The Wolfowitz Outrage

Although President Bush’s nomination of Paul Wolfowitz for president of the World Bank had been rumored for months, the reality of the nomination is stunning in the context of his record at the Pentagon. Finding a performance by a public official more catastrophic to the interests of the nation on whose behalf it was attempted may require going back to Lord North’s passage of the Tea Tax.

Those who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq probably have more reason to be aggrieved by Wolfowitz’s tenure than those who opposed it. If there was a prospect that Saddam could have been dumped and replaced by a stable and friendly regime without an enormous loss of American life and treasure, Wolfowitz’s continuous misjudgments and meddling with military matters insured that chance was forsaken. The result was an invasion and occupation plan that provided all of our adversaries – Iranian, Baathist, Jihadist, and assorted other terrorists – with the maximum opportunity for mischief.

After months of second guessing military planners, Wolfowitz forced the uniformed leaders to accept an invasion force significantly smaller than military leaders had requested. The result was too few troops to protect our own supply lines and far fewer troops than were necessary to capture and secure Saddam’s arsenals, protect the nation’s infrastructure, prevent the looting of the nation’s historic treasures, and maintain order in the streets. While Wolfowitz’s naïve and softheaded assessment that the Iraqis would "welcome us with open arms" was scoffed at by career military and intelligence officers, they were forced to knuckle under and accept it or look elsewhere.

The chaos following the U.S. capture of Baghdad contributed materially to a sense of lawlessness and anarchy. Bewildered Iraqis had increasing doubts as to whether the U.S. or the evolving opposition forces were the wave of the future, and the moment was lost. Millions of tons of munitions and explosives that the undermanned invasion force had been unable to secure fell into the hands of the increasingly emboldened opposition. The monthly death toll of U.S. soldiers and those Iraqis who agreed to openly support them spiraled higher and higher.

But American forces suffered not only from a lack of manpower but also from a lack of preparation and severe shortages of critically important equipment. While Wolfowitz was so busy performing the work of the senior military leadership, he neglected to perform his own responsibilities. The build-up for the invasion lasted more than a year. By the early summer of 2002, preparations for invasion were taking place in earnest. Despite the extended period that might have been used to insure that all troops crossing the berm had body armor, that as many up-armored trucks and Humvees as possible were added to the inventory, and that a variety of jammers capable of preventing the detonation of remotely triggered explosives were placed on order, nothing happened. Military planners were chastised for plans that were "too elaborate and too expensive."

The post-invasion efforts were such a fiasco that they might be considered comical had they not been the cause of so much death and dismemberment. Wolfowitz’s bosom friend and the source of much of his and the nation’s misinformation about both pre- and post-invasion Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, was flown into the country to be installed as the new national leader. The fact that both the CIA and the State Department had washed their hands of this character based on assessments that he was both a crook and politically unreliable could not shake Wolfowitz’s confidence that Chalabi—who had not been in the country in more than three decades—would be readily accepted as the head of state in a new Iraq. (The new notion of democracy in the Middle East seemed to be that we would pick the leaders.) To pave the way for Chalabi’s ascension, the Iraqi army, the most highly regarded institution in the country, was disbanded. Despite Wolfowitz’s efforts, Chalabi garnered no support and the United States had made an enemy of the one institution in the country that could have helped restore order.

Months later it was revealed that Chalabi had been passed highly classified information concerning U.S. capability to break the codes being used by Iranian diplomats and that he had in turn passed this information on to Iranian intelligence officers and compromised U.S. capacity to monitor Iranian nuclear efforts and Iranian covert operations against U.S. forces in Iraq. The name of the Pentagon official who passed this information to Chalabi has not been released.

Not until late August of 2003, nearly five months after the capture of Baghdad, did the White House break with Pentagon advice and give Ambassador Paul Bremer the funds and independence from Pentagon control needed to begin the reconstruction effort in earnest. By then the quagmire was already too deep to offer hope for anything but a long, painful and costly effort to prevent Iraq from becoming an even more serious problem for U.S. policy than the Saddam regime had been.

There are some who might argue that none of these mistakes mattered—that Iraq was a doomed endeavor from the outset. If that is true, then Wolfowitz is also the most culpable central protagonist for the invasion, having provided Congress and the American people with erroneous information about the cost in terms of lives and treasure. Wolfowitz infamously testified that Iraqi oil could pay all of the reconstruction costs soon after the invasion.

If the plan of invasion did have a potential for success, Wolfowitz has been engaged at every step in minimizing that potential.

He now poses a new threat to U.S. security. He is a lightning rod that symbolizes the arrogance and ineptitude of the current administration to U.S. detractors around the world. Foreign governments that would like to accommodate U.S. policies and cast their votes in the World Bank in favor of his nomination will be castigated by their presses and damaged in their struggle to maintain popular support for their other pro-U.S. policies. Governments that choose to use this nomination as an opportunity to bash the United States and its heavy-handed policies will have a priceless opening. Wolfowitz’s handling of Iraq sole source contracting with companies like Halliburton and his close ties to White House political operatives provide detractors with a strong case that funds given to the World Bank to help the world’s impoverished will be used for a quite different agenda.

Paul Wolfowitz is not a man who intends to commit evil. He is a romantic and an idealist. But the kind of monumental misjudgments which he committed at the Pentagon can also be dangerous to the interests of the United States and the world in the operation of the largest international financial institution.

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how this administration can silence its critics and restore confidence in its policies at home and abroad if it does not acknowledge at least some of its mistakes and stop rewarding those who committed them.

The general who correctly predicted the level of troop commitment required for an Iraqi occupation, the economic advisor who correctly predicted the financial cost of the operation, and the treasury secretary who accurately described the budgetary consequence of cutting taxes while trying to fight this war have all been sent packing.

Meanwhile, the security aide who permitted known misinformation to be placed in a State of the Union Address has been elevated to the position of national security advisor. The national security advisor who neglected to underscore the intelligence assessments that the United States was about to be attacked has been made secretary of state, and the man who made massive misjudgments costing the lives of hundreds of American servicemen has been elevated to run the World Bank.

At this point it looks like the only thing we learn from our mistakes is how to make bigger ones.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow