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Pacific Perspectives: Why Asia Is Not Crying for Departed Wolfowitz




Pacific Perspectives , Tom Plate

Few men or women are all bad or all good; and few of us go through life without losing at least one job or two under duress.

The importance therefore of the Paul Wolfowitz affair lies less in the man himself than in what the astonishing World Bank scandal symbolizes in a larger and much more important sense.

In truth, the whole mess is more about deeply embedded American arrogance (on display for all the world to see, yet again) than anything else.

You might think that the fact that the head of the World Bank has been forced to resign might not be such earthshaking news here.

Why should anyone care outside of the usual carping cartel of inbred insiders in Washington, New York, London and maybe Tokyo?

But on the contrary, the story of the fall of the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State from significant power over allegations of unethical favoritism inside the bank makes for very interesting news in Asia.


Story Prominence

In India, for example, the story has been given considerable story prominence. The reason is not hard to understand.

The World Bank is based in Washington, D.C., and from that summit point dishes out development and poverty aid as it sees fit to countries that are in desperate need of it.

Over the years, this has included many of the nations of Asia, including India.

The decisions about which nations get how much money and in what ways they must use it are made in Washington.

The World Bank is an institution that is traditionally dominated by American leadership and American thinking.

Asians have taken the money and endlessly listened to the advice, but sometimes they have come to believe that such handout money is the hardest dollar they have ever earned.

A bitterly hilarious editorial comment in the Hindustan Times, a marvelous English-language daily based here in India’s capital city, reflected one common Asian perspective on Wolfowitz’s crash.

Titled “Crying Wolfowitz,” the newspaper editorial focused less on the man who was forced to resign than on the man in the office of President of the United States, who was responsible for the very controversial Wolfowitz being at the World Bank.

It noted the American government’s preeminent role in the selection process, noted the tradition of having an American in the top job and sarcastically took note of President George Bush’s “shoot from the lip” style of decision-making that catapulted Wolfowitz into the top bank spot in the first place.

It is hard for many of us in America to understand the philosophical bitterness with which the Wolfowitz story is viewed without an understanding of the general arrogance with which we are too often viewed.

For example, at a security conference in Southeast Asia after the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, the then-Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary privately berated one of Asia’s most senior statesmen for making the mildest of suggestions about modifying the administration’s penchant for unilateral decision-making.


The Message

The message was that America can do and say as it pleases and basically, Asia has to lump it.

Similar examples abound, but if further fuel needs to be added to the fire, a magnificent new book, by American historian Robert Dallek, provides it.

The book is “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,” and one section of this surpassingly engrossing history of these two ultra-arrogant Americans will especially interest Indian readers.

It tracks the Nixon administration’s involvement in the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of the state of Bangladesh.

It records descriptions by the then-U.S. President and his National Security Advisor of then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in the most contemptuous and insulting terms.

Apparently, according to Dallek, the favorite word for the Indian head of state from Nixon and Kissinger was “bitch.”

In the end Gandhi was to have the last laugh, of course. India ignored Washington and went to war, successfully; later, the much-revered prime minister was to comment that “the times have passed when any nation sitting 3,000 or 4,000 miles away could give orders to Indians on the basis of their color superiority to do as they wished.”

Indians and many others in Asia bring something like that kind of perspective to events such as the World Bank scandal. Their animus is not so much toward any one individual, though Wolfowitz was sometimes especially hard to take, as toward a new kind of colonial mentality that believes it knows what is right for everyone else.

What Dallek’s just-published book suggests (as does mounting evidence of all kinds) is that the Bush administration may be proud practitioners of American hubris but it is far from the first American government to do so.

The sorry World Bank story simply adds to the Asian perception that we Americans do not listen enough to learn enough to be constantly respected.


UCLA adjunct professor Tom Plate, author of ‘Confessions of an American Media Man,’ is traveling in South Asia.

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