Mr. Magoo goes to the World Bank

The problem with Paul Wolfowitz isn't that he's an evil genius. It's that he has been consistently, astonishingly, unswervingly wrong about foreign policy for 30 years.

Published March 17, 2005 9:02PM (EST)

The nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to be president of the World Bank, following his commission of a long and costly series of blunders as deputy secretary of defense in George W. Bush's first term, comes as no surprise to those familiar with his career. Wolfowitz is the Mr. Magoo of American foreign policy. Like the myopic cartoon character, Wolfowitz stumbles onward blindly and serenely, leaving wreckage and confusion behind.

Critics are wrong to portray Wolfowitz as a malevolent genius. In fact, he's friendly, soft-spoken, well meaning and thoughtful. He would be the model of a scholar and a statesman but for one fact: He is completely inept. His three-decade career in U.S. foreign policy can be summed up by the term that President Bush coined to describe the war in Iraq that Wolfowitz promoted and helped to oversee: a "catastrophic success."

Even the greatest statesman makes some mistakes. But Wolfowitz is perfectly incompetent. He is the Mozart of ineptitude, the Einstein of incapacity. To be sure, he has his virtues, the foremost of which is consistency. He has been consistently wrong about foreign policy for 30 years.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as a member of the Committee on the Present Danger and "Team B," Wolfowitz and his allies, such as Richard Perle, argued that the decrepit Soviet Union was vastly more powerful than the CIA claimed it was. After the Soviet Union dissolved, it turned out that the CIA had exaggerated Soviet strength.

More than anyone else, Wolfowitz is associated with the neoconservative fantasy of a planetary Pax Americana. This strategy, originally called "reassurance," first surfaced in leaked Pentagon planning documents in 1992, in which Wolfowitz, working for then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, had a hand. The rest of the world reacted with outrage to the implication that Europe and Asia should remain permanent American protectorates. Embarrassed, the first president Bush and Secretary of State James Baker hastily disavowed this strategy.

Unfortunately, no bad idea ever dies. Wolfowitz spent the Clinton years, while he was the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Strategic Studies, at the center of a network of neoconservative policy intellectuals, political appointees and mouthpieces like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer devoted to maintaining U.S. hegemony in a "unipolar world." The influence of Wolfowitz and his fellow neoconservatives is clear in President Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy, which calls for the United States to dissuade "potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in the hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Note the language. Not "surpassing, or equaling, the power" of a coalition of states, like the alliances in which America took part in the world wars and the Cold War. No, the United States had to adopt as its motto the explanation of the single Texas Ranger dispatched to quell a mob: "One riot, one Ranger."

Inadvertently proving that talent always skips a generation, Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies persuaded Bush to pursue two policies his wiser father had rejected as imprudent: a bid for unilateral world domination and going all the way to Baghdad. By adopting the unilateral hegemony strategy that Wolfowitz favored, the younger Bush alienated most of America's traditional allies and gave credibility to anti-Americans everywhere. By going to Baghdad, as Wolfowitz wanted, the younger Bush exposed the limits of U.S. military power to America's enemies and the world as a whole. That not inconsiderable asset, the mystique of American power, is a casualty of the Iraq war.

At least Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies have been consistent. Since the Cold War ended, they have exaggerated American power in the same way that they exaggerated Soviet power during the Cold War. As if to prove the old adage that people come to resemble their enemies, these former cold warriors treat the United States as a twin of the Soviet Union -- a military empire contemptuous of international law, with satellites instead of allies, justifying wars in its spheres of influence by appeals to ideology ("democracy" rather than "socialism"). In the form of the concentration camps for detainees in Cuba, Iraq and elsewhere run by Donald Rumsfeld's and Wolfowitz's Pentagon, the neoconservatives even provided the United States with a gulag of its own.

Wrong about geopolitics in general, Wolfowitz has been wrong about Iraq in particular. Unembarrassed by their ridiculous overestimation of Soviet strength, Wolfowitz and other veterans of the Committee for the Present Danger in the late 1990s took part in the Project for the New American Century. They proceeded to exaggerate the alleged threat to the U.S. from the bankrupt statelet left in Saddam Hussein's hands after the Gulf War even more shamelessly than they had hyped the Soviet menace. Focusing on Saddam and regional threats to Israel, Wolfowitz and the other strategic geniuses of the PNAC circle never mentioned Osama bin Laden.

With myopia worthy of Mr. Magoo, Wolfowitz focused on Saddam, not bin Laden, as the major terrorist threat to the United States. According to Laurie Mylroie, the crackpot conspiracy theorist at the American Enterprise Insititute who continues to insist on a Saddam-bin Laden connection, Wolfowitz "provided crucial support" for her book "Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America," published in 2000. The following year, shortly after 9/11, according to Bob Woodward, Wolfowitz told a Cabinet meeting that there was a 10 to 50 percent chance that Saddam was involved. According to former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, describing another occasion, "I could not believe it, but Wolfowitz was spouting the Laurie Mylroie theory that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck bomb at the World Trade Center, a theory that had been ... found to be totally untrue." As late as October 2002, Wolfowitz spoke of the Saddam regime's "training of al Qaeda members in bomb-making, poisons and deadly gasses." This had no basis in reality.

Weapons of mass destruction? Wolfowitz claimed: "Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for missions targeting the United States." Was Kansas in danger of being nuked by robot drones from Baghdad? Since the war ended, the Bush administration reluctantly has admitted that prewar skeptics were correct to argue that neither the weapons of mass destruction nor the robot planes capable of "targeting the United States" ever existed.

It is unclear whether Wolfowitz actually believed what he said in public on this subject. As he told Sam Tanenhaus in a now-famous Vanity Fair interview, "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy itself, we settled on the one issue that everyone would agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but -- Hold on for one second." (At this point in the official Pentagon transcript a handler intervenes, evidently afraid that Wolfowitz has spilled one bean too many.)

In military matters, this deputy secretary of defense displayed a level of ignorance without precedent in the history of civilian appointees to the Pentagon. (Even Robert McNamara's much-maligned "whiz kids" got some things right.) During the Clinton years Wolfowitz peddled the fantasy that American-supported rebels in Iraq could set up a base camp in one region and proceed to depose Saddam with minimal U.S. involvement. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco in mind, Gen. Anthony Zinni described this as the "Bay of Goats" strategy. When Gen. Eric Shinseki predicted that Iraq could not be pacified without hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, Wolfowitz told Congress that Shinseki was "wildly off the mark."

"To assume we're going to have to pay for it all is just wrong," Wolfowitz declared, alluding to Iraqi oil revenues that could defray the costs of occupation and reconstruction. It is now clear that the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States will spend in Iraq will come from the pockets of American taxpayers.

No summary of Wolfowitz's catastrophically successful career would be complete without acknowledgment that he was one of the major American sponsors of the disgraced Ahmed Chalabi, whom Paul Bremer's administration in Baghdad accused of involvement in Iranian espionage. Last but not least, following Wolfowitz's diplomatic mission to Turkey to obtain support for the forthcoming U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turkey decided to have nothing to do with the war.

Diplomat, military tactician, grand strategist -- as I said, Paul Wolfowitz is perfectly incompetent.

We live in a country in which privates are punished for the crimes of generals, so it is only natural that Wolfowitz should be rewarded for the blunders, errors and miscalculations that have cost the American and Iraqi people so much by promotion to the World Bank. That's the way it is with Mr. Magoo. Whenever he steps blindly out of a building he has accidentally set on fire, a truck is always conveniently passing by.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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George W. Bush Iraq War Neoconservatism Osama Bin Laden Pentagon