Punishing the dissenters

Posted: Dec 15, 2003 12:00 AM
Unnamed administration spokesman: You agree that what I tell you will be completely off the record?

Questioner: Yes, sir. But let's get right to the point: The exclusion of France, Germany and Russia from bidding was --

A: Just plain dumb.

Q: Why does the administration do things that are just plain dumb?

A: The way life works in high-circle administrative life, Joe --

Q: You don't need to be condescending. I've been around a long, long time, looking in on White House cultures.

A: I didn't mean that. I mean, what experienced people know about that culture isn't being very widely applied in this situation. What was the objective? The objective was for the administration to pass out the word to France, Germany and Russia -- we'll call them the Dissenters -- that there are unpleasant consequences for failing to side with the United States on major policy issues that have to do with national security.

Q: Is that why the Pentagon used the phrase "for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States"? Which by the way, what does that mean? That we can't let the Dissenters bid for $18 billion in prime contracts in Iraq because to do so would fail to protect essential security interests?

A: You're right. That formulation was gobbledygook, the kind of thing that George Orwell would never have permitted. Look, the objective was to register U.S. displeasure with muscle behind that displeasure. There are commercial interests in the Dissenter nations that will be sore to have been excluded from the prime bidding.

Q: But the order didn't rule out subcontractors from the Dissenter nations getting into rebuilding Iraq.

A: That's right. The ban is only at the first level. Germany's BDI group blurted it out. Herr von Wartenberg, BDI's managing director, admitted that the only firms affected in any way are those that don't have subsidiaries in any one of the 63 countries allowed to take part in the tenders, which means, roughly speaking, nobody.

Q: Well, if it's not going to have a practical economic effect, why do it?

A: Satisfaction. The White House people liked the feel of a reproach. Recall JFK's dictum: Don't get mad, get even.

Q: But we aren't even getting even, if you're telling it right. Not only that, we've handed the Dissenter nations an excuse to get out of the pool of countries that could help Iraq by giving up debts. Russia especially, with $8 billion owed. They've already said maybe they won't move on that, and Canada is spitting mad --

A: Yes, they're angry. They'll cool off. One phone call, Bush to Ottawa, was all that took. We'll just have to leave it that a point has been registered. Are you asking me to defend what was done, step by step? I can't do that. In situations like this, there isn't clear cockpit control. The White House is sore at the Pentagon guy who let it out, but what's to be done about that, fire Rumsfeld? The U.S. can sort of back away -- a series of equivocations. Like, Who is a prime bidder? Who is a subcontractor? Is there a World Trade Organization problem here? It'll blow away.

Q: It's not going to blow away for Bush at the next debate of the Democratic presidential candidates. They'll team up on the theme of the administration's incompetence. And they'll go on about economic opportunism, commercialism, favoritism. Is it true Halliburton is getting an extra buck for every gallon of gas it ships over?

A: Halliburton is, for the Democrats, the gorilla, the monster, the archetype of GOP favoritism/greed/exploitation.

Q: What's to be done about that?

A: If this gets out, I'll know you've betrayed me.

Q: If what gets out?

A: My secret remedy for the Democrats. ... They should buy Halliburton. Why not? Ask George Soros to buy it. Figure $10 billion, in round numbers.

Q: You must be kidding.

A: Just pretend you never thought of it.

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