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April 15, 2007

Wolfowitz's Allies Regroup but Leave Questions Unanswered

by Jim Lobe

Paul Wolfowitz, the embattled World Bank president, is receiving new support from conservative politicians and right-wing publications that previously backed his notorious role as an architect of the war in Iraq, but missing from the regrouping attempts are answers to two important questions.

Paul Wolfowitz, the embattled World Bank president, is receiving new support from conservative politicians and right-wing publications that previously backed his notorious role as an architect of the war in Iraq, but missing from the regrouping attempts are answers to two important questions.

Why has Wolfowitz given his girlfriend such a large pay hikes and favorable contract terms in spite of Bank rules? And why has his office and staff attempted what appears to be a botched cover-up? So far no explanations have been given.

Further, and despite his own public admission of wrongdoing, Wolfowitz's friends now say he has not done wrong in the scandal engulfing the World Bank over improper pay hikes to Shaha Riza, his romantic partner and coworker at the Bank.

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty spoke Friday of a conversation he had with Wolfowitz: "I am satisfied, based on what he told me, that the process was followed."

The George W. Bush administration too continued to air its support of Wolfowitz despite the unprecedented media attention to the scandal and the many questions that remain unanswered.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson described Wolfowitz as a "dedicated public servant" and said he had "very high regard" for him.

Earlier, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that she expected Wolfowitz to remain president of the World Bank, one of the most important global economic institutions.

Wolfowitz is President Bush's appointee. He served during Bush's first term in office as deputy secretary of defense and is best known as the ardent architect of the ill-fated U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Right-wing publications that have previously backed Wolfowitz's crusade promoting the war on Iraq have also come to his aid, citing a new campaign he is leading.

David Frum, a fellow neoconservative and a former presidential speech writer for President Bush, wrote in the National Review Online, a neoconservative outlet, asking for understanding.

Frum suggested that Wolfowitz's self-styled and much questioned campaign against corruption was too important to end with his possible resignation over this scandal.

"Under the circumstances, it was Wolfowitz's duty to set the most stringent example. But even if he erred, let's not lose sight of the larger issues -- and the grosser scandal," Frum wrote, suggesting that the Bank's global corruption fight was more noteworthy.

Another shot in the arm for Wolfowitz came from Fox News, another unerring cheerleader in the U.S. media of the Iraq war that in the past gave much play to Wolfowitz arguments about the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein allegedly had.

"Documents Give Wolfowitz a New Lifeline in World Bank Scandal of Girlfriend's Job," screamed the headline on the Fox News website.

The story went on to raise questions as to whether the controversy over the benefits in question that were awarded to Wolfowitz's girlfriend may have been the work of those unhappy with Wolfowitz's controversial anti-corruption campaign at the Bank.

"Many of those most irked at Wolfowitz's tough stance were sitting on the board that is now judging his actions," Fox News said.

It implied Wolfowitz's innocence, saying that he may have indeed taken "steps to try and determine if what he was doing was right – seemingly trying to navigate his way through an arcane bureaucracy with a maze of unusual rules and procedures."

Backing also came from another quarter with similar credentials: editors of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, known for their right-wing leanings. The newspaper suggested the scandal had no merit and was sheer power play.

"The dispute is so trivial that it betrays that this fracas has little to do with Mr. Wolfowitz's ethics. The real fight here is over his attempt to make the Bank and its borrowers more accountable for results, especially by exposing and punishing corruption," said the editorial.

Some support also came from the inside the Bank.

In a departure from their often reserved line, the World Bank's external affairs unit, now headed by a close Iraq war ally, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muasher, headlined a news story reporting on a press conference by the more often ignored African finance ministers on the Bank's website as such: "African Ministers Praise Paul Wolfowitz's Support for the Subcontinent".

The short piece on Saturday failed to report how African finance ministers in their conference have said they would respect the decision by the Bank's board, which is looking into Wolfowitz's job at the helm of the Washington-based lender.

But despite of this sudden rallying of support as the Wolfowitz camp regroups, the original questions remain without answers: why Riza took a pay hike that is far more than the World Bank protocols state, and why the attempted cover-up.

If World Bank staff rules had been respected, Riza was not to receive percentage increases greater than 12 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively as part of the settlement.

Yet payroll data obtained from the World Bank show that Shaha Riza, a communications officer received a 47,300-dollar and another 7.5 percent raise bringing her salary to 193,590 dollars, about 7,000 dollars more than what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earns.

The Board did not recommend that Wolfowitz award a salary increase of such dimensions to Riza.

And when asked about Riza's raises, a spokesman for Wolfowitz, Kevin Kellmes, told the Washington Post that that action was taken by the World Bank Board of Directors. The Board still denies involvement and, to date, no evidence has surfaced to prove otherwise.

But most telling of all perhaps is that Wolfowitz himself admitted it.

In his own words, Wolfowitz on Thursday told a room full of reporters in Washington for the annual spring meetings this weekend of the Bank and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund: "I made a mistake, for which I am sorry."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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