The seats are getting hotter for World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Both still enjoy the support of the US president, but dismissals may be just around the corner.
Why the long face Wolfie?
There were other reasons for Bush to be somber as well. His press secretary Tony Snow has been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. Over in Iraq, last week's deadly suicide bombs made a mockery of Bush's push for more security in Baghdad.
And then there were the two guests sitting at the very back of the hall.
Alberto Gonzales, still the US Attorney General, and Paul Wolfowitz, still the World Bank President, smiled bravely through the show -- but it certainly wasn't out of smugness for their futures. All of Washington is puzzling over whether and when Bush will drop one or both of them. Indeed, not even Bush confidantes deny that a presidential coup de grace for Gonzales and Wolfowitz is long overdue. Both have lost the one quality that is absolutely indispensable for their offices: moral authority.
Gonzales is in a fix because of false statements on eight fired federal prosecutors. There is much to suggest the prosecutors were handed pink slips for political reasons, and that the White House was involved. Gonzales then went on to lie about his involvement in the matter.
On Thursday of last week, he had a last chance to dig himself out of the hole he finds himself in. But his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- which he had weeks to prepare for -- was a disaster. Not even the Republicans on the panel were in the mood to defend the embattled prosecutor, and Gonzales likewise did himself no favors. Not only did he try to avoid almost every question, but he also claimed memory loss no less than 64 times. This astonishing lack of recall went so far that Gonzales couldn't even remember a decisive meeting in his office that had taken place just a few months earlier.
The country's top law-enforcement officer sounded "like the sort of person who forgets where he parked his car," the Washington Post scoffed. Republican Senator Tom Coburn snarled at Gonzales: "The best way to put this behind us is your resignation." The Attorney General of the United States has become a laughing stock for both friend and foe.
Veritable civil war
The situation Paul Wolfowitz finds himself in is hardly much better. The self-proclaimed leader of a merciless crusade against foreign-aid corruption has been caught arranging a huge raise for his girlfriend -- from $133,000 to $193,000 a year. Calls for his resignation have been coming in from all quarters for weeks -- most recently from Germany's Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. Even Graeme Wheeler, the World Bank's managing director, has begged Wolfowitz to clear out.
A veritable "civil war" is raging within the World Bank, the Financial Times wrote recently. And Wolfowitz's opponents in this conflict comprise the overwhelming majority of the World Bank's 13,000 employees. A regime change seems to be in the offing, and this time it won't be happening in Baghdad.
But the former deputy secretary of defense -- as brilliant as he is quixotic -- refuses to budge. Resignation is out of the question, is the message that comes thundering, again and again, from his office in World Bank headquarters, located just one block from the White House. He has called for an end to the internal debate in e-mails to his staffers -- so that attention can once again be turned to poverty and hunger.
As long as Bush continues supporting him, nothing can happen to Wolfowitz: The United States is the World Bank's largest stockholder, and the World Bank's president has traditionally been a US citizen. Bush appointed Wolfowitz against massive resistance -- and despite all the protests now, Wolfowitz cannot be dismissed without the approval of the White House.
A liability for the US president
And so the fate of the two endangered Washington office holders depends on Bush alone. "Fredo" -- as the US president likes to call Gonzales -- is a friend going all the way back to Texas. He was Bush's personal lawyer as well as his legal advisor in the White House. It was Gonzales who helped come up with a dubious legal defense for Bush's transgressions in interrogating terror suspects. The attorney general may have become a liability for the US president. But their long common history could ensure Gonzales won't be out of his job.
"Wolfie," as Bush almost tenderly used to call the president of the World Bank, is more at risk. People in Washington have not failed to note that the president's statements of support are sounding increasingly lukewarm. Holding on to Wolfowitz is more than just domestic politics. It is also straining relations with important allies such as France, England and Italy. Hardly something the already weakened president can afford.
Hopes that Wolfowitz might leave as early as this week are high among World Bank staffers. An investigation of the affair is ongoing, and if it yields further incriminating details, keeping the president of the World Bank in office will become impossible. And then there is the imminent US-EU Summit, scheduled for April 30 in Washington: Should European government leaders continue to pressure Bush, at least one of the president's friends will be out of a job.
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