In late 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, US president Lyndon Johnson appointed his secretary of defence, Robert MacNamara, as president of the World Bank.
Nearly 30 years later, as war continues to rage in Iraq, George Bush has nominated his deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, to the same job. MacNamara had been an architect of the US policy of escalating the Vietnam War. But by 1967 he was developing doubts, so Johnson used the World Bank vacancy to get MacNamara out of the way.
Wolfowitz’s career in the Bush administration also seems to have run into a dead end. He wasn’t appointed to replace Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser when she took over the state department. Nor is he tipped to take over the Pentagon when Donald Rumsfeld retires, as he is expected to later this year.
But there the analogy with MacNamara ends. MacNamara was a repentant war criminal, while Wolfowitz is the neo-cons’ neo-con. He’s the man who on 11 September 2001 called for “ending states who support terrorism”. As a junior Pentagon official back in 1990-1 he strongly advocated war with Iraq and opposed the decision by George Bush senior to leave Saddam Hussein in power after Iraq’s armies had been defeated.
Exiled to academic life during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Wolfowitz perfected the neo-conservative worldview. He argued that the threat to US dominance from rising powers such as China was best dealt with by using the might of the Pentagon to spread US-style neo-liberalism.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Wolfowitz created the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to provide the “intelligence” needed to justify the war. While the invasion was going on, he told the US congress that the Iraqis themselves would pick up the tab.
“The oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 billion and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years,” he airily declared. “We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”
In fact Iraqi oil revenues totalled at most $25 billion over the past two years. The costs of the war and the occupation exceed $200 billion so far. Yet, rather than being sacked for incompetence, Wolfowitz is being put in charge of the most powerful development institution in the world. Nor is this simply a way of kicking upstairs an official who has passed his sell-by date.
When Bush appointed Rice as secretary of state she pledged herself to “transformational diplomacy”. We are starting to see what this means with Wolfowitz’s nomination and the recent appointment of John Bolton, who once declared that “there is no such thing as the United Nations”, as ambassador to the UN.
After Bush and Rice both toured Europe on a charm offensive at the start of the year, many European governments kidded themselves that the administration was abandoning its first term unilateralism. The opposite is true. Having previously ignored international institutions, the Bush team now wants to bend them to its will.
In particular, Wolfowitz’s nomination confirms that global poverty is becoming a new front in the US’s imperial project. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the World Bank has been on the side of the world’s poor under its current president.
But since the end of the Cold War, the World Bank has acted as the general representative of advanced capitalist countries in imposing policies designed to force open the economies of the Global South to the multinational corporations.
Wolfowitz’s new role is to try to make the World Bank a tool of US imperial interests, in particular by favouring subservient Third World regimes that don the garments of Washington-style democracy.
These developments underline how important July’s G8 summit in Gleneagles will be as an arena where the great powers try to use the issue of global poverty as a cover for pursuing their interests. That’s why we need to be there to challenge their arrogant claim to rule the world through people like Wolfowitz.