Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolfowitz

He Bungled Iraq, the Pentagon, and East Timor. Look Out, World Bank—Here He Comes

Before I have my own vision, I need to do a lot of listening. Wolfowitz to the Financial Times, March 17

Some at the Pentagon who read this line think it possible Wolfowitz is actually learning from his mistakes. And that is possible—but not likely. "If this guy ignored some of the best advice from the most informed and experienced experts and scholars in and out of the military, what makes anyone think he's going to do anything differently at the World Bank?" asked one senior military officer whose experiences with Wolfowitz have not made him a fan of the departing deputy secretary.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.
photo: Courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Defense
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Having dismissed with impunity everything from the troop requirement estimates for Iraq of then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, to realistic cost estimates for the Iraq venture, to the prescient observations of various war colleges' scholars; having blamed reporters in the line of fire for post-war problems in Iraq; having asserted as of summer 2004 that the situation in Iraq is "not an insurgency" when troops on the ground had been properly calling it such for a year . . . well, you get the idea.

"It wouldn't surprise me," said the officer, "if he sets up his own little Office of Special Plans over there at the Bank."

He said he had learned some lessons from missteps made in Indonesia, when the bank was financing huge projects in a country that at the time was run by a dictator, Suharto . . . The bank, he said, "did some wonderful work in Indonesia, but 'it didn't do enough to empower those advocating' " better development strategies against the government . . . "[an associate] expected Mr. Wolfowitz would continue the anticorruption efforts of the departing president, James D. Wolfensohn, and demand fresh accountability from governments that receive aid. "Corruption was high on Wolfensohn's agenda, and Wolfowitz has been very, very impressed by that," the associate said. "One of his first passions was development, and when he was ambassador to Indonesia in the Reagan years, he was out there with the chicken farmers, and he's kind of made for this job in some ways." The New York Times, March 17

Though doubtless some would like to think of Wolfowitz as a populist diplomat out sprinkling feed in solidarity with the poultry yeomen of Sumatra—as well as being a once and future champion of anti-corruption and fiscal accountability—his activities in the mid-to-late '90s in support of klepto-cratic Indonesia at least temper that image a touch. Indeed, though Wolfowitz was chomping at the bit to effect the speedy regime change of Saddam Hussein—a dictator with a penchant for corruption and human rights violations on a mass scale—when it came to Indonesia, Wolfowitz was quite happy to encourage a go-slow-and-gentle approach to dealing with Suharto.

In 1994, the constellation of American corporate interests that had long been doing business with Indonesia formed the U.S.-Indonesia Society. According to a 1996 Journal of Commerce article, while the group did no actual lobbying, its funding came from "major U.S. oil, mining, financial services and pharmaceutical companies with strong economic or political connections to Indonesia." The Society's constituent companies, the paper reported, "share a deep interest in maintaining smooth ties with the Suharto government in Jakarta."

To this end, the Society cast itself as the distributor of "authoritative and nonpartisan" information on Indonesia, doing everything from offering U.S. congressional staff carefully guided tours of the country to distributing "informational materials" to everyone from schoolchildren to businessmen. In a seminal 1996 Progressive article, Eyal Press quoted the distinguished Northwestern University Indonesia expert Jeffrey Winters as calling the Society's materials "outrageous." One "guide" in particular, Press noted, was devoted to "bolster[ing] the myth that Suharto has orchestrated an economic miracle in Indonesia, modernizing the country while lifting the masses out of poverty." Another booklet published under the Society's aegis characterized charges of corruption and authoritarianism as "exaggerated," omitting any mention of dubious labor practices or human rights abuses.

Given the Society's prime movers, this was hardly surprising. Among the group's underwriters was Texas energy magnate Roy Huffington, who in the early '80's decided to help pal Suharto with unruly elements in East Timor and Aceh by sending Suharto large consignments of cattle prods and other torture gear. Another active corporate member was Freeport McMoran, the multinational mining giant that wrought such environmental devastation in Irian Jaya—on, say, the scale of Saddam Hussein's destruction of the Marsh Arabs native habitat—that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) pulled the company's political risk insurance. (In 1998 The Wall Street Journal described Freeport's Indonesian operations as "a study in how multinational companies adapted to the crony capitalism" of the Suharto epoch.)

The Society's Board of Trustees included Sumitro Djojohadkkusumo, a Suharto crony whose son Prabowo Subianto was not only married to one of Suharto's daughters, but also commanded the notorious human-rights violating Kopassus special forces unit. And sitting at the same table as Sumitro at Board of Trustees meetings was the board's co-chair—Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz was also on hand for a December 10, 1996, National Press Club forum, in which Suharto's man in Washington, Arifin Siregar, endeavored to make the case that human rights violations in Indonesia—and in particular East Timor—were a thing of the past. (The Indonesian army's murderous 1999 operations in East Timor proved they were not.) When they were asked by an audience member how the United States could positively and proactively influence Indonesia's political and economic betterment, Wolfowitz struck a decidedly non-interventionist tone: "I think the important point is that it's Indonesians who decide what goes on in Indonesia," he said. "But I think as long as we have good relations, they have been very open to hearing the American point of view. And I think your question was how can the United States influence. I don't think it's fair to ask the Indonesian ambassador how we can influence. But I would just say I think we have a very important influence, and I think we've exercised it quite effectively."

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