Geoffrey Lean: The appointment of Wolfowitz is surely a humiliation too far

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The Independent Online

If any doubt remains about the one-sidedness of the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair, the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz for the presidency of the World Bank should end it. This is the President's most humiliating rebuff to the Prime Minister yet.

If any doubt remains about the one-sidedness of the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair, the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz for the presidency of the World Bank should end it. This is the President's most humiliating rebuff to the Prime Minister yet.

Ten days ago, Tony Blair's Commission on Africa - a centrepiece of Britain's G8 presidency - recommended that it was time to stop the US appointing the head of the world's most important development body. Instead, it said, the post should be filled "by open competition that looks for the best candidate".

Within a week President Bush had brushed this recommendation - delivered with Blair's full authority - aside. Worse, he nominated the senior member of his administration who seems the least likely to wage the war on poverty urged by the commission.

Paul Wolfowitz was the main architect of the Iraq War. He insisted that the US army would be welcomed and that Iraq's oil would pay for its occupation and reconstruction. Instead, more than 1,500 Americans have been killed and the cost to the US is $200bn (£105bn), and counting.

President Bush calls him a "compassionate, decent man", "committed to development". Mr Wolfowitz says he "believes deeply in the mission of the World Bank" and promises to "listen" to his critics.

Maybe we should believe them. As has been noted, Robert McNamara also moved to the bank in the midst of a disastrous war that he had conducted incompetently, only to become its best-ever leader.

But don't bet your life on it, or the lives of the world's two billion destitute people. Mr Wolfowitz is an avowed opponent of the multilateralism embodied in the bank who has expressly rejected any comparison with Mr McNamara.

Bet instead that he will return the bank to its bad old days, or worse. From the early 1980s, after Mr McNamara's departure, it earned an appalling reputation. Its "structural adjustment programmes" in the name of a crazed global Thatcherism, devastated health and education across the developing world, and sent the incomes of the poor plunging, causingirreparable environmental damage.

Over the past 10 years - under the retiring president, James Wolfensohn - the bank has been clambering back towards sanity. It has placed emphasis on tackling poverty and made progress on greening itself, devoting vastly increased funding to protecting biodiversity and to helping to bring the fight against global warming up the world's agenda. This earned Mr Wolfensohn the contempt of the Bush administration.

Expect Mr Wolfowitz to have a little truck with this. Expect too, the man who allowed only US companies to bid for reconstruction contracts in Iraq to use the Bank's $20bn budget to further US interests.

His supporters gloat that his mission will be "the pursuit of neoconservative foreign policy goals by additional means". The response in most of the rest of the world is not hard to imagine. It could block his appointment, even though the US nomination has traditionally been nodded through. Europe has 30 per cent of the votes in the body that will make the decision, nearly twice the US share. And there is a precedent. Five years ago the US blocked the appointment of a German finance minister, to the presidency of the IMF, even though the European nomination had traditionally been rubber-stamped.

But what of Britain? So far, Mr Blair and Mr Brown have been silent, leaving it to Mr Straw to fawn on Mr Wolfowitz as "very distinguished and experienced internationally". But can the Prime Minister roll over so humiliatingly?

Probably. He seems to have been consulted before the nomination: the US describes the general response as "encouraging". Did Mr Blair assent, provided the announcement was made on Budget Day to minimise its impact? It would seem to be par for the course.

Gordon Brown's position is more intriguing. It will be his vote, as Britain's top representative to the World Bank reports to him. His commitment to tackling world poverty is sincere, and far more longstanding than Mr Blair's. So Britain's reaction is likely to provide us with a first indication of how ready a prime minister Brown would be to stand up for his principles.

There is no good reason why he should not. No strategic partnership with the US is at stake, as was claimed for Iraq - indeed, as Mr Brown has said, the war on poverty is essential to the war on terrorism. But has he got the courage to defy the President and to risk a row with Mr Blair? Or will he prefer the one-sided relationship embraced by his neighbourin Downing Street. We will soon know.

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