Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary who was a driving force behind the invasion of Iraq, is depicted as a fiercely pro-Zionist hardliner. Philip Sherwell reveals his unlikely confidante is a high-powered Arab divorcee with whom he is said to be closely involved.
Political foes of Paul Wolfowitz like to portray him as a leading light in Washington’s so-called ‘Zionist conspiracy’, part of a small cabal of Jewish neo-conservatives driving a blindly pro-Israel policy in the Middle East.
Paul Wolfowitz: Surprising friend and confidante
The US deputy secretary of defence was one of the original architects of the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and remains an enthusiastic advocate of spreading democracy in the Middle East, despite the setbacks in Iraq. For his detractors, it is evidence that he is pursuing an agenda hostile to Arab regimes, particularly ones as virulently opposed to Israel as Saddam’s.
Critics have also latched on to the fact that his sister, Laura, a biologist, lives in Israel as proof for their theory. Indeed she does; she even has an Israeli husband. But although she rarely talks about politics, the reality is that she is a moderate rather than a hawkish settler or enthusiastic backer of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s hardline prime minister.
In fact, there is a woman from whom Mr Wolfowitz does draw support and backing for his views, but she comes from a very different – and unexpected – background. The Telegraph can reveal that his closest companion and most valued confidantes is a middle-aged Arab feminist whose own strongly held views on instilling democracy in her native Middle East have helped bolster his resolve.
Shaha Ali Riza is a senior World Bank official who was born in Tunis, grew up in Saudi Arabia and holds an international relations masters degree from St Anthony’s College, Oxford. Close acquaintances of the couple have told The Telegraph that she is romantically linked with Mr Wolfowitz, 61, a fellow divorcee with whom she has been friends for several years.
Even by the discreet standards of Washington’s powerful inner circle, it is a remarkably closely guarded secret. They rarely go out as a couple openly or demonstrate affection publicly, according to friends who are aware of the relationship. They attend low-key Washington social events and visit friends’ homes together and Ms Riza also sometimes goes to official functions and dinners with him, but is not identified as his partner, an acquaintance said. ‘Most people would never guess there was a relationship, even if they saw them together,’ he said.
It is a sign of the sensitivity surrounding the relationship that the few friends willing even to acknowledge it last week did not want to be named. ‘Shaha Riza runs around with Wolfowitz a lot. I gather that she is his current girlfriend but they are very careful about this,’ said one.
Ms Riza was on holiday last week on a ranch in Wyoming and did not respond to messages left for her. Mr Wolfowitz did not return a call placed with his office at the Pentagon.
It would amaze the detractors who depict Mr Wolfowitz as part of a narrow-minded Jewish lobby that one of the most important people in his life is, in fact, an Arab woman whose job is to promote gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa. It will doubtless also surprise many of his supporters.
Ms Riza’s childhood in Saudi Arabia did much to shape her commitment to democracy, equal rights and civil liberties in the Arab world as she experienced at first hand the kingdom’s oppressive regime, particularly for women. She has long pursued those beliefs in adult life and joined the World Bank in 1997 as the senior gender co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, a role that involves extensive travel in the region.
She previously worked for the Iraq Foundation, set up by expatriates in 1991 to push for democracy and human rights in that country after the first Gulf war, and then established the Middle East programme at the National Endowment for Democracy, a federal agency created under Ronald Reagan in 1983 with the ambitious goal of promoting American political values internationally.
So Mr Wolfowitz and Ms Riza are not just close personally, they have also both long espoused the same deeply held conviction that democracy should be spread across the Arab world. With his ear, she is one of most influential Arabs in Washington.
‘Paul and some others always had Saddam Hussein in their sights, but she helped reinforce that resolve,’ said a friend who moves in similar conservative circles. ‘That was greatly helped by the fact that she is an Arab woman who is an expert on the process of democracy.
‘Paul Wolfowitz is always being accused of being part of a bunch of Jews pushing Zionist interests with the likes of Richard Perle [a former senior Pentagon adviser] and Doug Feith [the Pentagon number three]. So when an Arab woman says something similar, her views have tremendous authority.
‘This agenda is being pushed by a group in which Shaha has a crucial role. She has views she holds strongly, but she is a modest, polite person.
‘Paul’s sister in Israel is always quoted as evidence that he’s part of some Zionist conspiracy. But she’s actually quite Left-wing and he has more in common with Shaha than with her.’
As with Ms Riza, Mr Wolfowitz’s political creed also began to take shape in his childhood. His father, Jacob, an eminent mathematician, emigrated from Poland to America as a boy in 1920 but lost several relatives in the Holocaust. The young Paul was taught from an early age that appeasement does not work.
He met Clare Selgin, later to become a renowned scholar on Indonesian anthropology, when they were students at Cornell in the early 1960s. They married in 1968, have three children and quietly divorced in 2002. Mr Wolfowitz is intensely private and makes a point of never discussing his personal life in interviews.
Ms Riza is also divorced and has a 17-year-old son, who lives with her in Wesley Heights in an elegant street of townhouses popular with foreign diplomats who are based in nearby embassies. Her former husband, Bulent Ali Riza, a Turkish Cypriot who heads the Turkish programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that he was aware that she discusses her views on the Middle East with Mr Wolfowitz. ‘She talks to Paul,’ he said, ‘though I think she now has some reservations about the democratisation process in Iraq.’
Mr and Ms Riza both studied for their international relations postgraduate degrees at St Anthony’s in the early 1980s before moving to America. They later split up but both made their mark in the influential Washington world of international thinktanks and institutes.
She was moving in the same conservative academic circles as Mr Wolfowitz, who was dean and professor of international relations at the School of Advanced International Studies for seven years before he joined President Bush’s administration in 2001. Friends say that they have been seeing each other for several years, but do not know when they started dating.
Asked about their relationship, Mr Perle, a close political and intellectual soulmate of Mr Wolfowitz, said: ‘You should ask her and Mr Wolfowitz about that. Any relationship they may have is a personal and private matter. I don’t know the extent or nature of it.’
Mr Wolfowitz was, of course, already beating the drums for regime change in Iraq and was one of the signatories with Mr Perle on the 1998 letter to President Clinton calling for Saddam to be ousted. After al-Qa’eda’s attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, he immediately pushed Mr Bush towards challenging states that sponsor terrorism rather than just pursuing the terror network’s leader, Osama bin Laden.
For him, the war on terror brought with it the chance to pursue regime change and democracy across the Islamic world. In these views, he found common ground with Ms Riza, who had often expressed her frustration at the widely held view in the West that Arab states would never embrace democracy.
‘She felt that the US supported democracy all over the world except in Arab countries,’ said a friend. ‘She believed that was wrong and that democracy can and must be promoted in the Arab world, even if it upsets feudal rulers and dictators.’
Mr Wolfowitz hoped that the invasion of Iraq that he did so much to engineer with his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, would not just topple a brutal dictator, but also set off a democracy ‘domino effect’ across the Middle East.
For many of the neo-conservative cheerleaders of democracy, the next target is the autocratic Saudi state. Mr Wolfowitz has already said that another goal of the Iraq war was to allow US troops to pull out of the kingdom to alternative bases. Ms Riza will doubtless have offered him her views on how to deal with her childhood home.
This piece ran in the Daily Telegraph in London on August 1st, 2004