Battle lines hardened yesterday over President Bush's nomination of Paul D. Wolfowitz to become president of the World Bank, as U.S. officials pressed for swift approval by the bank's board and some European officials vowed to resist.
The deputy defense secretary's nomination, already hugely controversial because of his role as a key architect of the Iraq war, drew fresh denunciations in European capitals, where critics fumed that Washington had failed to consult other member countries of the bank before springing its choice on them. By tradition, the United States gets to pick the bank's president, but the decision must be approved by the board, which has always operated by consensus.
Although many bank insiders and observers predict that the odds strongly favor Wolfowitz eventually getting the job, the furor yesterday indicated that at the very least a fight will rage for several weeks before the board approves him.
Adding fuel to the controversy is concern within the bank staff over Wolfowitz's reported romantic relationship with Shaha Riza, an Arab feminist who works as a communications adviser in the bank's Middle East and North Africa department.
Both divorced, Wolfowitz and Riza have steadfastly declined to talk publicly about their relationship, but they have been regularly spotted at private functions and one source said the two have been dating for about two years. Riza, an Oxford-educated British citizen who was born in Tunisia and grew up in Saudi Arabia, shares Wolfowitz's passion for democratizing the Middle East, according to people who know her.
Bank policy allows spouses and partners to work on the staff as long as neither reports directly to the other, so the Wolfowitz-Riza relationship may not run afoul of those rules. But some staffers, speaking anonymously for fear of offending their prospective boss, said sentiment is running high that the ethics requirements should be stricter in cases involving the chief executive. Through a spokesman, Wolfowitz said in response to a query from The Post: "Needless to say, if a personal relationship presents a potential conflict of interest, I will comply with bank policies to resolve the issue."
On the more substantive question of Wolfowitz's qualifications, calls are mounting in Europe for governments to challenge his candidacy. Among the fiercest opponents is Clare Short, Britain's former secretary for international development, who said on British television that the message of the Wolfowitz nomination was "America is going to do what it likes or hard cheese." Luisa Morgantini, head of the European Parliament's development committee, circulated a statement saying, "We encourage European governments to ask the US to open up the process to accept other candidates."
U.S. officials reiterated that the high-level conversations held by President Bush and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow with their European counterparts had been "encouraging." Moreover, Rob Nichols, the chief Treasury Department spokesman, disputed complaints by European officials that they had not been consulted. The department, led by Snow, reached agreement with policymakers in other countries that the next World Bank president should have qualities such as management experience, international diplomatic experience and commitment to development, he said, adding: "Paul Wolfowitz meets and exceeds each and all of these criteria."
U.S. officials said they hope Wolfowitz will be approved before the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on April 16-17, allowing a transition of a couple of months before outgoing president James D. Wolfensohn leaves on June 1. Past U.S. nominees to the bank have typically been approved within a couple of weeks of their selection by Washington -- in Wolfensohn's case, in three days.
But European officials made it clear they are in no mood to accede to that schedule. "The Treasury Department is trying to give the impression that a deal is done, but there is no deal done," said a source in one of the European executive directors' offices at the bank who did not want to be identified because the matter is highly sensitive. "No one has any question about [Wolfowitz's] intellect, but the problem is, he's the face of a certain American hegemony, in the opinion of many European directors, and that does not fit the role of the bank."
A U.S. request to have Wolfowitz meet the board and answer questions on March 24 was rejected by other directors, this source said, because member countries are still trying to decide what to do. Robert B. Holland III, the acting U.S. director, denied he had made such a request but added, "It is not useful for me to comment further than that."
The United States has a 16 percent vote on the board, and Europe collectively has about 30 percent. A pitched battle on the consensus-minded board, however, would be highly unusual. In the end, policymakers said, top leaders like French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will have to decide whether they are prepared to reopen transatlantic rifts that have recently started to heal.
"One would have to say, the more likely course is that Mr. Wolfowitz will be confirmed," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University professor who considers him a bad choice.