By Derrick Z. Jackson
The initial news of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, understandably centered around his alleged sexual assault on a maid and the probable evaporation of his presumed candidacy for the French presidency. But something else should not escape our attention: The alleged incident happened in a $3,000-a-night hotel room in New York - fancy digs for a bureaucrat.
After all, this is the same Strauss-Kahn who laments everyone else's behavior. Two months ago, he criticized the resumption of Wall Street-like bonuses in the European banking sector, saying, "What I find scandalous is that the banks today have returned to their precrisis behavior, especially in pay and bonuses. ... The types of remuneration in the financial system are verging on crime." He told the crisis-roiled Greek government, "Change your behavior." And he said last month, "We need a tax on financial activities to force this sector to bear some of the social costs of its risk-taking behavior."
He also claimed to be the new face of a "totally different" IMF that launched a new loan program for the world's poorest nations two years ago. The IMF was originally conceived, at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, to shore up global financial markets, but it has often been accused of inattention or of making loans that impose unfair austerity on developing countries.
In a 2009 question-and-answer session at an Istanbul convention, a Zambian activist told Strauss-Kahn, "Most ordinary citizens still view the IMF as a very heavy, uneven-handed institution. I think that for the impoverished majority, we still see it as an institution that fails to be accountable, and when I say that, I mean as an institution that fails to take responsibility for some of the consequences of the impacts of its policies. Budget austerity should not curtail pro-poor spending and social safety nets."
Strauss-Kahn responded by saying that this was "an outdated view of the fund." He added that in all the programs the fund established for poor countries during the financial crisis, "I explicitly asked governments to implement measures in favor of the most vulnerable, to build safety nets to avoid [a situation where] fixing financial questions will have too big a consequence on the poorest part of the population."
Now Strauss-Kahn is accused of trying to rape a hotel maid who told police she entered the penthouse suite to clean it, thinking it was empty. Instead, she said, Strauss-Kahn emerged naked, grabbed her, shut the door, locked it, and forced her to perform oral sex. The woman said Strauss-Kahn tried to remove her underwear, but she escaped and told hotel staff. Strauss-Kahn was arrested at Kennedy Airport minutes before he was to take off for Paris.
The ex-IMF leader, who received about $500,000 a year in compensation, had long been criticized and mocked in France for being a "champagne" or "caviar socialist," talking equality and uplift while living a lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, there was at least one prior allegation of aggressive behavior. But like those of many entitled, powerful men before him, Strauss-Kahn's career stayed on course. His talents on the job apparently seduced the IMF into looking the other way.
Strauss-Kahn, it should be noted, did not use his job to push the idea of austerity as aggressively as some of his predecessors - or as much as some northern European countries would have liked. Still, whether he or the IMF was paying the $3,000 a night for the hotel room, it's an outrageous show of opulence by the head of an agency that exists partly to assist the world's poor. Now that the world of Strauss-Kahn has come crashing down, the IMF should pick a leader who not only preaches austerity, but practices it.