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updated 3/17/2005 4:15:20 PM ET 2005-03-17T21:15:20

Paul Wolfowitz, the most dogged advocate in the Bush administration of using U.S. power to transform the Muslim world, on Wednesday night sought to head off criticism of his nomination to lead the World Bank, saying: "I believe deeply in the mission of development."

Speaking hours after President Bush announced he intended to send his hawkish deputy defense secretary to the world's leading development institution, Mr. Wolfowitz struck a conciliatory tone.

He told the Financial Times: "Before I have my own vision, I need to do a lot of listening."

Some wary Europeans and development economists have argued he is ill-suited for the post.

But Mr. Wolfowitz said: "I look forward to meeting the European executive directors and the European finance ministers and development ministers. I know that in this job I would be working for them as members of the Bank. I think they'll find me a good listener, and I know I have a lot that I need to hear and understand.

"I had very good conversations on the phone today with a number of leaders around the world, including the Spanish managing director of the [International Monetary Fund], Rodrigo de Rato, who was very positive.

"People who know me well from my development experience like the prime minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, or Sri Mulyani, the economic development minister of Indonesia, are very positive. I hope as others get to know me in this field, they'll form a similar opinion."

Mr. Wolfowitz's candidacy follows the nomination of John Bolton, also a conservative hawk and a skeptic about multilateralist diplomacy, to represent the U.S. at the United Nations — choices that underline Mr. Bush's eagerness to see multilateral organizations advance US foreign policy.

But Mr. Wolfowitz said: "This is not about changing the agenda of the World Bank. The agenda of the World Bank is about poverty reduction, about helping billions of people lift themselves up out of misery. It's a unifying mission that brings people together, and I look forward to that opportunity.

"Problems like poverty and HIV/AIDS need to be addressed for their own sake as humanitarian issues, but it's also the case that soundly-based economic development supports the advance of liberty and freedom as well."

Nevertheless, the nomination could start a struggle within the bank.

The U.S. traditionally chooses its head but the nomination must be approved by the directors, who represent member countries. The U.S. moved in 2000 to block Caio Koch Weser, the European candidate to head the IMF, setting a precedent for such a veto.

When Mr. Wolfowitz's candidacy first emerged in the Financial Times this month, development experts and high-ranking bank officials were appalled that a man with minimal economic or financial expertise was being considered.

Mr. Wolfowitz is commonly identified as the intellectual architect of the Iraq war. He argued immediately after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for a military invasion to oust Saddam Hussein and publicly predicted that Iraqis would greet US troops as "liberators".

On Wednesday Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general, and one of the world's foremost development experts, said: "It's a very surprising and in many ways inappropriate nomination. International aid organizations warned that the World Bank needed to maintain its mission to minimize poverty, rather than reframe its purpose to spread liberty in an effort to combat Islamic militancy."

But within the White House, Mr. Wolfowitz is esteemed for the clarity of his argument, his effectiveness as a bureaucrat and his vision of democratic change in the Middle East. His developing country experience was primarily gained during his years as US ambassador to Indonesia.

Announcing his choice, Mr. Bush said: "Paul is committed to development. He's a compassionate, decent man who will do a fine job in the World Bank."

John Snow, Treasury secretary, said Mr. Wolfowitz was "a highly qualified candidate". He said other countries had been "consulted extensively ... on the essential qualifications of a World Bank leader." European officials said, however, they had not been consulted on the nomination of Mr. Wolfowitz.

Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary, also praised the president's "superb" decision.

"Dr. Wolfowitz is a gifted public servant. He is thoughtful, astute, and broadly experienced in world affairs through service in the Department of Defense and the Department of State, including as ambassador to Indonesia, and as the dean of The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"The Department of Defense will miss his talents, insights, and energy, and I will miss his daily counsel and friendship."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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