The ex-trade representative brings more economic cred than the outgoing World Bank president, but critics can't forget his neocon past
On the Internet, the White House selection of former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick as new World Bank chief inspired yawns, scorn, and hope that the long-time government functionary will be a less polarizing figure than his predecessor in representing U.S. interests at the institution.
Bloggers have been quick to note some striking parallels between Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz, who is leaving at the end of June after being snared in a scandal over how he helped set the salary of his girlfriend, who had been a World Bank employee (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/17/07, "More Problems After Wolfowitz").
Peering Into the Past
Both men have long been identified with the neoconservative movement in the Republican Party, and both signed onto a January, 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton from the Project for the New American Century calling for regime change in Iraq. (Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also signed the letter.)
"Second verse, same as the first," wrote Tennessee blogger Southern Beale. "This is basically trading one creepy neocon for another."
"[President George W.] Bush is like Microsoft. Appointment 1.0 sucks, Appointment 2.0 is hit-or-miss, Appointment 3.0 is actually…well, we'll wait and see," wrote Bronxist at DailyKos.
Nod from Europe?
Zoellick's long government résumé, including a stint working with the State Dept. under President George H.W. Bush, also led many to conclude that the current president was seeking a more conciliatory nominee for the bank—and likely vetted the choice with certain European governments. The bank's board, comprised of two dozen members, still must approve the choice.
"Perhaps foremost on the minds of the Bank, given the Wolfowitz affair, is that it can ill afford more negative headlines. Mr. Zoellick is not prone to scandal," BBC business reporter Simon Atkinson noted.
A Minnesota blogger who writes under the name Sean Aqui says Bush would have been "stupid" to choose another controversial nominee. "Zoellick's got experience and international credentials. He helped push through CAFTA, which might be an issue here at home but doesn't bother other countries too much," Aqui says. "The more interesting question is whether he will try to continue Wolfowitz's anticorruption drive, which (along with his Iraq war baggage) is what generated such antipathy for Wolfowitz."
Ties to Enron
Zoellick, 53, has been out of the Bush Administration for less than a year, having resigned last June as Deputy Secretary of State to take a position as a Goldman Sachs Group (GS) vice-chairman. Before that, the Harvard Law graduate served as U.S. Trade Representative from 2001 to 2005. In the 1990s, before its collapse into scandal and bankruptcy, Zoellick also was a paid adviser to Enron—an interesting factoid for many left-leaning bloggers.
At DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas sees Zoellick as another apparatchik of the White House, chosen for his years as a loyal friend to the Bush family and not because of his poverty-fighting credibility. "Republicans cannot have any government agencies work well—even quasi-governmental institutions like the World Bank—because if they did, it would invalidate their anti-government mantra. So Bush continues his tradition of using nominations to reward loyalists (Zoellick is a neocon who pushed hard for invading Iraq), without regard as to whether they have the ability to actually govern effectively."
But at Foreign Policy, blogger Blake Hounshell praised the choice: "I'm pleased that the Bush Administration has nominated a qualified and, by most accounts, downright brilliant man to head the World Bank in Robert Zoellick. After all, it could have been Bill Frist."
Good Bob or Bad Bob?
James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nongovernment organization with offices in Washington, London, and Geneva, says it will be important to watch how Zoellick handles the issue of intellectual property, a thorny topic that has pitted pharmaceutical makers against poor nations over the question of AIDS drug pricing.
"Zoellick comes at a time when the World Bank is being asked to represent the poor in debates over the role of intellectual-property protection and development," Love writes. "He doesn't like big pharma, but he has been a team player on many occasions, so it will be interesting to see what he does with his new job, with his benefactor leaving office January, 2009. I hope we see Good Bob, and not Bad Bob."
Eyes on Trade, the blog of Public Citizen, called Zoellick—dubbed Moustache—"unforgettable in every way." Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer activist group often critical of Bush policies. "While development gurus often lamented that Paul Wolfowitz had no experience with economic policy, I'm worried that Moustache has TOO MUCH of the WRONG experience, as former Bush Administration U.S. Trade Representative who pushed Fast Track and NAFTA expansions to Chile, Morocco, Singapore, and Australia," blogger Todd Tucker writes. "The Z Man…has a long history of being on the wrong side of the fair trade debate."
Can He "Hit the Ground Running?"
Writing in Britain's Guardian newspaper, Harvard economics professor Kenneth Rogoff offers overall approval of the choice, with Zoellick a firm "internationalist" and deeply committed to the role of free markets as a weapon against poverty. Still, Rogoff elucidates some weaknesses in Zoellick's résumé.
"Zoellick's background as a lawyer hardly makes him perfect for the job, either. The World Bank presidency is not about negotiating treaties, as Zoellick did when he was U.S. trade representative," Rogoff says. "The bank's most important role in development today is as a "knowledge bank" that helps aggregate, distill, and disseminate best practices from around the world. In this respect the Bank's technical assistance to governments is very similar to what private consultants offer to companies.
"The biggest question mark, though, is whether Zoellick will be able to hit the ground running and implement desperately needed reforms. Reform No. 1, of course, is to ensure that the next World Bank president is not an American."
Inside the bank, some were still displeased about the whole situation, beginning with Zoellick's ties to Bush. In a Page 1 story May 30, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed "senior World Bank official" noting Zoellick's political heritage—the same as that of Wolfowitz.
"People think Zoellick is highly intelligent and has a pragmatic mindset," said the unnamed official, who "spoke on condition that he not be named for fear of alienating his new boss," according to the Post. "But he's still from the same people who brought you the Iraq war, the same people who brought you Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. There's immediate jaundice about his country of origin. Any American appointed by this President would carry that stigma."