Just deserts

May 20, 2007

It's taken nearly two years and an international furor, but the World Bank managed to free itself last week from Paul Wolfowitz, the former Pentagon official badly miscast as president of a multilateral organization.

Mr. Wolfowitz's brokered resignation, which made his departure no less ignominious, had almost nothing to do with the incident that nominally prompted it: disclosure of a promotion and pay package he arranged for his longtime companion, Shaha Ali Riza, a bank employee.

That was merely the trigger for an open rebellion against a favorite of President Bush who arrived at the global lending institution deeply stained by his lead role in advocating the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. He then continued to conduct himself with the same insular arrogance that was the hallmark of the Bush inner circle that launched the war, with such disastrous results.

In the denouement of Mr. Wolfowitz's five-week futile struggle to save his job and win vindication on the ethics issue, there is a larger sense of justice delivered than the immediate facts of this case would suggest. The blunder of Iraq was simply so huge, and so unnecessary, that its key architects will likely have to answer for it - one way or another.

Details of the pay raise case are murky. Mr. Wolfowitz contends he sought advice on the matter from a bank ethics committee, which recommended that Ms. Riza be transferred to the State Department. But she also got a promotion to compensate for her career disruption and two raises in her salary, which is paid by the bank.

At a minimum, it appears Mr. Wolfowitz was not sensitive enough to the appearance of favoritism and the impact it would have on bank morale.

Morale was already low because of the way Mr. Wolfowitz operated. He surrounded himself with bank outsiders from the Bush administration, made unilateral decisions to cut off funds to countries he considered corrupt, and remained deeply involved in Iraq despite a long-standing bank prohibition against political activity. About a dozen senior bank officials quit during his tenure, according to The New Yorker magazine.

This sorry episode may have a positive outcome if the hidebound World Bank uses this opportunity to regroup, reorganize and perhaps rethink its post-World War II mission. Its battle against poverty has had mixed success, at best.

But the next president of this international institution owned by 180 countries and staffed by 10,000 employees, who by tradition will also be selected by Mr. Bush, must understand: A unilateral approach just won't work.

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