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All-Stars of Team Bush Fall Flat in Iraq

During the 1990s, Republican foreign policy types rolled their eyes and snorted in derision as they watched the Clinton administration commit one blunder after another, from Somalia to North Korea.

The conceit began to grow that the Clinton team -- Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Tony Lake, Sandy Berger and the rest -- was made up of amateurs. The Republicans had the A-team -- the Reagan/Bush All-Stars -- and once they were back in office they would show the world how a foreign policy was supposed to be run.

Well, George W. Bush did install the Dream Team: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice. But lately they’ve been performing more like a squad of out-of-shape weekend players than a lineup of NBA superstars.

Their missteps have been particularly glaring in the case of Iraq, and none more so than the decision last week to publicly release a memorandum signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz specifying which countries are eligible for reconstruction work in Iraq.

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The list includes such global powerhouses as Micronesia, Uganda and Macedonia but conspicuously excludes Canada, France, Germany, China, Russia and other countries that were not part of the coalition that invaded Iraq. To add insult to injury, the memorandum claimed that this was a necessary step “for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States,” suggesting that these countries are somehow our enemies.

What makes this memo truly boneheaded is that it was released the very day that President Bush was dialing the leaders of -- you guessed it -- Russia, France and Germany to ask them to grant Iraq billions of dollars in debt relief. Those must have been fun and productive conversations for the president.

I understand and sympathize with the impulse behind the memo: a desire to reward friends and punish enemies. But there are much cannier ways of doing so without any of the blowback that this overly blunt document has aroused. For one thing, the Pentagon could simply have favored coalition countries in the contracts without being explicit about what it was doing. The countries left out would have gotten the message.

If the Pentagon did choose to issue such a memo, the time to do so would have been back in May, when emotions were still running high over Iraq. Since then, the United States has been trying to patch up relations with the countries that opposed us on Iraq, and many of them have shown a desire to crawl back into our good graces.

France, Canada and Germany, in particular, although not doing much in Iraq, have been a big help in Afghanistan, where all of them have sizable troop commitments. At the very least, the Pentagon policy should have left open the possibility of awarding contracts to countries helpful on Iraq in the future.

By itself, the memo might not be much of a reason to kick up a fuss, but it is simply the latest of many faux pas on Iraq. The most famous of these was, of course, the lack of adequate planning for the postwar environment, which led to mistakes such as prematurely disbanding the Iraqi army without having a security apparatus to replace it. The administration also absurdly low-balled the costs of rebuilding Iraq, budgeting only $2.5 billion initially. It took until the fall for the administration to belatedly recognize its mistake and request $87 billion from Congress, but by then valuable time had been lost.

For the last six months, the Pentagon, CIA and State Department have been engaging in finger-pointing -- played out in news media leaks -- over which agency should bear the brunt of the blame for what’s gone wrong in Iraq. The answer is that all of them are responsible, but the ultimate blame falls on the president and his national security advisor, Rice, who has not done a good job of coordinating the interagency process.

Then there is the hash that the administration has made of U.S. relations with Turkey, our most important ally in the Muslim world. Last year, the administration tried to pressure Turkey into allowing U.S. troops to use its soil to invade Iraq. During the negotiations, the U.S. side leaked word that the Turks were holding up a deal because they wanted a bigger bribe, amounting to tens of billions of dollars. Whether true or not, this sort of public humiliation was not likely to win the Turks over. And, sure enough, Turkey did what the administration never, in its worst nightmares, expected: It said no to the U.S.

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Without the 4th Infantry Division coming down from the north as planned, the coalition had no way to block the escape of numerous Baathists fleeing the armored advance from the south. Many of the enemies not caught or killed then have now resurfaced to cause considerable mayhem. Thus we are still paying a hefty price for the failure to win Turkey over.

Once the insurgency in Iraq flared up, the administration desperately cast about for foreign troops and once again lighted upon our friends in Ankara. This time the Turkish government reluctantly went along and pledged 10,000 troops, only to have the U.S. turn around and say “no, thanks” because of Kurdish opposition. I am completely agnostic on whether it was a good idea or bad idea to have Turkish troops in Iraq. But I am pretty certain the administration should have figured this out before putting the squeeze on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It is hard to recall a more egregious example in recent history of the U.S. mishandling and alienating an important ally -- unless it’s the administration’s failure this past winter to garner more support among Western European countries for its Iraq policies.

There was probably no chance that France and Germany would ever sign off on regime change in Iraq, but the administration surely could have done more to make its case among the European public for a war that, after all, had as much humanitarian justification as the interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia. It is hard to know how many Europeans would have been won over by an eloquent statement of the pro-war position, because the U.S. government made almost no attempt to present its arguments. Secretary of State Powell, who is supposed to the U.S. spokesman to the world, barely visited Europe. The most conspicuous administration spokesman on the Continent turned out to be Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who plays a lot better in Paris, Texas, than in Paris, France.

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Let me be clear here. I am not complaining about the overall direction of Bush’s foreign policy. I believe the administration has made correct and courageous choices on all the major issues -- toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein; trying to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan; putting more emphasis on democracy promotion in the Middle East; making it clear that the U.S. will deal preemptively with terrorists and weapons of mass destruction; and pulling out of flawed treaties like the Kyoto global warming convention and the antiballistic missile pact.

My complaint is a procedural one, about how the administration has carried out its policies. Watching one blunder after another, I can’t help but wonder: Can’t anybody here play this game?

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power” (Basic Books, 2003).


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