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Colbert I. King

Wolfowitz's Tough Tasks

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page A25

Before the sun could set on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz's first day as President Bush's nominee to be president of the World Bank, the e-mails started arriving. The first, from the online Nation magazine, produced this item from David Corn's Capital Games column: "The Wolfowitz nomination is a win for the Pentagon but a loss for the world. Wolfowitz's achievement as a warmonger may say little about his views on international development, but his record on Iraq is one of miscalculation and exaggeration. And the poor of the world deserve a World Bank president with better judgment."

Another e-mail, from the Institute for Public Accuracy, offered four sources for possible interviews, including William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute, who was quoted as saying: "Paul Wolfowitz has a serious credibility problem. He understated the cost of the Iraq war, while promoting vast distortions about Baghdad's weapons capabilities as a way to sell the conflict to the American public. He couldn't remember how many U.S. casualties there were in Iraq, and he's now slated to be head of a nominally humanitarian agency."

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The criticism since then has been nonstop. Given his controversial role in the Iraq war, Wolfowitz shouldn't be surprised. Neither should his supporters. Besides, this is not the first time a top Pentagon figure got slammed for landing a World Bank job.

The Internet wasn't up and running in 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson announced that Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara would resign to become president of the World Bank. Then, as now, the prospect of a wartime Pentagon leader assuming the helm of a global financial institution caused heartburn in some foreign capitals. Whether Wolfowitz's bank presidency will become a disaster for the developing world remains to be seen. First he has to get there.

If the Bush administration has done its homework and touched all the right bases in key European capitals, Paul Wolfowitz will be the next World Bank president. If, however, Bush officials failed, before this week's announcement, to run Wolfowitz's name by countries critical to his selection, then the administration is as arrogant and foolish as its critics contend.

In McNamara's case, the World Bank did not become a tool of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, as many had feared. This isn't to say the bank had all successes on McNamara's watch. The record won't support that.

Some bank loans made no difference at all. Bank funds at times ended up in the wrong hands. It is fair to observe, however, that the World Bank became a vigorous proponent of poverty reduction in the developing world during McNamara's 13 years at the helm, from 1968 to 1981. At least that's my observation, having served on the World Bank board as U.S. executive director from December 1979 to April 1981. For three years before my appointment to the bank by President Jimmy Carter, I worked as a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department helping to carry the World Bank legislative load through an often hostile Capitol Hill. McNamara's presidency at the bank didn't make our job any easier. McNamara's aggressive leadership pushed the bank's lending programs in directions that upset many well-placed congressional protectionists and foreign aid opponents.

Why did he do it? Attribute his immersion in bank projects for building schools and roads, developing agriculture and fighting diseases to his guilt over Vietnam or a desire to do penance for the casualties of that war? Whatever his motivations, under his presidency the World Bank became a major source of development funds for poor countries. That statement is supported by the record.

There's no way of knowing what Paul Wolfowitz's legacy will be when his World Bank tour is over -- if he lands the job. As with Bob McNamara, Wolfowitz's Pentagon record, especially in selling the Iraq war, may not forecast the kind of service he will render at the World Bank. At least let's hope it doesn't.

If Wolfowitz is the talented, compassionate, intellectual force and skilled manager that his supporters say he is, the World Bank could end up in good hands. That is, if Wolfowitz -- as touted -- approaches the job in the right frame of mind.

Unlike John R. Bolton, recently named to be America's U.N. ambassador, Wolfowitz is not going to the World Bank as Bush's representative. Officially, Wolfowitz's name will be placed in nomination by the U.S. executive director and formally accepted by 24 members of the bank's board of executive directors, who represent 184 countries. At that point, Wolfowitz becomes an international civil servant in charge of a specialized U.N. agency. He's answerable to the countries that own the bank and oversee its spending -- not to the Bush administration, to "neoconservatism" or to the Republican-controlled Congress.

Will there be times when Wolfowitz might still confer informally with his Bush administration friends? Of course, just as the World Bank president stays in contact with leaders in other world capitals.

Is Wolfowitz likely to take his world view to the bank? Sure. But he should leave Bush administration policies behind. Will that make a difference? If Wolfowitz is as willing to learn new things as he is eager to dispense his own wisdom, both he and the bank could be in for a mutually rewarding relationship that might ultimately benefit the world's poor.

Too optimistic?

In August 2003 I wrote that Wolfowitz was one of the Bush administration's war planners who cut no ice with me: "They seem to make it up as they go along and can be expected to say anything to get their way." For the sake of those developing countries where 33,000 children die each day, let's hope there's another Paul Wolfowitz under the one now wearing a Pentagon hat.

kingc@washpost.com


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