Head scratcher

Bush cites Wolfowitz's Pentagon experience in choosing him to head the World Bank. Considering his atrocious track record at Defense, the Bank should get ready for an epidemic of waste, fraud and corruption.

Published March 18, 2005 11:02PM (EST)

Taken at face value, the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to run the World Bank is mystifying. The sudden elevation of the controversial deputy secretary of defense has elicited both cynical speculation and naive rumination. Is President Bush using the world's most important antipoverty position as a patronage plum, to reward a loyal servant in the typical manner of the Bush dynasty? Is Bush emphasizing his contempt for critics here and abroad, as the dismayed Europeans suspect? Or is he seeking, as a New York Times analysis suggested, to change the direction of global development financing with "stern discipline"?

As a disciplinarian, Wolfowitz has certainly left a strong impression on the Iraqis, whose lives and infrastructure have been sacrificed to his determination to oust Saddam Hussein by military force. And the former diplomat clearly knows how to enforce his will in bureaucratic disputes, as he demonstrated during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq.

In announcing the appointment, Bush himself insisted that Wolfowitz is the best choice to take over the World Bank because he's a "man of compassion" who "believes deeply" in uplifting the world's poor. Yet there is precious little evidence to support that assertion (and plenty to contradict it).

As for Wolfowitz's actual qualifications, which many experts have questioned, the president cited his appointee's recent experience at the Department of Defense, "managing the largest U.S. government agency with over 1.3 million uniformed personnel and nearly 700,000 civilian employees around the world."

Evidently none of Bush's White House briefers has ever mentioned just how badly Wolfowitz and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, have managed that big old agency. The president also seems to have forgotten how Rummy and Wolfie decided to ignore the State Department's planning for post-invasion Iraq; how they brushed aside the Army's warnings about the need for many more troops to secure the country; how they permitted or even encouraged the ongoing scandal of detainee torture; and how they lost track of the most important weapons sites, which were the supposed reason to go to war, and allowed them to be looted.

The indisputable fact is that the Pentagon's civilian leaders, an arrogant clique of ideologues, provided no viable plan for securing and rebuilding Iraq after the invasion. Against the advice of wiser and more knowledgeable officials, Wolfowitz insisted that his own vision would be realized. Surely our soldiers would be greeted as liberators, our favorite exiles would assume power in Baghdad, and our expenses would be paid by oil revenues. The deputy defense secretary couldn't imagine any other scenario and dismissed anyone who did.

Since that inauspicious beginning, Wolfowitz's management capacity has not improved much.

For a would-be banker, he has allowed rather huge sums of money to be squandered both at home and in Iraq. During Wolfowitz's tenure, auditors from the Government Accountability Office have repeatedly found the Defense Department lagging behind other major agencies in management and fiscal responsibility. Last year, the GAO complained of its inability to issue a clean audit of the entire federal budget because of "serious financial management problems" at the Department of Defense.

Two months ago the GAO again singled out the Pentagon for harsh criticism, reporting that it operates eight of the 25 worst-run government programs. Comptroller General David Walker said that the cost is reckoned "in billions of dollars in waste each year and inadequate accountability to the Congress and the American taxpayer." The failures, which have persisted for many years, relate to financial and contract management, the operation of military infrastructure, and the modernization of Pentagon information technology -- which, in short, are a total mess.

Pentagon traditions of boodling and bungling have been replicated in Iraq, where they have intensified the misery of the country's inhabitants and encouraged the murderous insurgency. According to an audit by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction that was released in late January, the Coalition Provisional Authority lost track of nearly $9 billion in spending over the past two years. (Of course, the official directly responsible for this fiasco, former CPA chief L. Paul Bremer, is now wearing the Medal of Freedom that the president pinned on him last fall.) And thanks to the incompetence and carelessness of Iraq's U.S. overseers, far more is likely to be lost as a result of waste, fraud and corruption.

A newly released report from Transparency International, the Berlin-based organization that monitors corrupt practices around the world, warns that Iraqi contracting may soon become "the biggest corruption scandal in history." The group blames the United States for providing "a poor role model" in contracting and auditing. (They've likely heard about Halliburton.)

Waste, fraud and corruption, those perennial government buzzwords, are indeed the most pressing problems for the World Bank as it seeks to reform development aid. So it is difficult to understand why the president -- or any truly compassionate conservative -- would entrust those enormous concerns to someone with Wolfowitz's grim and blemished record.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Donald Rumsfeld Iraq War Pentagon