How Not to Win Friends

The timing couldn't have been worse: Hours before President Bush was to call the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia to seek their help in easing Iraq's foreign debt, the Pentagon announced it would bar those same countries from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts - on the basis of their opposition to the war.

To be sure, the resulting flap is overblown: First, the ban applies only to the $18 billion in aid supplied from the US Treasury. Countries often tie foreign aid to their own companies or route it to favored foreign firms. By contrast, anyone may bid on the $13 billion in pledged multilateral aid.

Second, the ban applies only to the 26 prime contracts, not to subcontractors. Since subcontractors do most of the work in such situations, the ban is more apparent than real. Siemens AG, along with several other German firms, is already a subcontractor in Iraq. French and German firms built much of Iraq's infrastructure; they'll almost certainly supply spare parts for repairs.

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What really rankled Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Ottawa - the ban also includes Canada - was the Pentagon's wording, which implied that firms from the countries in question were a threat to US national security.

The spat highlights the continuing tone-deafness of large parts of the Bush administration to how its words play overseas: The administration's neoconservatives and the Pentagon in particular, frequently pushing justifiable policies, often couch them in unnecessarily inflammatory language. The dispute also displays the administration's difficulties in coordinating its foreign-policy actions - the job of the National Security Council staff.

The administration is bringing back former Secretary of State James Baker III to help reduce Iraq's debt. He returns not a moment too soon.

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