Wolfowitz left with few allies at World Bank

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- In the tense days after World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz admitted his mistake in arranging a generous payment package for his girlfriend, angry employees launched an impromptu campaign. Blue ribbons started cropping up on lapels, taped to doors, and as an image in e-mails - a symbol of support for the bank's ideals of good governance and transparency.

The curls of fabric were seen by many of the more than 7,000 staffers in Washington as a silent but clear call for their leader to resign.

Then Wolfowitz himself was seen wearing one.

For employees chafing against his leadership, that blunder became a vivid example of Wolfowitz's isolation from the bank's employees, a remoteness that has left him with few allies inside the international poverty-fighting institution as he battles to keep his job.

A political scientist and former Pentagon official known for his analytical skills and predilection for sweeping, visionary ideas, Wolfowitz also has a reputation for remaining aloof from day-to-day management decisions. At the World Bank, he brought in a tight-knit cadre of aides - all one-time GOP political operatives with no experience in development projects - who limited the access that bank veterans had to the new president.

These aides, according to more than a dozen World bank employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear for their jobs, showed little patience for bank practices, excluded veteran staff experts from negotiations over development plans for countries and went around managers to quiz staff about their work.

"When he arrived at the World Bank, he began by listening very carefully," said Sebastian Mallaby, author of a book on the World Bank. "But it emerged after six months or so that all of this would go in one ear and out the other. When it really came time to do something, he appeared to fall back on the advice of three people he had brought with him from the outside. The internal experts were feeling more and more out of the loop. That set Wolfowitz up."

Wolfowitz has apologized to his staff for the arrangements for his companion, a World Bank employee on loan to the State Department, saying: "I made a mistake for which I am sorry." And he has promised a management shake-up. One top aide has resigned and another was recently moved to an office farther away from Wolfowitz.

Through his lawyer, Wolfowitz declined to comment, but he has previously criticized bank staff for "a conscious campaign to undermine my effectiveness as president and derail important programs."

Former Wolfowitz colleagues argue that bank staff were inclined from the start to dislike the former deputy secretary of defense, regardless of whom he brought with him. Wolfowitz is seen as a principal architect of the war in Iraq, which much of the bank staff opposes.

"To understand his situation, one would first have to understand what he inherited, the social dynamics," said retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, referring to the staff hostility toward Wolfowitz. A former senior military assistant to Wolfowitz during his tenure at the Pentagon, Batiste said he was in constant contact with Wolfowitz for 15 months during the Iraq war. "Paul Wolfowitz is a hardworking, brilliant man," Batiste said. "He was patient, decisive when he needed to be, thoughtful."

Fred Ikli, a friend and former undersecretary for defense policy in the Reagan administration, is perplexed by the critique of Wolfowitz - who took Ikli's job at the Pentagon. "He was very open to looking for outside advice, he reached out to different people," Ikli said.

But he acknowledged that Wolfowitz faced a much greater challenge at the World Bank, with its 185 member countries and more than $23 billion in grants and loans worldwide.

At 63, Wolfowitz is familiar, comfortable even, in the role of an outsider working within the power structure. In the early 1970s, he came to Washington after teaching at Yale University and joined a band of neoconservatives who advocated the use of unilateral, muscular U.S. power. They were a lonely crew in a city dominated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Wolfowitz quickly learned to create his own networks and distrust conventional wisdom.

Wolfowitz's reputation as a visionary who argued that America should use its power to make the world a better place appealed to the staff at the bank. He "has compassion for poor people and thus believes in the mission of the bank," said a recently retired employee.

When he arrived almost two years ago, Wolfowitz vigorously embraced a campaign to eliminate corruption in World Bank projects, a mission started by the previous president. But some on the staff began to take issue with how Wolfowitz ran the effort. Staff and aid groups criticized Wolfowitz for ignoring the advice of longtime experts and for pursuing a political agenda - targeting some countries for corruption, but overlooking U.S. allies in the war on terror.

Bank staff interviewed for this article had little praise for Wolfowitz's management style. They described him as a remote and indecisive leader with a hard edge.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad