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How to Alienate Your Friends, At Home and Abroad; Bush's Puzzling Actions Leave Even Neo-Con Backers Wondering
Published on Sunday, December 14, 2003 by the Toronto Star
How to Alienate Your Friends, At Home and Abroad
Bush's Puzzling Actions Leave Even Neo-Con Backers Wondering
by Tim Harper

Here's how you make friends in George W. Bush's world.

You bar countries from sharing in some $18.6 billion (U.S.) in Iraqi reconstruction contracts, then later the same day, you pick up the phone and ask the leaders of those very countries to be nice to your personal envoy, James Baker, when he comes calling this week asking you to forgive the money Iraq owes you.

Here's how you welcome your northern neighbor's new prime minister.

You let your official spokesperson say how much you look forward to working with Paul Martin, then you make sure Canada is similarly shut out of reconstruction contracts, ignoring the financial help from Ottawa and the deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan fighting your war on terrorism.

Here's how you keep Europe guessing.

You send your defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to meet with the counterparts he once dismissed as "old Europe" and have him extend an olive branch, leading to widespread speculation that the U.S.-Europe rift is on the mend.

Then, you yank on the stitches by poking fun at German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's suggestion that your reconstruction policy could violate international law by glibly saying, as Bush did Friday: "International law? I better call my lawyer; he didn't bring that up to me."

And here's how to alienate your neo-con base.

You make a major speech on the quest for democracy in the Middle East, calling it your Number 1 priority and saying your work must be continued by successive presidents for decades to come.

Then, a couple of weeks later, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao comes calling, you make him happy by telling Taiwan it cannot hold a democratic referendum.

Put it all together and your list of detractors includes United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; governments in France, Germany, Russia and Canada; commentators on the left and right; and your own party's senior congressional leadership.

Even factoring in Bush's go-it-alone, with-us-or-against-us style, last week's developments caused no end of puzzlement.

"It simply looks like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," says Doug Bandow, a senior analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"This is the most bizarre juxtaposition of events I've ever seen. It frankly makes the administration look stupid."

The White House was said to be miffed that the Iraqi reconstruction memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was released on the eve of Baker's mission, but it signed off on the memo and Bush vigorously defended the policy a day later, saying those countries that risk their soldiers' lives deserve exclusive access to the reconstruction spoils.

His statement ignored the fact that more than half of the 63 Pentagon-approved countries did not have troops on the ground in Iraq.

Baker leaves tomorrow for five days of high-stakes diplomacy, meeting face-to-face with French President Jacques Chirac, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Schroeder.

He also will meet with two staunch allies of Washington: Britain's Tony Blair and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

Iraq owes an estimated $125 billion (U.S.), much of it due to France, Russia and Germany.

Putin has already signaled that he will point to the Iraqi reconstruction policy, thank Baker for his visit, then send him on his way with no debt forgiveness.

The Bush administration also drew fire for what some saw as a thinly veiled blackmail attempt, suggesting countries that forgive Iraqi debts could be put on the list of those approved for bidding on the 26 contracts. And the White House used some highly inflammatory language, suggesting that countries not part of the coalition had to be barred from contracts for reasons of U.S. security.

"This excludes countries like Canada, a leading contributor to peacekeeping operations, prominent champion of human rights and one of the world's most generous aid donors," wrote Gayle Smith of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.

"Does the Bush administration truly believe that the `essential security interests of the United States' would be harmed if a Canadian company rebuilt the road from Baghdad to Tikrit?"

Finally, Bush had to put out a fire at home after a Pentagon investigation found that a subsidiary of the Halliburton Company, once headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney, had overcharged the government by as much as $61 million for fuel delivery to Iraq, a contract it was awarded without competition.

Bush tried to move quickly to douse the perception that the policy was now shielding a politically connected company.

"If anybody is overcharging the government, we expect them to repay that money," he said.

Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate, was the highest-profile member of Bush's party to distance himself from the reconstruction policy and his comments stunned many observers.

"We have to remember that many of these countries that are being denied these contracts are supporting us elsewhere in the world, maybe fighting HIV-AIDS in Africa, maybe in Afghanistan," Frist said on CNBC.

"That's why I hope that there will be some moderation of this policy as we go forward."

Some of the toughest criticism came from the Project for the New American Century, a neo-conservative think-tank which sprang from an informal group that included Wolfowitz, author of the controversial Pentagon reconstruction memo, and Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary.

"President Bush, we suspect, is going to overrule the Pentagon's attempt to exclude from the bidding for Iraq reconstruction contracts certain countries that have opposed U.S. policy in Iraq," wrote think-tank analysts William Kristol and Robert Kagan.

"He might as well do it sooner rather than later, so as to minimize the diplomatic damage done by the Pentagon's heavy-handed and counterproductive action."

They said a more clever administration would have had an open bidding process and then, if only companies from supportive countries received contracts, the message would have been delivered, albeit subtly.

"Instead of being smart, clever or magnanimous, the Bush administration has done a dumb thing," Kristol and Kagan wrote.

All of this overshadowed a major shift on China earlier in the week, one that was hailed as a major victory in China but a sell-out to a dictator by commentators at home.

Faced with the democratic aspirations to independence of Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian and the bellicose threats of Wen, Bush sided with the latter.

This angered not only the pro-Taiwan members of Congress but also a portion of the political spectrum that had acted as Bush's main cheerleader when he turned his Iraqi mission into a self-styled campaign for democracy and freedom.

"I see some very profound changes," said John Tkacik of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, "especially when the president of the United States (earlier) proclaimed that the global expansion of democracy was a pillar of American foreign policy.

"Then, he gets up and basically says the president of Taiwan, by unilaterally taking these moves toward a referendum, was provocative."

Madeline Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton, told an audience in Washington last week that Bush's dedication to democracy is superficial and viewed through one prism only.

"President Bush bangs the freedom drum loudly but generally rates other leaders by where they stand on Iraq, not on their policies towards their own people," she said.

All this combined to paint a picture of an administration in disarray, riven by internal conflicts and taken aback by world reaction yet again.

That should be no surprise, says analyst Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies.

"Neo-cons are driven by beliefs and their actions are driven by neo-con principles.

"When you are driven by ideology, you are always taken aback by the reaction of real people living in the real world."

Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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