Wolfowitz World Bank Scandal a Non-Scandal?
Christopher Hitchens believes that Paul Wolfowitz and, by extension, Shaha Riza, have been “slimed” as a result of the “eagerness for prurience, the readiness for slander, and the utter want of fact-checking” of the press corps. Indeed, not only did they do nothing wrong but they acted extraordinarily honorably.
Anyone in Washington who cares about democracy in the Muslim world is familiar with her work, at various institutions, in supporting civil-society activists in the Palestinian territories, in Iran, in the Gulf, and elsewhere. The relationship between the two of them is none of my damn business (or yours), but it has always been very discreet, even at times when Wolfowitz, regularly caricatured as a slave of the Israeli lobby, might perhaps have benefited from a strategic leak about his Arab and Muslim companion.
Despite Riza’s not being a direct report, Wolfowitz recognized the appearance of a conflict and notified the World Bank’s board of directors about the problem and offered to recuse himself from all matters regarding his girlfriend.
Instead of settling the matter, this disclosure and plain offer on Wolfowitz’s part has become the source of all his woes. It was decided by the board of the bank and the “ethics committee” that the board established, that for no reason except a private relationship, Riza had to leave her work at the bank. Feminists and opponents of the glass ceiling should begin paying attention here.
Perhaps uneasily aware that their decision involved an injustice to someone who was highly esteemed and shortlisted for promotion (and whose job was located a long way away from any decision-making by the bank’s president), the ethics committee suggested that an upgrade at Riza’s new job might be in order, perhaps also “as part of settlement of claims,” to be accompanied by “an ad hoc salary increase.” On July 27, the committee’s chairman, Dutch politician Ad Melkert, sent a memo to Wolfowitz assuring him that “the potential disruption of the staff member’s career prospect will be recognized by an in situ promotion on the basis of her qualifying record.”
What could be easier to understand? A highly qualified individual, compelled to leave her job for reasons entirely unconnected to her performance—and forced also to undergo bureaucratic scrutiny of her private life —is at least to be recognized with pay and promotion.
This certainly seems reasonable enough but one could see how Riza’s peers might have seen it as favoritism, especially if they didn’t understand that Wolfowitz had nothing to do with the promotion. Further, it has been reported that the deal also included a guarantee that she automatically receive the highest performance ratings, which is also problematic. (Although, in fairness, virtually everyone receives “superior” ratings, especially at that level.)
Presuming that his accounting of events is correct, Hitchens is quite right that Wolfowitz “did nothing wrong.” Still, given the cloud that was over his head from the beginning owing to his leading role in promoting the Iraq War, it would have been far more prudent for his girlfriend to take a leave of absence and go to work in the private sector.
That’s an unfair burden to place on people whose conduct is honorable but is the unfortunate nature of politics these days. In theory, World Bank presidents and other high officials could simply be presumed to be honorable people whose integrity is above reproach. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the climate we live in.