A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Perhaps Paul Wolfowitz deserved to get pushed out of the World Bank for helping his girlfriend get a new job and a hefty pay raise. At the same time, though, his critics should at least have the decency to admit that the latest scandal disproves the popular (and unfair) claim that Wolfowitz’s main goal in pushing for war in Iraq was to advance the cause of Greater Israel.

How many Likudniks do you know with a “companion” named Shaha Ali Riza?

Whatever you want to say about Wolfowitz, the son of an Eastern European immigrant who lost family in the Holocaust, there appears to be nothing cynical or phony about his belief that American military power and diplomatic action could let loose a wave of democratic reforms in the Islamic world that would improve the lives of the Muslim masses.

And it’s not just the Muslim girlfriend.

In April 2002, at the height of the second intifada, with Israel under sustained attack, Wolfowitz stood in front of a right-leaning pro-Israel rally in Washington, and was booed for declaring that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying, as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact.” In an October 2003 speech, he warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was hurting America’s standing in the Middle East and could be resolved only through “political means”; he spoke well of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders, and praised Israeli and Arab leaders who have made land-for-peace deals, including Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan.

It’s hard to imagine Doug Feith or Richard Perle talking like that. In fact, if you’re going to compare Wolfowitz to anyone in the Jewish-Israeli constellation, then the best choice might be Yossi Beilin. Each is reviled — Wolfowitz by opponents of the Iraq War, Beilin by opponents of the Oslo peace process — as a naive idealist whose blueprint for a new Middle East was based on the dangerous fantasy that moderate Muslims commanded enough power to usher in an era of coexistence with the West.

Wolfowitz’s faith in the potential of progressive forces to uplift the Muslim masses dates back at least to his stint in the late 1980s as America’s ambassador to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. “If greater openness is a key to economic success,” Wolfowitz said in his 1989 farewell speech as ambassador, “I believe there is increasingly a need for openness in the political sphere, as well.” Some observers have argued that the speech buoyed the reform movement that eventually brought down President Suharto — and it’s not hard to connect the dots between Wolfowitz’s conclusions about Indonesia and the view that Muslims deserve better than the usual choice in the Middle East between monarchs and strongmen.

Finally, his decision to go to the World Bank suggested a universalist urge to fight poverty across the globe, rather than a dedication to advancing the pro-Israel lobby’s talking points.

Of course, Wolfowitz’s motivation to do the right thing only underscores his tragic failures as an architect of the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq. As Fred Kaplan recently argued in the online journal Slate, Wolfowitz’s main flaw at the Pentagon was that “his inflexible, largely theoretical style of thinking impeded him from detecting when he was wrong or how to make things right.”

“Wolfowitz’s chief failure,” Kaplan wrote, “was a failure of imagination — or at least a failure to step outside his preconceptions (and outside his clique, which shared them) to see if they aligned with reality.”

So, yes, if you must kick Wolfowitz when he’s down, call him arrogant, naive, incompetent — just not Jerusalem’s lackey.

— Ami Eden

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