Missing The Exit Signs

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The central question in the debate over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz is one that no one seems to be asking: What is best for the institutions they head?

If self-preservation trumps institutional concerns for the two officials, that's not terribly surprising. No one wants to be publicly frog-marched out of a job, his reputation shredded in headlines.

None of us, as the poet Robert Burns explained, is particularly good at spying the louse on our own bonnet; few have the gift "to see oursels as ithers see us." Gonzales remains clueless about the damning implications of his own cluelessness, Wolfowitz defiantly oblivious to the untenable "do as I say, not as I do" nature of his own acknowledged mistake.

What's most disturbing is the apparent inability of the institutions involved to protect themselves, and the unwillingness, at least so far, of those with the power to do so to face that task.

The Imus trajectory offers a telling contrast. Certainly, Don Imus's words were horrible. But that is not the only reason why he is gone and Gonzales and Wolfowitz are not.

In the Imus case, the force of the free market worked with brutal efficiency. When advertisers bailed on the networks, the networks dumped Imus. There was a built-in institutional capacity for self-preservation.

Not so in the case of Gonzales and the Justice Department. Gonzales's fate has little to do with the best interests of the department, more to do with the best interests of George W. Bush. It hinges on whether the president decides that it's more of a political liability to lose Gonzales than to keep him, and on how much pressure the president feels from members of his party (who may or may not have the interests of Justice in mind) to dispense with loyalty to his longtime friend.

Why should Gonzales go? Let me count the ways. He has lost the confidence of lawmakers -- at least any who've been paying attention to his shifting stories and aren't reflexively supportive of an administration official. He's created turmoil and undercut morale in U.S. attorneys' offices across the country. He's shown himself to be a grossly negligent manager.

He has overseen the politicization of a fine department, stocking it to a far greater extent than his predecessors did with minimally qualified but ideologically pure minions. He has demonstrated neither an adept understanding of the critical issues that confront an attorney general in an age of terrorism nor the necessary (and promised) independence from a president he has spent his career enabling.

The U.S. attorneys mess is a symptom, not an aberration. The Justice Department deserves better than an attorney general who has to spend weeks closeted with aides to help him remember what he didn't know about what was happening on his watch.

The Wolfowitz situation is murkier, and in the end the bureaucratically inert bank may rouse itself to fire him. For a supposedly smart man, Wolfowitz behaved in an extraordinarily stupid way when he personally dictated the details of his girlfriend's generous pay and promotion package. Yes, the board of directors' ethics committee told Wolfowitz to deal with the matter and have Shaha Riza transferred out of the bank, but he handled it in a way guaranteed to make matters worse.

There's no doubt that much of the venom directed at him has little to do with how much his girlfriend was paid and a lot to do with his previous role, as deputy defense secretary in the Bush administration, as an architect of the war in Iraq. Layered on top of that is resentment over Wolfowitz's highhanded ways once he arrived at the World Bank and disagreement over his policy priorities.

So the question is not whether Wolfowitz did something wrong -- he acknowledges as much -- but whether it is so serious as to require his resignation. The argument that he must go because he's lost the confidence of the bank's staff and many shareholder countries doesn't carry much weight. These folks never wanted Wolfowitz in the job, so they'll leap at any chance to declare themselves hopelessly (unless he leaves) demoralized.

The more compelling argument for Wolfowitz's departure is the degree to which his blunder involves the same issue -- corruption and good governance -- that he has made the focus of his tenure. Equally important, this episode erupts as Wolfowitz is trying to raise billions to replenish the bank's lending fund, from the very donor governments that are most unhappy with him. It's hard to see how it's in the bank's interest -- no less that of the impoverished countries it is supposed to help -- for him to remain.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company