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Ambush at the World Bank

Staffers were out to get Wolfowitz the moment he walked through the door.

April 22, 2007|David Rieff | DAVID RIEFF is the author of "At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention" and "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

There is an old psychoanalytic joke that goes: "When the right person does the wrong thing, it's right; when the wrong person does the right thing, it's wrong." In a sense, for all his tone-deafness and arrogant disregard for the sensitivities of the bank's permanent staff, Wolfowitz exemplifies the truth of the saying. The fact is that both his focus on Africa and his determination to put anti-corruption campaigning at the center of the bank's efforts are eminently defensible priorities.

The problem with getting on your high horse about corruption in the developing world, however, is that you have to be irreproachable yourself. Headquartered in Washington and staffed by people who receive very high salaries (far more than in the U.S. government, for example, and often tax-free to boot), the World Bank has always had to fight the perception that its officials are the kind of people who write stiff notes to poor countries about fiscal discipline before going off to expensive lunches in Georgetown.

By appearing to maneuver a pay raise for his companion, Wolfowitz has done more to confirm that perception than anyone in the history of the bank. As such, he has done great damage to the institution -- damage from which it is unlikely to recover until he is out of office.

The tragedy for Wolfowitz, of course, is that many people at the bank were already gunning for him. But they cannot have expected him to hand them the loaded revolver with which to do the deed.

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