Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Last week, many of the shrewdest pundits, editorial pages and journalists in both Washington and Western Europe were having a very self-satisfying time sneering at President Bush’s “vindictive,” “self-destructively unilateralist” exclusion of France, Germany and other countries from primary rebuilding contracts in Iraq. Even some easily confused Republican senators joined in with a few patronizing, instructional quotes for the president’s benefit. Not only was the president wrong-headed, but his timing was terrible, these various journalistic worthies explained. Mr. Bush was just making a difficult mission almost impossible for his envoy James Baker III, who he was sending over to Europe to seek Iraqi debt forgiveness. The current edition of Time magazine devotes its entire “Global Agenda” page to how “idiotic” the Pentagon was to make the announcement last week. They headlined the article “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People — America’s foolish Iraq blacklist makes you wonder who’s in charge.” Last Saturday, this page rather noisily dissented from this prevailing journalistic view. We argued that not only had Mr. Bush made the morally right decision, but it was likely to help Mr. Baker gain prompt agreement from these wayward European countries.

It must, therefore, have come as quite a surprise for all these experienced international commentators, especially those residing at Time magazine, to read yesterday’s headlines, including the New York Times’ above the fold: “France and Germany Join U.S. In Effort to Reduce Iraq’s Debt.” Without taking anything away from Mr. Baker’s renowned negotiating skills (he would certainly be our first choice as a tough, brilliant negotiator), his trip through Western Europe was hardly a long, hard slog. Rather, the pace of the trip was in the style of “If it is 11 a.m., it must be Paris.” Every few hours, cable news shows had images of the former secretary of state cheerfully smiling as he walked in a brisk and businesslike manner out of some other foreign chancellery. He left behind him a trail of fulsomely expressed commitments to cooperate from the French and German leaders. One could almost see canary feathers in the corners of his smiling mouth. Whatever the menu, he had clearly eaten their lunch — at a table set by Mr. Bush. This is an important success, but its cause is still not adequately understood.

The most revealing word in the New York Times’ otherwise estimable article yesterday, reporting on Mr. Baker’s success, was in the following sentence: “[the agreement] comes despite Washington’s move to bar the two countries from bidding on … contracts in Iraq.” We would suggest that the word “despite” should more aptly have been replaced with “because of.” In other words, the judicial use of American power tends to advance, not diminish, our interests. It is clear that Mr. Bush will continue to use our economic, military and diplomatic power. Much of next year’s political debate will revolve around exactly that point: Is there efficacy in asserting our power, unilaterally if necessary, or should international consensus be a pre-condition for action? How news organizations answer that question will shape much of next year’s journalistic coverage of the presidential contest.

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