Bush and the World Bank: Bloody but unbowed

Is Robert Zoellick, Bush's nominee to replace Paul Wolfowitz, a kinder, gentler neocon?

Published May 29, 2007 10:43PM (EDT)

You are not likely to find a better list of likely nominees to the Neocon Hall of Fame than the 18 signatures at the bottom of a letter sent by the Project for the New American Century to President Bill Clinton on Jan. 26, 1998.

The letter calls for "a new strategy that would secure the interests of the U.S. and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power." Among the luminaries who signed it are Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, William Bennett, Richard Perle and ... Robert B. Zoellick.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday afternoon that Zoellick, currently an executive at Goldman Sachs who previously served as deputy secretary of state and United States trade representative for the White House, will be nominated for the position of president of the World Bank by President Bush on Wednesday. The early spin is that, in contrast to those other neoconservatives, Zoellick, who for years was the Bush administration's point person for "free trade," is not an "ideologue." He's supposed to be a pragmatic dealmaker, the kind of person who can orchestrate complex trade deals without getting bogged down in moral imperatives.

That may be slicing the baloney rather thin. In 2000, Zoellick wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs titled "Campaign 2000: A Republican Foreign Policy." The text of that essay, available online for a mere $5.95, does not lend itself easily to making a persuasive case as to his non-ideological nature.

The quote that jumps out the most: "Finally, a modern Republican foreign policy recognizes that there is still evil in the world -- people who hate America and the ideas for which it stands."

(A short pause, while we amuse ourselves with the thought that hating America is synonymous with "evil." I hate America's love affair with urban sprawl and cheap energy and unwillingness to commit to greenhouse gas emission cuts. Does that make me evil? Probably.)

There's also a lengthy section bashing the Clinton administration for failing "to define a new internationalism for the United States, thus letting historic opportunities slip away," that seems, oh, just a tad partisan. Zoellick sums up Clinton's "flawed approach" by declaring, "The administration has caused too many countries to be weary, and even resentful, of the United States. The power of the United States is obvious to the world, but Clinton has failed to use that power wisely or diplomatically."

(A longer pause, while we decide whether to chuckle ruefully at this analysis, or to rend our clothes and tear our hair and run screaming incoherently through the streets.)

Otherwise, Zoellick's prescriptions for a Republican foreign policy sound pretty much identical to the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz playbook. One could perhaps say that he appears a little more grounded in reality than his fellow travelers, in a James Baker-ish kind of way. That may well be a result of the fact that as a trade negotiator you are expected to actually negotiate, which requires understanding that there is another side in any dispute, even if you don't agree with it. Such abilities could stand him in good stead when negotiating through the bureaucratic fiefdoms of the World Bank.

In 2000, he even had a direct prescription for the Bank:

The World Bank should concentrate on helping people adjust to change. In poor countries, this agenda may involve improving basic health and subsistence needs while creating economic opportunities. In other low-income countries, the World Bank can assist in developing markets that will enable people to benefit from self-help.

Maybe a pragmatic dealmaker will be able to get some things done at the World Bank. Just about anything would be better than leading the institution into a state of complete paralysis. But it's hard to see much evidence that the Bush administration has learned from the whole episode anything about how to work well with others. The nomination of Zoellick is very much a case of business as usual, minus perhaps one soupçon of hubris.

UPDATE: James Love has an interesting column on Zoellick at the Huffington Post that analyzes his track record on Big Pharma. Hint: It's not exactly what one might expect.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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