The World Bank president did nothing wrong.
"We know no spectacle so ridiculous," wrote Macaulay about the vilification of Lord Byron, "as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." Change the word "ridiculous" to "contemptible," and the words "British public" to "American press," and you have some sense of the eagerness for prurience, the readiness for slander, and the utter want of fact-checking that have characterized Paul Wolfowitz and Shaha Riza as if they were not only the equivalent of Byron seducing his half-sister, but as if they were financing their shameless lasciviousness out of the public purse and the begging bowls of the wretched of the earth.
I ought probably to say at once that I know both Wolfowitz and Riza slightly, and have known the latter for a number of years. Anyone in Washington who cares about democracy in the Muslim world is familiar with her work, at various institutions, in supporting civil-society activists in the Palestinian territories, in Iran, in the Gulf, and elsewhere. The relationship between the two of them is none of my damn business (or yours), but it has always been very discreet, even at times when Wolfowitz, regularly caricatured as a slave of the Israeli lobby, might perhaps have benefited from a strategic leak about his Arab and Muslim companion.
It is scarcely Riza's fault that she was working in a senior position at the World Bank when Wolfowitz was gazetted as its president. And quite frankly, if I were he, or indeed she, I would have challenged anyone to make anything of it. Of very few other people working there could it so obviously be said that she held her post as of right, and on merit. But we all think we know about "the appearance of a conflict of interest," and so I would like you to read what the general counsel to the bank, Robert Danino, wrote to Wolfowitz's lawyers on May 27, 2005. His letter opens like this:
First, I would like to acknowledge that Mr. Wolfowitz has disclosed to the Board, through you, that he has a pre-existing relationship with a Bank staff member, and that he proposes to resolve the conflict of interest in relation to Staff Rule 3.01, Paragraph 4.02 by recusing himself from all personnel matters and professional contact related to the staff member.
Instead of settling the matter, this disclosure and plain offer on Wolfowitz's part has become the source of all his woes. It was decided by the board of the bank and the "ethics committee" that the board established, that for no reason except a private relationship, Riza had to leave her work at the bank. Feminists and opponents of the glass ceiling should begin paying attention here.
Perhaps uneasily aware that their decision involved an injustice to someone who was highly esteemed and shortlisted for promotion (and whose job was located a long way away from any decision-making by the bank's president), the ethics committee suggested that an upgrade at Riza's new job might be in order, perhaps also "as part of settlement of claims," to be accompanied by "an ad hoc salary increase." On July 27, the committee's chairman, Dutch politician Ad Melkert, sent a memo to Wolfowitz assuring him that "the potential disruption of the staff member's career prospect will be recognized by an in situ promotion on the basis of her qualifying record."
What could be easier to understand? A highly qualified individual, compelled to leave her job for reasons entirely unconnected to her performance—and forced also to undergo bureaucratic scrutiny of her private life —is at least to be recognized with pay and promotion. The bank's ethics czar, the same Ad Melkert, wrote to Wolfowitz on Oct. 24, 2005, to say that "because the outcome is consistent with the Committee's findings and advice above, the Committee concurs with your view that this matter can be treated as closed." Four weeks later, a personal note was added to this sanctimonious and official one. "I would like to thank you for the very open and constructive spirit of our discussions, knowing in particular the sensitivity to Shaha, who I hope will be happy in her new assignment."
Well, I must say I hope so, too. She must indeed be happy to be dragged through the press as if she were some Levantine concubine or nontyping "secretary," feathering a love-nest with ill-gotten gains. But that's nothing to what Riza would have got if she had insisted on sticking to her original job, as was her right. The same is true of Wolfowitz: damned whatever course of action he takes. I read over the weekend that a certain bank "staffer" accused him of cutting off aid to Uzbekistan after that country had canceled the presence of United States bases on its soil. The innuendo was clear: The sinister neocon uses the World Bank to punish any dissent from imperialism. Well, the American breach with President Islam Karimov's kleptocratic and megalomaniac regime came after a few massacres of civilian protesters and the exposure of institutional torture. Do you believe that Wolfowitz would have got better press if he had insisted on keeping up the aid payments after all that?
Aha, you say, but why did Wolfowitz take so long to release these nonincriminating internal memoranda? Who acts so defensively if they have nothing to hide? I have no private information to impart here. But it could be that two grown-up people, both with previous marriages and with growing children, did not feel much like undergoing yet another round of "disclosure." For the sake of apparent propriety, they had already had to submit to some rather exorbitant demands. That's just my guess. But I didn't choose to say anything until I had seen the relevant papers, which are clear and conclusive. I wonder if any of the ravenous pseudo-moralists will feel even the slightest blush once they have done the same.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz by Alex Wong/Getty Images.