A new president at the World Bank

By now, the Paul Wolfowitz saga is all over the news. He has resigned from the Presidency of World Bank over either his own ethical lapses (if you listen to his critics) or because the entrenched bureaucracy hated this anti-corruption crusader (if you listen to his supporters). Either way, his last day is 30 June 2007.

So now, 2 years after nominating Wolfowitz to the job, Bush has another stab at nominating someone to that position. Traditionally, the US President nominates an American for the job. However, the Board of Governors still has to approve the nomination and US does not have enough votes to simply ram the nomination through.

Bush and World Bank are both at crossroads. Bush has 20 months left in office and his time in the White House is now deeply intertwined with the Iraqi mess. He, just as everyone else, wants to leave something positive behind. World Bank, created as a conduit to help western Europe get back on its feet after WW2, is also looking for a mission for the future. During the Cold War, its monies and energies were largely frittered away in unsound projects that helped dictators more than anyone else. As a result, many critics are calling for a world without World Bank.

To break from the past, the two major goals of World Bank these days are fighting poverty and fighting corruption. These two scourges are devastating many poorer countries, hindering their growth and, to make matters worse, fueling large-scale illegal immigration to many richer countries which are unprepared or unwilling to take them. Bush can help on all these fronts and help US reduce illegal immigration by picking the right person to direct the energies and the treasury of World Bank to fight these two problems. Of course, the impact of this policy shall not be evident in the short term but it can create a lasting legacy that George W. Bush can be rightly proud of. Now the question is who to nominate.

Bush has had a troubled 2007 so far. His appointments seem to be ideologues who do not have a good grasp of their responsibilities. The Alberto Gonzales affair has primed many people to automatically suspect any nominee for the World Bank job. In such a hostile climate, Bush does not have a lot of room to maneuver. If his nominee is seen as unacceptable (again, many are already espousing such a position, even before anyone has been announced), there is a good chance that this American-on-top tradition may come to a quick end. While I may be a dyed-in-wool liberal, I also feel that a single misstep should not kill a tradition. So, I hope Bush confounds his critics by doing something audacious. I have a few suggestions.

First, Bush could go with tradition and pick an American but from the other side of the political spectrum. Pick someone who has experience as a leader, had an easy time with international agencies and who can see the long-term positive impact on US and the world by fighting poverty and corruption. After all, this is not an academic position. World Bank needs to become more focused on its goals and deliver some results. Richard Holbrooke comes to mind as do Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

Or, Bush could modify the tradition - Choose a non-American. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, is resigning from his current job on 27 June, so he would be available. Jose Maria Aznar, the ex-prime minister of Spain, has impeccable conservative credentials. If he is keen to tackle poverty and corruption, he can help the Spanish government and people by reducing the influx of desperate illegal immigrants into Spain. Of course, Bush could try to convince Nelson Mandela but he is likely to say no. Shashi Tharoor, the loser in the race for UN Secretary General a few months back, could be a wild and crazy but useful pick. An even more wild pick would be Bono, who has been campaigning for more help to poorer countries.

Whomsoever Bush chooses, he has to ensure that this person would be an effective leader in the multilateral environment of World Bank. A "My way or the highway" person would not only cause a bigger mess and interfere with Bush's legacy, it may provide the right ammo for those who are unhappy with American leadership lately. In today's world of fragmented alliances, it is very important to find someone who can rally the troops at World Bank and focus on the objective at hand.

Having said all this, I am afraid that the Bush advisers would steer him towards a "normal" approach that has all the hallmarks of mediocrity. But this is not the time to be timid. Safe and bland choices do not a statesman make...