WASHINGTON - President Bush on Wednesday selected Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a magnet for controversy as one of the leading architects of the Iraq war, as his choice for World Bank president.
The decision threatened to set off a bitter fight on the World Bank board, which must sign off on Washington's choice, at a time when Bush has said improving trans-Atlantic relations and America's image in the Arab world will be a top priority.
Mr. Wolfowitz's nomination today tells us the U.S. couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks.
"Several disturbing scenes stand out in Michael Moore's agitprop movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," but one that always prompts "ewwws" from the audience involves a comb, some saliva and the stubborn coif of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz."
"Showing top officials primping before TV appearances is a tried-and-true embarrassment tactic, but the Wolfowitz scene -- captured on camera on a breezy morning outside the Pentagon -- is notable because Wolfie not only spits on his own comb but gets grooming assistance from an aide who donates saliva."
A Little Gob Will Do Ya - Washington Post 7/8/2004
Bush sought to head off any backlash over his selection, calling Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other world leaders to make the case that Wolfowitz would be a "strong" leader of the international agency. The bank provides billions of dollars in loans in the developing world with the goal of fighting poverty.
At a White House news conference Bush described Wolfowitz as "a compassionate, decent man" with "good experience" in managing large organizations, citing his role at the Pentagon, and as "a skilled diplomat" who is committed to global development.
Wolfowitz could prove a hard sell for Bush, especially since his selection follows closely on the nomination of another leading administration hawk, John Bolton, to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
European sources said Wolfowitz's name was circulated informally among board directors several weeks ago and was rejected. "Mr. Wolfowitz's nomination today tells us the U.S. couldn't care less what the rest of the world thinks," one source said.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier suggested other candidates could be considered. "It's a proposal. We shall examine it in context of the personality of the person you mention and perhaps in view of other candidates."
Wolfowitz would replace outgoing World Bank chief James Wolfensohn, who said earlier this month that Wolfowitz was no longer in the running for the top job after a Pentagon official suggested he wanted to stay at the Defense Department.
IRAQ WAR HAWK
The U.S. Treasury Department has said it wants a new president in place before Wolfensohn departs in June after 10 years in the post.
By tradition, the United States selects the World Bank president while Europeans nominate a head of the International Monetary Fund.
"The executive directors of the board who are charged under the bank's articles of agreement with the selection of the bank's president are in the process of consultations with the member countries they represent," a World Bank statement said.
Wolfowitz is a deeply controversial figure in Europe because of his role in designing and promoting the Iraq war.
He has also been a frequent target of criticism from congressional Democrats for what they called his "rosy" assessments of military operations and reconstruction in Iraq.
Wolfensohn, who earlier this month appeared to make light of Wolfowitz's prospects for the World Bank job, described Bush's choice on Wednesday as a "a person of high intellect, integrity and broad experience in both the public and private sectors."
IMF chief Rodrigo Rato said he looked forward to working with Wolfowitz and praised his "impressive record" and experience in world affairs, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called Wolfowitz "very distinguished and experienced internationally." "If his appointment is confirmed we look forward to working with him.
Several international groups including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and ActionAid called Wolfowitz a bad choice. Greenpeace expressed concern that Wolfowitz would "put U.S. and oil industry interests" ahead of development.
Wolfensohn, an Australian who became American to take the job, was appointed by President Bill Clinton. But he frequently clashed with Bush's Treasury Department.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton
© Reuters 2005