Putting the Worst Face on Things

conason Putting the Worst Face on ThingsWhile international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations may still seem remote to most Americans, those institutions symbolize the increasing integration of a planet that deeply needs capable, trusted and farsighted guidance. Not so long ago, the United States was known as the “indispensable nation,” the one that could be relied upon to lead in times of crisis. That forfeited reputation is not only the world’s loss, but ours as well.

Cronyism, neglect, corruption, rigidity and plain stupidity—perpetrated by figures who had billed themselves (and were billed by the mainstream media) as the geniuses of our time—have exacted an awesome toll on the inheritance we received from previous generations. Our heritage of world leadership in the last century was built not upon military power alone, but arose from economic, diplomatic and moral foundations that somehow survived despite many earlier mistakes and even crimes.

With the advent of the Bush administration, however, our luck has obviously run out. Neither allies nor adversaries pretend to believe that the ludicrous characters sent forth by the President to represent us are statesmen. Not only does nobody much care what we think, but most people are now inclined to distrust and oppose us on principle.

The latest example of American decline is, of course, the embarrassing little scandal that has besmirched World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz. Always an overrated bureaucrat, he seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time and effort in recent years fashioning literal sweetheart deals for his paramour—a Tunisian-born Saudi named Shaha Riza—at the bank, the State Department and the Pentagon.

Even while Mr. Wolfowitz was serving as Deputy Defense Secretary, he allegedly pressured a major defense contractor to hire Ms. Riza. For a month, she worked in Iraq on “democracy promotion”—a traditional American objective thoroughly discredited because of Mr. Wolfowitz and his fellow neoconservatives.

Considering Mr. Wolfowitz’s monumental failure at the Pentagon, where he overruled wiser and more experienced staff in preparing for the invasion of Iraq, his own promotion to the World Bank presidency was mystifying. His vaunted brilliance notwithstanding, he may well be the single most incompetent public servant of the past quarter-century, with the only significant competition coming from his former boss, Donald Rumsfeld. Together, they ensured that the occupation of Iraq had too few troops and too little planning, while allowing Republican cronies and crooks to siphon away billions of taxpayer dollars.

It was all going to pay for itself with Iraqi oil revenues, or so Mr. Wolfowitz had testified in Congress with his usual confidence. By the time that particular bill came due, he had moved on.

When Mr. Wolfowitz showed up at the World Bank, he touted another worthy agenda. Like John Bolton, his fellow ideologue appointed to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, he said that he intended to promote reform and fight corruption. But in both cases, those high-minded purposes were thwarted by personal inadequacies—while zealous certainty in their own moral purposes blinded them to those shortcomings.

In Mr. Wolfowitz’s case, that characteristic arrogance enabled him to inveigh against corruption and scourge bank employees while he simultaneously arranged an extraordinary sinecure for Ms. Riza. She was seconded to the State Department, with an enormous tax-free salary exceeding the compensation of the Secretary of State, where she worked under the supervision of Elizabeth Cheney (whose rank as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs was owed wholly to her father, the Vice President).

Under the deal set up by her boyfriend, Ms. Riza would automatically receive “outstanding” ratings, with a top position waiting for her on her return to the World Bank as soon as Mr. Wolfowitz’s term expires. Neoconservatives apparently believe fervently in merit and competition and hate affirmative action, unless their own careers (or the careers of their lovers) are at stake.

All this familial boodling proceeded happily while Vice President Dick Cheney whispered lies about the supposed “nepotism” behind former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s unpaid mission to Niger. The White House didn’t appreciate Mr. Wilson’s exposure of the truth behind the administration’s “mushroom cloud” fear-mongering about the perils of Saddam Hussein, so they exposed his wife’s C.I.A. identity to smear him. Hypocrisy is too inadequate a term to describe these people.

With its endless procession of tawdry scandals and buffoonish antics, the Bush administration often looks and sounds like a sitcom. In retrospect, as America and the world confront terror, disease, poverty and environmental peril, it will be recognized as a tragedy.