May 3, 2007
Wolfowitz?s Big Mistake
By DAVID BROOKS
Let me offer some advice.
Let?s say you?re a Republican appointed to an important job in Washington.
You?ll probably find that 90 percent of the people who work in your agency are Democrats, as are 90 percent of the media types who cover you and 90 percent of the academics who comment on your work.
But here?s the thing to remember: There are Democrats, and then there are Democrats. A quarter of the Democrats you?ll work with are partisans. They believe the rantings of the agitprop pundits, and they?ll never be open-minded toward you. But the other three-quarters are honorable, intelligent people. If you treat these people with respect, and find places where you can work together, they will teach you things and make you more effective. If you treat them the way you treat the partisans, they?ll turn into partisans and destroy you.
The choice seems pretty obvious, yet Republican after Republican mucks this up.
Which brings us to the case of Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank.
Wolfowitz came to the bank with the heavy baggage of Iraq. Nonetheless, most of the (left-leaning) employees were open to him, and even saw ways his background could help him solve the bank?s problems. Furthermore, you have to remember that the bank is staffed by people who are criticized from all directions and are desperate for approval and support.
Wolfowitz had an opportunity to be their champion, but he forfeited that opportunity by being aloof. As David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman of The Times have detailed, he entered a treacherous swirl of political, institutional and personal currents and navigated them poorly. Having failed to woo the open-minded people at the bank, it was inevitable they?d be out to get him.
Wolfowitz now argues that the scandal involving his girlfriend?s pay raise is ?plainly bogus.? He tried to recuse himself from her case but was forbidden by the ethics committee. Moreover, last year the committee looked into the general arrangements he?d made for her and concluded ?after careful review? that the allegations ?do not appear to pose ethical issues appropriate for further consideration by the Committee.?
Wolfowitz has a point. The conflict of interest charge is out of proportion to the hubbub. But scandals are like that ? they are never about what they purport to be about. The Clarence Thomas scandal wasn?t about a hair on a soda can. The Larry Summers scandal wasn?t about comments at a conference. Most scandals are pretexts for members of an establishment to destroy people they don?t like.
In most scandals, people adjust their standards of rectitude, depending on whether they support or oppose the person at issue. The subject?s enemies whip themselves into a fever of theatrical outrage, and the subject?s defenders summon up fits of indignation at the lies of the accusers. Scandals are playgrounds for partisans, and everybody else gets to play the role of the junior high school bully, ganging up on whoever seems weakest and most alone.
The Wolfowitz scandal is no exception. People who never called for Kofi Annan to resign amid the $12.8 billion oil-for-food scandal are calling for Wolfowitz?s head over a $60,000 raise. Employees at an institution that, according to one report, wasted $300 million last year, and where roughly 1,000 people make $175,000 to $200,000 a year, are suddenly outraged at lavish spending.
Editorials and statements by critics around the world are carefully crafted to avoid mentioning any of the exculpatory evidence on Wolfowitz?s side.
There has indeed been an explosion of Machiavellian posturing. But the core reality is the context Wolfowitz allowed to develop. He let potential allies turn into enemies.
The fact is, you go into politics with the establishment you have, not the establishment you wish you had. For Republicans, this is an establishment that is initially suspicious, but is filled with human beings who can be worked with.
They need to feel respected. They need to be consulted on things they know a lot about. If they feel disrespected, they?ll cut you no slack, and a small misstep could be career-ending. They will make it impossible for you to do your job.
This has happened to dozens of Republicans (and unpopular Democrats), and it is happening to Wolfowitz. And the only question is when will these appointees start learning the simple rules of effective democratic leadership?
I continue to ask: how does this guy get a column in NYT? It's not that he's a conservative. It?s that his arguments are consistently shallow.
- first of all, I'd love to know how Brooks is such an authority
when it comes to the hearts and minds of World Bank employees, many of
whom might care more about their homeland's political arena more than
Washington D.C.'s. I don't know if that's true but I doubt Brooks did a
lot of extensive investigation and interviewing before writing this
- I can't comment on the exculpatory evidence Brooks cites. If
accurate, I agree that the headlines could have captured a fairer picture
of the situation by including this information.
- However, as Dad has pointed out what really set off World Bank
employees is Wolfowitz's handling of the matter, claiming he had no
involvement in the appointment. I see no difference between castigating
Wolfowitz for this and wanting to impeach Bill Clinton for lying under
oath during a bogus, politically driven investigation by Ken Starr.
Brooks is careful to cite Clarence Thomas and Larry Summers instead as
people who were tripped up for the wrong reason. The Clinton omission is
glaring, in my opinion, given the point he is trying to make.
- About Clarence Thomas: he benefited from the Anita Hill
scandal. Once Hill's allegations turned out to be less than damning, he
was appointed. If the Committee had simply stuck to the intended process
they would have concluded that Thomas was unqualified to serve on the
Court. But his lack of qualifications never came to the foreground.
- I don't have enough knowledge of the Kofi Annan scandal to
opine whether the comparison is fair. However, citing how much World Bank
employees make, throwing around a "waste" dollar figure and accusing the
people who want Wolfowitz out of hypocrisy - again, Brooks is burying his
head in the sand. It's the way Wolfowitz lied about what went on with the
appointment and his unapologetic, confrontational attitude in the
aftermath. I just can't believe that Brooks, with a straight face, can a)
equate World Bank employees with Democrats and b) suggest that Democrats
are the ones who are keen on using pretexts to depose authority figures.
- I can't argue with Brooks's point that leaders who treat their corps with
disdain often suffer the consequences for their arrogance. But that message is contaminated by Brooks's partisanship.
David Brooks is pathetic and his article shows how little he knows about the World Bank. He mixes half-baked truths with preconceived ideas and some sort of cockamamy ideology. It's not even worth committing on his piece.
At one point, not too long ago, Wolfensohn (not Wolfowitz) hired Nicholas Stern, a world-class, widely respected British economist, to be the Bank's Chief Economist. A great catch! However, his brother Richard Stern was VP of Human Resources at that time, and according to Bank rules, two close relatives may not serve in areas where their work might bring them into contact with each other.
In this case, they would both report to the President as senior executives.
There were immediate protests from the staff, because this long-standing rule had made life difficult for some of the staff whose spouses also worked for the Bank and were in line for promotions but unable to make the necessary moves.
Wolfensohn never made an apology or tried to explain his decision to anybody.
Within a month, Richard Stern announced that he had accepted another position and was leaving the Bank. End of story - end of conflicts of interest - end of protests.
This is the difference between an accomplished leader (who was not universally liked and had many personality flaws) and a wimp and loser who is left with no dignity or respect.
I hope this nightmare ends next week. Otherwise, the damage to the Bank's reputation will become devastating.