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Frank Gruber

Schadenfreude and the Peter Principle

By Frank Gruber

I haven't written about national issues for a long time. It's not that I don't think I could. Anyone who can write about local politics has to be way smarter than anyone who writes about the "great issues of our time" and such.

That's because when you're writing about local politics your readers base their opinions on pragmatic evaluations of their and their communities' wants and needs, and the obstacles thereto, based on personal knowledge of the facts. When you're writing about the nation or the world the opinions of your readers mostly depend on how, when and from where their ancestors came to America.

So no false modesty. I could write about national issues. But let's face it -- until the 2008 election, why bother? The whole situation is hopeless and will be until we have new management. As for punditry, after 9/11 one could fool oneself with the illusion that the accumulation of principled discussion around the country -- from kitchen tables to the op-ed pages -- might have some impact on the policies of our government, but that turned out to be an unfunny joke.

Not even discussions at the CIA and the State Department had any impact.

Which brings me to why I am breaking my silence on national issues. The reason is simple: I cannot contain my joy at the downfall of Paul Wolfowitz.

Let's all praise schadenfreude.

There was a lot of noble talk last week, from World Bank staffers and other opponents of Dr. Wolfowitz, that he was losing his job because of his failures and peccadilloes there -- arising mostly from his helping his girlfriend get a cushy job, but also including his ideological management -- not because he was the architect of the disastrous war in Iraq.

I couldn't give a fig leaf. I wouldn't care if Wolfowitz had tricked the Bank's loan committee into lending a billion dollars to his girlfriend, unsecured, non-recourse and interest-free to develop tanning centers in Antarctica. This guy deserved to be fired for what he did in his last job!

And I say the Bank had the authority to do so based on an implicit corollary to the Peter Principle, the fundamental truth discovered by Laurence Peter in the 60s that in a hierarchy people rise to the level of their incompetence. I'm ready to take the Peter Principle to the next logical step -- to say that if you get a job beyond your level of incompetence, there have to be consequences.

For 30 years Wolfowitz bounced in and out of government, steadily moving up in pay grade even as he pushed foolish and paranoid contrarian ideas that reflected various recessive traits in the DNA of the American world view.

Until the Bush II administration Wolfowitz never had enough authority to screw things up when and where it counted, but Wolfowitz reached his level of incompetence -- big time! -- when he became Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2001. His promotion to the level of his incompetence only became consequential after 9/11. Until then, his nuttiness was marginalized. Colin Powell, the embodiment of mainstream American foreign policy, was in control of the administration's foreign relations.

But a national crisis presents a moment of opportunity for contrarians, and Wolfowitz seized it. That was one thing he was competent about.

One article about Wolfowitz' firing I read managed to fit into just one paragraph three huge Wolfowitz blunders relating to Iraq: (1) he clashed with the CIA over WMD (the CIA was right), (2) he clashed with the Army on troop levels (the Army was right), and (3) he clashed with many foreign policy analysts, including Brent Scowcroft (not to mention many leftie academics Wolfowitz would no doubt never talk to in any case), over whether post-Saddam Iraq would be a suitable place to introduce democracy to the Arab world (Scowcroft and the lefties were right).

The quintessential Wolfowitz moment was when he testified to Congress that unlike Afghanistan, there were no ethnic divisions in Iraq that would jeopardize the peace after the invasion.

When Pres. Bush gave Wolfowitz the job at the World Bank, it wasn't just mere cronyism, it was a violation of the Peter Principle -- he promoted someone to a position beyond his level of incompetence.

It seems clear that if it weren't for Wolfowitz's incompetence at his prior job, he would have survived the scandal at the Bank over his girlfriend's job -- he more or less covered his tush with the appropriate memoranda. It's too bad that the Bank's staff and then the board had to "trump up" the charges; that gave the right wing something to whine about.

Bravo to the staff at the World Bank for chasing Mr. Wolfowitz out of the Bank and into the ranks of the unemployed, but I wish they could have been more forthright about their reasons.

They did what his prior employer wouldn't do.

But then his prior employer had also got a contract extension after rising to his level of incompetence, and maybe that explains it.

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