subsidiary of the American Enterprise Institute, the right-wing Washington think tank and spiritual nesting place of foreign policy hawks.

Few hold a more terrifying place in the doves' demonology than Wolfowitz, the man Mr Bush is prone to affectionately refer to as "Wolfie". He was a prime intellectual architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and widely perceived as the nemesis of Colin Powell - the very archetype of the Pentagon "crazies" excoriated by the former Secretary of State. For cinema-goers around the globe, he is the unedifying figure captured in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, licking his comb as he smooths down his hair for an interview.

"Wolfie" is the Iraq obsessive par excellence, who argued within two days of the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 for the destruction of Saddam Hussein, declaring bluntly that American policy was "ending states that sponsor terrorism". In a now notorious Vanity Fair interview, he even seemed to admit that the entire public rationale for war was a deliberate lie: "The truth is," he said, "that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy itself, we settled on the one issue that everyone would agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason."

For all these reasons and more, astonishment at his appointment was well-nigh universal (even at the Pentagon itself, which had issued a statement when Wolfowitz's name was first mentioned as a candidate, insisting that he had no plans to leave). Unfortunately, he did. Like Robert McNamara, that other hate figure of three decades ago who moved from the Pentagon to the bank, he is embarking on the transformation from man of war to man of peace.

But for all the unease in foreign governments, and the howls of outrage from aid groups, liberals and registered America-bashers, something doesn't quite add up. First off, he simply doesn't look the part of implacable super-hawk and fire-breathing ideologue. Meet Wolfowitz, and you find yourself talking to a mild-mannered man, soft spoken and reflective. Unlike many in the Bush administration, he actually listens to opposing points of view. In argument, he seeks to prevail by logic rather than brute force of words.

Unlike many conservatives (neo- and otherwise), he is an optimist, convinced that tyranny, poverty and oppression are not necessarily the lot of huge swathes of humanity. The word is that his moment of epiphany about the World Bank job came in January, when Wolfowitz visited the tsunami-hit regions of South-east Asia and was numbed by the devastation he saw. The explanation may involve a degree of spin doctoring. But contrary to the conviction of his critics, he is not the world's only living heart donor. Indeed, Wolfowitz describes himself as a civil libertarian, and a "bleeding heart" on social issues.

His background if anything is liberal east coast. His father was a mathematics professor at Cornell University at Ithaca, New York - a Polish Jew who emigrated from Russian-occupied Warsaw in 1920 and would later often tell his children how lucky they were to have escaped the Europe of the dictators for the safety of America. Several members of his family died in the Holocaust - which has fuelled accusations that he sees the world through the prism of Israel (where a sister, among other relatives, still lives). As usual, though, with Wolfowitz, nothing is as simple as it seems. He was among the first senior figures in the Bush administration to back the creation of a Palestinian state. In 2002, he was even heckled at a pro-Israel rally when he spoke of the sufferings of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

The young Wolfowitz was predictably precocious. At the age of 12, he was debating America's foreign trade policy with China at school. As a 13-year-old boy scout, he would spend the nights at summer camp reading Andersonville, an 800-page epic about the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. At Cornell, he studied mathematics and chemistry, and dreamt of Nobel Prizes. But he concluded that the world could more easily be changed by politics than by science. In 1972, he took a doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago, home of Leo Strauss, the academic godfather of the neo-conservative movement.

Wolfowitz's early career in government focused on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, and his views were already hardline enough to win him a place in "Team B", set up in the mid-1970s by Ford administration officials suspicious of the then policy of détente with the Soviet Union. More than two decades later, members of Team B - Wolfowitz, his Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney's powerful chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Richard Perle - would re-emerge at the heart of US security policy-making.

In the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, as a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon, he helped to set up what would later become US Central Command, in charge of three wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. But his career truly blossomed under Ronald Reagan, with a series of influential jobs at the State Department, culminating in a three-year stint as US ambassador to Indonesia, from 1986 to 1989.

The tour in Jakarta, even Wolfowitz's foes acknowledge, was an unqualified success. Indonesia was a passion of his wife Clare (the couple are now estranged), who chose the country as subject for her studies in anthropology. Wolfowitz himself was a Jew representing America in the world's most populous Muslim state, who did not flinch from lecturing the then dictator Suharto on the merits of democracy. No less revealing, he "went native" in a fashion most unusual for American ambassadors, learning the local language and immersing himself in Indonesia's culture. He travelled the country, and even entered a cooking contest sponsored by an Indonesian women's magazine, winning third place.

Then it was back to the Pentagon, as a top policy planner in the administration of the first President Bush, helping to run the first Iraq war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And even after victory, Wolfowitz never lost his obsession with Iraq. In 1992, he drew up a strategy blueprint that envisaged Iraq as a renewed foe, in a war possibly involving chemical and biological weapons. The Wolfowitz doctrine, later to become the Bush doctrine, was born, sanctioning "pre-emptive" war and built on the premise that no power should be permitted to challenge America's benign and wholly beneficial dominance of world affairs. Under Bush the younger, none has done more than Wolfowitz to turn that theory into deed. Stirring stuff in short - but hardly, on the face of it, proper preparation for the World Bank.

In fact, from a strictly objective viewpoint, Wolfowitz was easily the best qualified of the mooted short-list of candidates. His intellectual capacity is not in doubt, nor - another important consideration - is his standing with the bank's host government and largest single shareholder. Ah yes, critics retort, but he has no "development experience". But then again, neither did McNamara, whose 13 years at the bank between 1968 and 1981 are now remembered as something of a golden age. And if he is not a trained development specialist, Wolfowitz at least has first-hand experience of the Third World.

The serious objections to the appointment are twofold. Some fear he will try to turn the bank into a vehicle for the wider agenda of George Bush, favouring countries which do Washington's bidding and using its lending policies to advance the presidential ambition of spreading democracy across the globe. An acid test will be the future of bank programmes in countries such as Iran, whose unconcealed nuclear ambitions and support for militant Islamic groups so infuriate the US.

But such manipulation may be easier said than done. The bank's lending criteria are economic, not political. Nor is there firm proof, as Wolfowitz contends, that economic advancement and democracy are automatically linked. (Think China.) The real danger is less that he will make the World Bank a rubber stamp of Bush policies - a near impossibility for an institution with 184 member countries and a board of directors watching his every move - but that he will bring America's image problem to the World Bank, generating an instant cloud of suspicion over its operations.

The other objection lies in his record at the Pentagon itself. On close scrutiny, he seems less ideologue than idealist, with all the latter's naivety and gullibility - why otherwise was he duped by a chancer like Ahmed Chalabi? If the post-war rebuilding of Iraq, for which Wolfowitz was responsible, is treated as a development project, it has been an abject failure, not least because of his refusal to face facts. That, some wise pessimists say, may be a more reliable clue to Wolfowitz's future stewardship than the invective of his foes.


Born 22 December 1943 in New York City to Jacob and Lillian Wolfowitz.

Family Married in 1968 to Clare Selgin; divorced in 2002. The couple have three children.

Education BA, Yale University, 1963, in mathematics; PhD, University of Chicago, 1972, in political science.

Career Lecturer, Yale University (1973-77); various senior posts at the State Department (1977-86); ambassador to Indonesia, 1986-89; undersecretary of defence (1989-93); dean, School of International Studies (1994-2001), Johns Hopkins University; Deputy Secretary of Defence (2001-present).

He says... "25 million of some of the most talented people in the Muslim and Arab world were liberated from one of the worst tyrannies of the last 100 years." - on the Iraq war

They say... "What a shame that Paul didn't continue in math." - Jacob Wolfowitz, Paul's father