December 12, 2003

THE UNITED STATES has a mess on its hands in Iraq, and the man who may have done more than anyone else to bring that about shot his own country in the foot yet again this week.

That was Paul Wolfowitz - the man who conceptualized a visionary mission to recast Middle Eastern paradigms, in the service of a boss who mostly just wanted Saddam Hussein's hide - issuing a Pentagon edict on Tuesday that must have been designed as a sharp stick in the eye for those countries that formed the coalition of the unhelpful during the recent accomplishment in Iraq. No rebuilding contracts for the French, Germans, Russians, et al, said he.

The most accurate description of this fatwa comes from a seasoned British Conservative politician now serving as Europe's foreign relations commissioner, Chris Patten: "gratuitous." It's gratuitous because:

It comes at the very moment when the Bush administration wants to persuade some of those same countries to forgive Iraq's substantial debt. Thanks but no thanks, said the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov - or words to that effect.

It doesn't actually mean much, as the White House weakly pointed out, because there are other ways that companies from the shunned nations can get in on the action. The edict is more about the message it sends than the dollars it spends, in other words - and it's exactly the wrong message.

It justifies the ban by citing U.S. security concerns - as if those wily Bavarians were just waiting for a chance to put down their beer steins and take a whack at Americans in the name of Allah. The security business was apparently an attempt to evade free-trade regulations (and we always thought Mr. Wolfowitz was a consistent believer in neo-conservative principles!), but alienating the very countries that Washington is now trying to court seems like a bigger threat to American security.

It's beside the point, because, face it, who out there really believes that some French company would be awarded a contract at the expense of, say, Halliburton? Halliburton is charging American occupation authorities $2.64 a gallon - and that may be a low estimate - to bring in gasoline from Kuwait. Any company that can get away with a feat like that in the oil-rich Middle East doesn't need to worry about foreign competition for taxpayers' dollars.

Mr. Wolfowitz pressed for a war in Iraq for years. He began pressing for it in earnest after Sept. 11, 2001, from his new perch as deputy defense secretary. He argued that a snap American invasion would implant democracy in Iraq faster than you could say Ali Baba, and that quick as a wink a new spirit of republican government and respect for property would spread throughout the Arab lands.

What we have instead is a place where U.S. soldiers are killed every day by a foe who still hasn't really been identified yet, where one-third of the Iraqi security force trained at the Pentagon's behest just quit (taking their training with them, presumably), where people throughout the Arab world find a reason to join in denunciations of the United States, and where the administration keeps finding new ways to alienate potential Western allies.

It's time for Mr. Wolfowitz to go.

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