President Bush Wednesday nominated Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a principal architect of the Iraq war and a chief target of US foreign-policy critics, to head the World Bank.
Announcing the nomination at a White House press conference, Mr. Bush indicated that he knew it would be controversial when he said he hoped people would "get to know Paul better before a vote is taken." Bush called Mr. Wolfowitz a "skilled diplomat" who as a former ambassador to Indonesia - the world's largest Muslim country - showed his "compassion" and "commitment to development."
By tradition the US names the head of the World Bank, an international institution based in Washington that focuses on development in poorer countries. The nomination must be approved by other bank members. And although Bush said he was "pleased" that "world leaders" he contacted by phone had listened to his reasoning for the nomination, most observers expect a bumpy ratification process.
The nomination follows last week's naming of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations, another nomination seen by many as going against the grain of Bush administration efforts to smooth relations with the rest of the world after the Iraq war.
Calling the Wolfowitz nomination "a slap in the face" to Europe and a cold shower on the good feelings left by Bush's recent trip to Europe, one European diplomat said, "These two nominations portend a not very good time ahead."
Adding that European countries the diplomat knew of "did everything we could to prevent" the Wolfowitz nomination, the diplomat says, "the lack of consultation and willingness to listen that this suggests does not support what we understood was to be a new style."
Wolfowitz would replace outgoing World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who issued a statement Wednesday supporting the nomination, although earlier this month he had doused speculation about a Wolfowitz nomination. Pentagon officials had suggested that Wolfowitz wanted to stay at the Defense Department.
The US has said it hopes to see a new president in place before Wolfensohn departs in June, after 10 years in the job. But the European diplomat suggests a vote by the bank's broad of governors could still prove nettlesome.
Wolfowitz has come under particular criticism from Democrats, who have scorned his predictions that the Iraq war would cost little and that US troops on the ground would be quickly replaced by Iraqi forces. Wednesday House minority leader Nancy Pelosi quipped: "Maybe this is the president's way of removing [Wolfowitz] from the Defense Department."
Still, others see different motivations in Bush's nomination. For one thing, it follows in the logic of the Bolton nomination, some say, in that Wolfowitz is seen by administration supporters as not a gratuitous critic of international organizations, but one who wants them to work more effectively at their goals.
Others note that Wolfowitz going to the World Bank after the Iraq War would follow the example of former Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara, who headed the global institution after the Vietnam War. And even those who do not consider themselves Wolfowitz fans note that he is a past dean of the Johns Hopkins school of international studies and has a long-time interest in democratization.
At the same time Wolfowitz, who favors nation-building projects opposed by other administration conservatives, is also seen as a staunch proponent of the World Bank's pro-change development. On a recent trip to tsunami-stricken areas of South Asia, Wolfowitz announced increased US aid for victims and said such aid potentially does more than other kinds of action in curtailing the attraction of extremist movements.
Speculation had swirled around prospects for the job ever since the administration made it clear it would seek to replace Wolfensohn, a Clinton nominee. Some specialists had proposed that the US cast beyond Americans to head the bank - with some pressing for the US to name former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
Appointment of a World Bank president "shouldn't automatically be an American," says Timothy Cullen, chief spokesman of the bank for six years prior to 1999. The US has only 20 percent of the vote in the bank. Mr. Cullen suggests a worldwide search for a suitable candidate, with the bank's executive board making a choice among perhaps nine candidates. The US recommendation should be someone pleasing to many of the other 182 member nations, he says, with a good knowledge of economics.
An ideal president, he continues, should be a good diplomat in seeking consensus among member nations as well as an experienced executive capable of leading and inspiring some 10,000 employees. He also should not be a type who leads the bank in lurches from one emphasis to another.
Altogether, the bank lends more than $20 billion a year. That sum is far exceeded nowadays by the flow of private investment money to "emerging" nations in Asia and elsewhere, but little of that money goes to the poorest nations of the world.
Appointment of Wolfowitz or someone else would not likely upset the financial markets that fund the bank's loans to developing countries. The bank has a superb credit rating with guarantees provided by borrowing countries as well as the capital of the bank itself.
The great fear among World Bank supporters is that Congress and Bush would cut off financing to the International Development Association, a World Bank subsidiary, if a non-American was chosen as president. But Cullen does not believe Americans would want their representatives to "cut off aid to the poorest in a fit of pique."
Still, the US has often used the bank indirectly as "a tool of American economic diplomacy," as economist Bruce Stokes writes in the National Journal. So the US and its allies "are unlikely to look kindly on any effort to give developing nations more say over the bank's lending decisions."