A Rude Awakening for Wolfowitz

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Kristoffer Tripplar / Sipa

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz

Paul Wolfowitz has always been something of a dreamer.

The intellectual architect of the Iraq war, Wolfowitz more than anyone else gets the credit — and the blame — for the idea that the U.S. could in short order create a working democracy from a nation long stapled together by force and fear. That optimistic notion hasn't worked out so well.

Two years ago, when he fled the Pentagon and took over the World Bank, hoping in part to salvage his reputation, the onetime ambassador to Indonesia announced that the number one threat to democracy and development around the world was corruption. Maybe so, but making corruption the World Bank's public enemy number one left longtime bank veterans rolling their eyes at Wolfowitz's naivete.

Still, it was surprising when Wolfowitz admitted this week that he had engaged in a little favoritism of his own, acknowledging that he was involved in salary negotiations on behalf of a World Bank employee with whom he has long been romantically linked. The communications staffer, Shaha Alia Riza, was transferred to the State Department after Wolfowitz moved to the Bank in 2005, in accordance with Bank conflict of interest rules. But Wolfowitz admitted this week that he had helped secure a salary bump for Riza when she made the move. A private watchdog group has estimated that Riza's salary (which was still paid for by the World Bank) jumped from $132,000 to more than $194,000 when she relocated to Foggy Bottom, where she no longer works. "In hindsight," Wolfowitz said yesterday, "I wish I had trusted my original instincts and kept myself out of the negotiations. I made a mistake, for which I am sorry."

Wolfowitz's admission comes after two years at the Bank — two somewhat rocky years. His top-level appointments underwhelmed the Bank's rank and file; a number of longtime Bank veterans fled the institution in horror that the administration's ranking neoconservative was in charge. The effect is cumulative: the Bank's Staff Association is calling for his resignation — and his admission came on the eve of the bank's annual spring meeting in Washington this weekend.

In truth, there was plenty of idealism to go around: Wolfowitz got the job in part because he was thought by the Bank's board to enjoy good relations with the Republican Congress — an idea that doesn't look so shrewd now that the Democrats control both chambers. It won't help Wolfowitz with Congress that Riza's first boss at State was none other than Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the vice president.

Wolfowitz, who raised the idea of invading Iraq with President Bush just a week after September 11, is known for keeping many irons in lots of fires. An aide once told me he had seen Wolfowitz on several occasions conduct multiple telephone conversations simultaneously. His job at the Pentagon was to think the big thoughts and let the others worry about the details. His Pentagon boss, Donald Rumsfeld, once explained their relationship with a modesty that was false but nonetheless telling: "Paul's an academic. I'm a Cook County politician."

If so, however, he is an academic without tenure, which means once again the messy details may be his downfall.