The Wolfowitz Touch – or How to Lose US Credibility

One of the maxims that you learn in Politics 101 is that exerting leadership doesn’t require the use of coercion and force, and that in fact the most successful politicians and statesmen are those who can defend and advance their goals through guidance and persuasion. When heads of state resort to ordering the police to quell demonstrators opposed to their decisions or to dispatching the military to press another state that challenges their policies, they acknowledge that they have failed in utilizing their power in the most cost-effective way.

Indeed, whether it’s in the domestic arena or on the global stage, leaders have an interest in keeping their tools of coercion – ranging from threats and sanctions to the actual use of force – as instruments of last resort when all else, including negotiations and diplomacy, has failed. That when he talks – as opposed to when he bullies – they listen, is the true testimony to one’s influence at home or abroad. Hence, being a global power doesn’t mean that you have to bomb other governments into submission to get your point across; it suggests that being aware of your status and recognizing your credibility, when other governments make decisions, they have to take into consideration the way they affect your interests.

Paul Wolfowitz has a Ph.D. in political science from a prestigious American academic institution and he fancies himself a great strategic thinker. But the former deputy to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and currently embattled head of the World Bank must have skipped the classes when these basic political principles were being taught.

If anything, during his tenure at the Department of Defense, where he served as a leading architect of the war in Iraq, and in the short period when he led one of the world’s most important development agencies, Mr. Wolfowitz demonstrated that from his perspective, guidance and persuasion should be the instruments of last resort when you try to advance your interests. First, use coercion and force as you attempt to bully your opponent into submission, and if it’s a foreign government, bomb it into the Stone Age. And if that doesn’t work, well, then you might want to talk and try to use the tools of negotiations and diplomacy to achieve your goals.

Compare this "shoot first, talk later" modus operandi that Mr. Wolfowitz and his neoconservative colleagues used as they tried to promote their preemptive and unilateral strategy in the Middle East and elsewhere, with the policies that were embraced by Washington during the two terms of former President Bill Clinton.

The 1990s, as you recall, were the years when America, the world’s only remaining superpower, reigned supreme, its international credibility at an all-time high, and its sources of soft and hard power, ranging from Silicon Valley and Microsoft through Hollywood and Wall Street to the World Bank and the Pentagon, making it possible to project its influence here, there and everywhere.

In a way, by applying US military power in a very selective way – through air power in the former Yugoslavia, for example – the Clintonites helped to maintain it as deterrence against potential threats.

But when President George W. Bush, operating under the influence of Mr. Wolfowitz and other neoconservative aides, decided to use US military might to its utmost, the limits operating on that power were suddenly exposed, eroding US credibility and diminishing its ability to deter foes while encouraging them to go nuclear. At the end of the day, it proved to be a policy that wasted precious US power.

Mr. Wolfowitz, who as a reward for his failure in the Pentagon, landed up in the prestigious job of the president of the World Bank, embraced the same kind of bullying strategy there. He had brought with him Republican operators with no experience in international development, extracted huge financial packages for them, for his mistress, and for himself, while at the same time he tried to force on the bank his "anti-corruption" policy with the same kind of elegance that he exhibited when he set out to impose "democracy" on Iraq and the broader Middle East.

The Wolfowitz Touch – reflecting unilateralism, arrogance and disdain for allies and rules of public conduct – in the World Bank has had the same disastrous impact on US global status that resulted from his policies in Iraq.

It helped highlight a reality that Washington has tried to hide under the rug for years: Assigning the job of the president of the World Bank to an American is not an element in a predetermined cosmic plan but part of a diplomatic deal with the Europeans. And by naming the incompetent Mr. Wolfowitz to that position, the White House contributed not only to the growing perception that perhaps the Americans don’t deserve to hold that job anymore, but also to the continuing erosion in US global credibility. It is one more example of how not to use your power, unless you want to lose it.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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