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By William Fisher
When I was a kid in the Third Grade at public school 99 in Brooklyn, our teacher, Mrs. Lamb, established a practice of checking all those who returned from play break for clean hands, as opposed to dirt under the fingernails. The Lamb Test rewarded the ‘clean hands’ students with little silver-wrapped sweets, which Mrs. Lamb carried about in her bulging pockets. No sweets for those who failed.
As bizarre as it may seem, that’s the image that flashed through my mind when I read in The New York Times that a new Pentagon Directive, issued by deputy defense secretary Paul M. Wolfowitz, had barred, among others, French, German and Russian, Canadian and other companies from competing for $18.6 billion in contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. This ‘no-bid’ list consists of those countries that declined to support the US invasion of Iraq. Many of the 60-odd countries on the ‘OK-to-bid’ list are developing countries too lacking in resources and expertise to reconstruct much of anything.
What’s wrong with this picture?
First, the Pentagon Directive claimed the step " necessary for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States...” What essential security interests do Mr. Wolfowitz, et al, have in mind? The Directive is silent on that point. It is also silent on explaining how allowing these companies to join in the competition for the contracts would hurt American security interests.
Second, there has been a torrent of rhetoric from Administration and other sources suggesting the urgency of ‘putting an international face’ on the reconstruction of Iraq. The Pentagon Directive asserted that ”limiting competition for prime contracts will encourage the expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and in future efforts". Exactly how a no-bid list advances that position is unclear. It sounds more like the Bush “either you’re with us or you’re against us” post-9/11 dictum.
Third, the credibility of the entire contracting process in Iraq has been severely damaged by the number of no-bid “sweetheart” contracts awarded by the US to friends and former associates of Vice President Cheney and other Administration figures. Just how the exclusion of these potential prime contractors will improve our credibility is a mystery. Bidding is not necessarily winning; it is simply bidding. Companies from countries on the no-bid list are already working in Iraq as subcontractors to US firms. If they are acceptable as subcontractors, why are they unacceptable as prime contractors?
Fourth, most thoughtful observers of our predicament in Iraq believe that this should be time when the US and its coalition partners should be working overtime to try to repair, rather than further exacerbate, the deep divisions that developed between the US and major European and other nations in the run-up to the Iraq war. Surely someone in the Bush Administration must be aware that this latest action is likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Why? It removes one of the more important incentives the Europeans and others have left to play a more important role in the reconstruction process. It clouds their role in related issues such as Iraqi debt forgiveness. And it also removes one of the few remaining leverage points the Bush Administration has with these countries, which, like every other sovereign state, do not take kindly to public embarrassment.
The Pentagon Directive was issued on a Friday, the day policy-makers typically use to release information they wish will get least attention by the media. It was not made public until the following Monday. At Mr. Rumsfeld’s press briefing on that day, not a single question was asked about this issue. The deception appeared to have worked – for a while. With the exception of The New York Times and a few other media outlets, this latest coup appeared to have slipped, as it were, under the radar. The deception strategy seemed to be working.
But by Tuesday, most of the key countries on the ‘no-bid’ list – no doubt after consulting with their home governments -- were responding with gusto, questioning its legality under WTO rules, pointing out that their countries were already participating as subcontractors, and hinting darkly at how the Pentagon’s action would make it more difficult for the no-bid countries to cooperate on such related issues as Iraqi debt forgiveness. Canada, which did not support the war but which has nevertheless pledged $250 million for Iraqi reconstruction, was particularly outraged.
Nor were objections limited to countries on the ‘no bid’ list. A Republican congressman, recently returned from Iraq, told The New York Times that it was a mistake to exclude particular countries from the rebuilding effort. "…we should do whatever we can to draw in the French, the Germans, the Russians and others into the process," said Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut. In a report issued along with Congressman Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, Mr. Shays said, "The administration should redouble efforts to internationalize the rebuilding of Iraq."
So what we have here is yet another example of the ideology of Bush ‘bring ‘em on’ unilateralism trumping the development of any real success strategy for Iraq. It could be another very costly and unnecessary error that will further damage US credibility in the Middle East and ultimately disadvantage the Iraqi people by slowing progress toward sovereignty.
If anyone still believes that ‘internationalization’ is still an Administration goal, and not merely the wooly rhetoric of public diplomacy, there has to be a better way than Mrs. Lamb’s ‘clean-hands’ policy to achieve it.
About the author: William Fisher is an international development specialist who has worked extensively in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and is a former journalist.