The Wolfowitz at the World Bank’s Door Jayati Ghosh

The second innings of George Bush Jr. at the White House promises to be more than just a replay of the first term, although that prospect alone would have been horrifying enough. Re-election has legitimised for the incumbent US President his most blatant and aggressive past actions. But it has done even more, in terms of imbuing new energy and confidence into the unilateralist and bullying agenda with which the Bush administration tends to take on all comers, both domestic and international.

Certainly, the recent flexing of US muscles in international arenas provides adequate intimation of the more overtly interventionist attitude that the world is likely to see with respect to the Bush administration even in multilateral organisations. Only two weeks John Bolton, an established State Department hawk and known UN-baiter was named to be the new US Ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton reportedly once famously declared that “the UN Security Council should have only one permanent member, because this would correctly reflect the distribution of world power” and has made no secret of his belief that the UN should be radically restructured and “reformed” to make it more acceptable to the US.

Coming close after that was another possibly even more shocking announcement: the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz as the Bush administration’s candidate for the President of the World Bank. Through an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” between the big powers, the power of choosing the World Bank President has been accorded to the US, while the IMF boss is by the same tradition a (western) European. However, while past choices have often been suspect (think, for example, of Robert McNamara who came to the job fresh from his role as US Defence Secretary in Vietnam) none has come close to being as openly challenging and dismissive of developing country concerns as this one.

Quite simply, George Bush is showing the equivalent of the symbolic finger to the rest of the world, and indicating both his contempt for the international community as well as his purpose of bending the major multilateral organisations to the US will. There is no secret about either Paul Wolfowitz’s agenda or the extent of energy he is willing to devote to this agenda, and it is extremely unlikely that the World Bank as an organisation can emerge unscathed or unchanged from this particular encounter.

While Wolfowitz is ostensibly a soft-voiced academic (he was formerly Dean of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies) he has for many years been one of the most outspoken and aggressive of the group of “neocons” (neo-conservatives) who have assumed so much power in the US over the past years. He was one of the main proponents – and chief architects – of the US invasion of Iraq, which is something he wanted even during the Gulf War of 1991, and which he advocated again within days of the September 2001 attacks in New York.

His record in the Defense Department, where he served under Donald Rumsfeld, confirms his reputation as a single-minded hawk whose opinions are not swerved either by reason or by evidence. He has not only been one of the most consistent proponents of the US invasion of Iraq, but is also passionately pro-Israel and was one of the early theorists of the doctrine of pre-emptive strike rather than containment.

He has also been remarkably blatant and open about expressing these extremely conservative and partisan views. According to the New York Times (March 17, 2005), he once wrote that a major lesson of the cold war for American foreign policy was “the importance of leadership and what it consists of: not lecturing and posturing and demanding, but demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will regret having done so.”

However, all too often Wolfowitz’s arguments and judgments have had at best a tenuous relationship with reality, and when the reality has been awkward he has shown the well-developed neocon capacity for fancy footwork. His was one of the most vociferous voices insisting on the need for war based on the “weapons of mass destruction” held by Saddam Hussein, yet when it became obvious that no such weapons were to be found, he quickly changed his tune to argue that the war was really about “spreading democracy in the Arab world”. In a rare moment of disclosure, he admitted in an interview to the US magazine Vanity Fair what most people have known all along, that the entire official justification for war may have been 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.”

His assessment of the outcome of the invasion was equally problematic. At the peak of the war on Iraq, in a testimony to the US Congress which was debating the issue, he was openly critical of the then US Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s estimates of the required personnel and costs of the war. General Shinseki had estimated that a post-war US occupation force of around 60,000 to 70,000 men could be required, and that the operation could cost the US between $65-95 billion.

Wolfowitz dismissed such estimates as being “wildly off the mark” and instead argued that most of the costs of continued occupation and reconstruction of Iraq would be borne by allies or be entirely paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. He also contended that the post-war occupation force would require less than 10,000 men. In the event, it is Wolfowitz’s estimates which have proved to be completely wrong. As of March 2005 over 170,000 US military personnel are in Iraq with another 20,000 plus stationed in Kuwait and Qatar. A further number of around 30,000 private security workers are employed in Iraq, mainly by multinational companies. The current estimates for total cost for the war and reconstruction ranges from $250 billion to $350 billion.

Some observers feel that this move has enabled President Bush to kill two birds with one shuffle – by removing Wolfowitz from the US establishment where he was becoming something of a thorn in the side of the new Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and where his evident lack of realism was becoming an embarassment. Given the US administration’s general contempt for the process of development, it is not surprising that lack of realism is not seen to be a problem for his new job in the World Bank.

Aside from a brief stint as US Ambassador in Indonesia (where he was supportive of the repressive Suharto regime) Wolfowitz has little or no experience of “development’ as such. Paul Krugman has pointed out, however, that Wolfowitz has been closely associated with America’s largest foreign aid and economic development project since the Marshall Plan – that is, the so-called “reconstruction” in Iraq. Unfortunately, that experience – of hasty and often disastrous privatisations, very slow reconstruction, poor delivery of public services, massive and continuing unemployment and great material insecurity in addition to physical insecurity – is likely to give little ground for developing countries to trust his advice.

Instead, the leadership of Wolfowitz is likely to increase substantially the already large credibility gap that World Bank functionaries find they have to deal with across the developing world, and therefore create more of a backlash against its functioning. It could be argued that this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, since all too often the misleading and even dangerous policy prescriptions of the World Bank come clothed in touchy-feely “pro-poor” rhetoric that conceals their real content in pushing the interests of imperialism. To the extent that the “human face” of the World Bank has only served to mask the monstrous body and its treacherous actions, removing the mask may not be so dreadful after all.

But taking such a position would be to underestimate the sheer power and energy of the neocon drive. And there is no doubt that so far the progressive opposition across the world has underestimated the neocons, to its own detriment and peril. Clearly, this latest Bush appointment implies the pursuit of US foreign policy objectives and domination by other means. Already it is clear that the Bush administration’s approach to development is that US-set conditions should determine whether to reward or target particular regimes. This will now be actively applied in the World Bank as well, and any chance that the Bank’s policies will be influenced by local priorities and concerns is almost certainly squashed.

The man whom George Bush affectionately calls “Wolfie” may really become just that for a much wider public – the wolf at the door of developing countries.