- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush’s choice to head the World Bank, moved to assure European leaders yesterday that he intends to maintain the bank’s primary mission of fighting poverty.

In an unusual series of private, one-on-one meetings that started yesterday with French and Saudi Arabian members of the bank’s board, Mr. Wolfowitz sought to assuage fears raised by his push to spread democracy through war in Iraq and potentially elsewhere in the Middle East.

Mr. Wolfowitz told Paris’ Le Figaro newspaper that he would avoid “regime change” at the bank, referring to the prescription he applied as architect of the Iraq war, while he told Bloomberg News that he would not try to use the bank to promote democracy in developing nations.

“The bank’s mission is promoting economic development,” said the deputy defense secretary, who is staying in his Pentagon job for now. “To be effective in doing that, it has to keep a degree of separation.”

The bank board’s 24 members are scheduled to vote on Mr. Wolfowitz’s nomination March 31. He is expected to keep meeting with board members individually before the vote.

Mr. Bush asked European leaders earlier this week not to pass judgment on Mr. Wolfowitz’s nomination before hearing how he intends to run the bank. Leaders in Europe and elsewhere have indicated they are open to hearing him out.

Liberal advocacy groups have come out forcefully against the nomination, however, charging that Mr. Wolfowitz will apply a kind of U.S. hegemony at the bank and shift its focus away from environmental and social projects like climate change.

“I am looking forward to meeting Mr. Wolfowitz in Brussels to listen to his ideas on development, the main challenges ahead and his vision for the World Bank as a major actor,” said Louis Michel, a European Union official who asked Mr. Wolfowitz to explain his views.

Mr. Wolfowitz’s views on development and Africa — which has been the main recipient of World Bank aid in recent years — are unknown in Europe. Mr. Michel said.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia and dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has made his mark in the defense area and has written and spoken little on poverty and development issues.

With the U.S. president putting his own prestige on the line, analysts say it is unlikely that board members would outright reject Mr. Wolfowitz unless serious opposition builds between now and the date of the vote. The bank’s presidents traditionally are appointed by the United States, which is the bank’s largest shareholder.

Also helping approval is the acquiescence the Bush administration gave to the European Union’s pick to head the International Monetary Fund in the fall. European nations traditionally choose the IMF leader, and Spanish-born Rodrigo de Rato was one of the first to endorse Mr. Wolfowitz.

Still, much has changed since the bank’s bylaws and traditions were shaped in 1944. While the United States was then the biggest donor of development aid, Europe and Japan have emerged in the past decade as the world’s largest donors.

Mr. Michel noted that the European Union has built a strategic partnership with the World Bank to alleviate poverty — an alliance Mr. Wolfowitz pledged to maintain.

“I wouldn’t be taking on this huge responsibility if I didn’t believe in the mission,” said the defense deputy, who would replace retiring President James Wolfensohn in June.

Mr. Wolfowitz’s interest in the job reportedly arose during a tour of the disaster-stricken Indonesian province of Banda Aceh after it got hit by a massive tsunami in December. The Pentagon provided critical support to victims who were cut off by the destruction of roads and bridges in the area.

“People in Indonesia have a different view of me” than critics in Europe, Mr. Wolfowitz told Bloomberg. But he acknowledged that “I have a lot to learn” about Africa. “It’s probably a region of the world for which the bank is most crucial.”

Mr. Wolfowitz said he is committed to “listening” and carrying out the views of all the bank’s 184 members before making strategic decisions, and he will not be a mouthpiece for the Bush administration.

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