Wolfowitz just another burned bridge

As Paul Wolfowitz is to the World Bank, the U.S. is becoming to the world.

We should look at the battle unfolding at the World Bank not as the story of one man falling to earth, but as a moral tale of the risks the U.S. faces unless the Bush administration spends more time rebuilding bridges it has burned all over the world.

Wolfowitz genuinely aspired to help Africa develop, but he ended up isolated, friendless and vulnerable; receiving no credit for his genuine accomplishments; and unable to make progress on the issues he cares about. And the U.S. is in a similar position today.

The similarity arises in part because, although President Bush’s best-known role has been as a conservative hawk — and everything he has done in that role has been a disaster — he has also aspired to fight poverty and help Africa. And Bush has genuinely scored some major accomplishments as a humanitarian.

OK, pick yourself off the floor: It’s true. In the world of foreign aid, Bush has done better than almost anyone realizes — or gives him credit for. It’s his only significant positive legacy, and it consists of four elements.

First and most important, Bush started Pepfar, his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa — the best single thing he has done in his life. It’s a huge increase over earlier programs and will save more than 9 million lives. Granted, it has been too ideological about promoting “abstinence only” programs, but at the grass-roots level it is increasingly pragmatic (don’t tell the White House, but the U.S. still gives out far more condoms than any other country).

Second, Bush started a major new foreign aid program, the millennium challenge account. This involves giving large sums to countries selected for their good governance and from top to bottom reflects smart new approaches to foreign aid.

Third, the Bush administration elevated sex trafficking on the international agenda. Bush spoke about it to the U.N., and he appointed a first-rate ambassador for the issue, John Miller, who until his resignation late last year hectored and sanctioned foreign countries into curbing this form of modern slavery. (Alas, since Miller left, the administration’s anti-trafficking efforts have faltered.)

Fourth, Bush has begun to focus attention and funds on malaria, which kills more than a million people a year in poor countries and imposes a huge economic burden on Africa in particular.

So why doesn’t Bush get any credit for these achievements? Partly, I think, because he never seems very interested in them himself. And partly because, like Wolfowitz, Bush’s approach to governing is to circle the wagons rather than build coalitions; they both antagonize fence-sitters by coming across as unilateralist, sanctimonious, arrogant and incompetent.

In December, the White House held an event to call attention to malaria. But Bush’s staff barred me from attending: They apparently didn’t want coverage of malaria if it came from a columnist they didn’t like.

I can’t recall an administration as suspicious and partisan as this one, one so disinclined to outreach, one that so openly adheres to the ancient Roman maxim of Oderint dum metuant: Let them hate, so long as they fear.

So Bush, unwilling to concede any error, unwilling to reach out, unwilling to shuffle his Cabinet, staggers on. And the U.S. itself has been tainted by the same haughtiness. Long after Wolfowitz has gone, and even after Bush has gone, the next president will have to detoxify our relations with the rest of the world.

Moreover, even in those areas where Bush has done well, like foreign aid, our strained relations with the rest of the world have undermined our ability to succeed.

Indeed, Bill Clinton (who wasn’t nearly as generous with foreign aid as Bush when he was in the White House) has shown in recent years how much can be accomplished when a leader cooperates with partners on issues such as AIDS and development. If Clinton were pursuing Bush’s development agenda, it would be in a flurry of meetings and visits and multilateralism that would be far more effective in seeing that agenda put in place.

But instead the international stage is riven in ways that mirror the World Bank itself. And it looks as if we’re drifting toward the end of a failed presidency of the United States that parallels Wolfowitz’s failed presidency of the World Bank.