April 25, 2007

The Lynching of Paul Wolfowitz

They say even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But in a world where miracles are in short supply, imagine our surprise when the Grey Lady not only stumbled across the Truth, but (mirabile dictu!) found it fit for our rough, untutored eyes:

“There is no one issue that is motivating people,” said Robert B. Holland III, a Texas businessman who served as the United States member of the bank’s board until last year and who is a strong supporter of Mr. Wolfowitz. “There is a built-in ideological opposition to Wolfowitz that was there from day one. The opposition has been looking for any opportunity to exploit to get him out of there.”

Mr. Holland said that Mr. Wolfowitz had sought from the outset to trim the bank’s bureaucracy and enforce new standards of honesty in countries receiving bank assistance.

But such steps as cutting off money to programs and countries suspected of graft alienated two groups of officials: the bank’s 24-member board of directors, which runs the bank’s daily affairs in tandem with Mr. Wolfowitz, and a group of 30 or so vice presidents and their equivalent.

Mildly intrigued by this tiny grain of wheat amongst the usual piles of chaff in the pages of the Times, the half vast editorial staff went searching for more. But alas! the crack investigative reporting staff at the Times consider "bank sentiment" more relevant than checking into the actual facts relating to the charges against Mr. Wolfowitz:

Bank officials said that after several days of canvassing hundreds of employees, about 25 vice presidents of the bank were preparing to document that the overwhelming majority of the employees favor Mr. Wolfowitz’s departure.

Since the Times is not interested in the facts surrounding this scandal, those interested in the truth must look elsewhere. The Washington Post is a good starting place. This weekend's Op-Ed pages should give the high tech lynch mob cause for sober reflection:

The allegations against Mr. Wolfowitz, which have angered many bank employees, are by now familiar. After arriving at the bank in the summer of 2005, he arranged a generous employment package for his companion, Shaha Riza, then a senior communications officer at the bank with expertise in Middle East affairs. These terms mandated a salary increase from $132,660 to $193,590, assigned her to a job outside the bank and laid out a path to further promotion and raises. This has been characterized as an underhanded deal that undermines Mr. Wolfowitz's campaign against corruption in poor countries applying for World Bank aid.

Unfortunately, that thumbnail sketch omits some highly relevant facts. It was Mr. Wolfowitz who, before taking over at the bank, called the potential conflict of interest to the attention of the bank's ethics committee. He asked to be recused from any personnel decisions involving Ms. Riza. The committee agreed that a conflict existed, but it said that could probably be solved only by Ms. Riza leaving the bank, either permanently or on loan to another agency. The committee also told Mr. Wolfowitz that, if she chose to go elsewhere, Ms. Riza should be given a raise because she already had been short-listed for a promotion. So when Mr. Wolfowitz dictated her new terms of employment he was responding in part to the committee's instructions. Further raises were intended to be equal to what she might have earned had she stayed at the bank, responding to the committee's advice that she receive "compensation to offset negative career impact" from her reassignment.

Was the package nonetheless too generous, even by cushy World Bank standards? The executive directors should answer that question. But there's a relevant fact here, too. The ethics panel reviewed the situation again a half-year later, in February 2006, after receiving an anonymous complaint from a bank employee precisely on the issue of excessive pay. Once again it found, "on the basis of a careful review," that the allegations "do not appear to pose ethical issues appropriate for further consideration by the Committee."

But even the Post's analysis lacks context. Fuller disclosure of the facts surrounding L'Affaire Wolfowitz should profoundly disturb his critics, progressives, and ardent feminists: The entire, sad affair is well bracketed by three excerpts released by the Ethics committee of the World Bank:

Exhibit One:

First, I would like to acknowledge that Mr. Wolfowitz has disclosed to the Board, through you, that he has a pre-existing relationship with a Bank staff member, and that he proposes to resolve the conflict of interest in relation to Staff Rule 3.01, Paragraph 4.02 by recusing himself from all personnel matters and professional contact related to the staff member.

Exhibit Two:

July 27, 2005 – Memo from Ethics Committee Chairman Ad Melkert to PW

“Having considered different options, the EC advises:

a) That the staff member will be relocated to a position beyond (potential) supervising influence by the President and therefore will withdraw from the current selection procedure for job promotion within the MENA department;

b)That at the same time the potential disruption of the staff member’s career prospect will be recognized by an in situ promotion on the basis of her qualifying record as confirmed by her shortlisting for the current job process and as consistent with the practice of the Bank;

Exhibit Three:

April 9, 2007 – Memo from Shaha Riza to Chairman of the Ethics Committee

“I have now been victimized for agreeing to an arrangement that I have objected to and that I did not believe from the outset was in my best interest. My effort to accommodate the Board’s Ethics Committee and avoid creating distractions for Staff, Board and Management from their noble mission while protecting my interest, has only resulted in the most vicious public attacks on me.

“I would like to reiterate that I did not wish to leave the Bank and I did not, and do not expect any special considerations. My commitment to the mission of the Bank is unshakeable and I still believe that my career and professional future is inextricably linked to this great institution and I hope, and would very much like, to return to the pursuit of my career from within it as soon as possible.”

So in short, Paul Wolfowitz, a Jew, committed the crime of having a sexual liason with Shaha Riza, a Muslim.

For this "crime", which he openly disclosed to the board of directors of the World Bank at the time he joined that institution, he and his lover are now being lynched in the press. How, exactly, was Mr. Wolfowitz supposed to behave?

He disclosed the relationship.

Ms. Riza, an exceptionally well-qualified female employee, was forced to withdraw her name from a shortlist of candidates for a better paid position within the Bank. On the recommendation of the Ethics Committee she was transferred outside the World Bank; a move she did not want to make as she would have preferred to remain right where she was. The sole reason for moving Ms. Riza was to avoid conflict of interest and place her in "a position beyond (potential) supervising influence by the President".

So for the crime of having a private, consensual sexual relationship, two unmarried people who never lied about their affair and bent over backwards to comply with World Bank regulations and the recommendations of the Ethics committee are being crucified in the press. So much for the cries of the uber-progressive community that sex is a private matter! They rushed to defend Bill Clinton against what they deemed "vicious partisan attacks" when he cheated on his wife, lied while under oath, and impeded an investigation into violations of sexual harrassment laws women fought for decades to see enacted.

Will they now defend Paul Wolfowitz, a unmarried man who behaved with honor; cheated on no one, promptly disclosed his relationship to the Ethics Committee, recused himself as required by World Bank regulations, and as a result has been vilified in the press for following the written recommendations of the World Bank Ethics Committee, which, if we are to believe his detractors, are profoundly unethical?

Dick Meyer has it right. Our public bloodlust must be sated, and Paul Wolfowitz makes the perfect victim:

It isn't hard to understand why there are so many character lynchings. There are a lot of rats and phonies in this world. Is the national supply of famous creeps higher than at other points in our history? Absolutely, simply because the supply of media is so vastly greater. More media, more bandwidth to create celebrities and then stalk them.

And with the Internet and ubiquitous television, geographic proximity is no longer necessary for a mob mentality to arise. We have virtual mobs. For briefing, shiny sick moments all eyes are focused on Imus — or Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson, Jack Abramoff or Ken Lay.

Our media and our culture have become expert at creating celebrities and other phonies.

We can turn a contestant on a game show into a household name in a week. And like some cheesy Hollywood threat: "We made you, and we can break you."

So many of the celebrities in politics, sports and entertainment are undeserving, greedy, hubristic, ostentatious, coarse, egotistical or vulgar. Of course we love it when they crash and burn. We wouldn't be human if we didn't. Some of them deserve everything they get.

And spotting these parasitic unworthies, calling them out, cheering on their demises seems like the only tool we have to fight societal fakery and fraud. How else can we fight back this amorphous enemy but to collect scalps? We wait vigilantly for their flameouts to lighten the loads of our lives with a little innocent gloating.

I do this in my column all the time. An aspect of this process is, of course, necessary to check the people who have power and abuse it. The game is different for people who hungrily seek fame, fortune and power; they're in the game by choice, they know the stakes and the risks and they want to play. That doesn't mean we should be quite so happy when they fall.

The problem is that we are devouring ourselves. We can create celebrities, but not leaders. We generate fame, but not honor.

Perhaps the most we can do, you and I, is try not to let this unforgiving quality of public life seep into our private lives.

No, Mr. Meyer. We can do more. And you, especially, must do more. It is your job to find out, and report, the truth. To do anything less is professional malpractice. And you ought to be ashamed.

We all should.

Posted by Cassandra at April 25, 2007 12:01 PM | PROCURE FINE OLD WORLD ABSINTHE