Monday, April 07, 2003

A Public Relations Catastrophe in the Making

There are ever-louder rumors going around that the Bush administration has decided to award the bulk of reconstruction and relief contracts in Iraq to American firms, not even letting British companies participate in the bidding process, on the supposed grounds that since Americans did most of the fighting, they should get all of the contract work. The British are supposedly being fobbed off with the promise of "sub-contractor" jobs.

If these rumors are indeed true, they will do tremendous damage to the Bush administration's cause. What sort of message would such a course of action send about lending support to Bush's goals? Regardless of the errors he made with regards to the United Nations, Tony Blair did a tremendous amount of work to convince his party, the country and the world of the need to remove Saddam, putting his very career on the line to do so; for him to be slighted in this manner would both justify the French and Germans in their own eyes ("see how your 'Ally' rewards you, Tony!") and ensure that no such support would be forthcoming in the future from Britain or any other "ally" without a quid-pro-quo to propose.

What is worrying is that such rumors are entirely credible. The omission of Australia's John Howard from the invitee list to the Azores summit is one indicator that gives grounds for worry. How could the Bush administration have forgotten to invite the head of the only other country to commit substantial military resources to the war effort? And yet, it did. Then there is Rumsfeld's "we can go ahead without the British" to consider.

Even the off-the-record briefings by "administration officials" that the Turks were "haggling like rug merchants", or that the Turks were finally "in the bag", left an unpleasant aftertaste. Though the Turks probably were indeed holding out for a bigger payout, it hardly does one's diplomatic cause good to let it be so clearly known that one holds one's partner in such low regard, however justified one's antagonism may be. All the cocky "off-the-record" assurances that the Russians would eventually "come over" were also extremely damaging - even the indigent have pride, and to blatantly declare that the Russians have too much to lose financially to oppose the United States is in effect to dare them to do so.

I agree with most of the Bush administration's foreign policy positions, but it is not enough to have good intentions, if the way in which they are executed is so ham-fisted. This administration has to realize that in dealing with foreign nations, the carrot has as much a role to play as the stick. Opponents must be punished, but allies must also be rewarded. As even Machiavelli realized, it is better to be both loved and feared if one can help it.