December 12, 2003

Presidential Humor Watch President Bush

Presidential Humor Watch

President Bush on the Iraq contracts ban maelstrom:

"Asked about comments by Gerhard Schršder, the German chancellor, that international law should apply in the tendering of contracts, Mr Bush said: "International law? I better call my lawyer. He didn't bring that up to me." (emphasis added)

You know, just about everyone loves lawyer jokes. And even as someone who occasionally dabbles in "international law," (if the private variety--while remaining conscious of how frustratingly chimerical public international law norms so often appear) I must confess I did suppress a little chuckle when I read this in the FT this morning.

Indeed, this type of jestful exchange likely gets appreciative guffaws everywhere from the rarified precincts of Greenwich, CT and Andover to the red zones of Crawford and Midland, TX.

But it's a tad sophomoric when uttered on the world stage, isn't it? And it isn't going to make James Baker's job any easier.

It's also unfortunate that Bush responded in such fashion in the context of a journalist's question related to German concerns about the decision. They are a bit baffled why they got banned and not, say, the Turks .

"But yesterday officials were uncomfortable explaining why, for example, Turkey was on the approved list, although its parliament had blocked the passage of US troops on their way to Iraq, while Germany, which has since offered to train Iraqi police despite its political opposition to the war, was left off.

Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, called Mr Powell yesterday to find out. Mr Di Rita said Germany was excluded because it had chosen not to participate in the coalition."

And this answer doesn't wholly persuade:

"Lawrence Di Rita, Pentagon spokesman, said: "Countries determine whether they want to be part of this coalition. We have never established criteria for this coalition."

He said that a country such as Turkey was included because "they have identified themselves as participating in this coalition. They offered troops. Ultimately, the Turkish government offered troops."

Um, whatever. The lack of full cooperation from Ankara prevented the opening of a second Iraq front early in the war. And regardless, Turkish troops were never a good idea in the "post" war as I've blogged about extensively. On the other hand, having the Germans train Iraqi constabulatory forces would be quite helpful.

Listen, I know how frustrated so many were with Chancellor Schroeder's disingenuous antiwar antics back last February and March. They, in large part, were risible in their blatantly self-interested political nature.

But, at some point, you have to start moving on. Recall that Bush and Schroeder had a bit of a rapprochment a few months back in New York on the sidelines of some U.N. meetings.

You can make an argument, as some have, that this Iraq contracts ban is O.K on the merits (but why put it down so explicitly in writing? And the national security argument is pretty nakedly inserted to stave off legal challenges, isn't it? And shouldn't we now also be thinking of prioritizing Iraqi interests in terms of this whole affair?)

But regardless, don't rub peoples noses in it with locker room jokes about lawyers. Be, you know, a tad more Presidential. Bush isn't head cheerleader at Andover anymore.

He can joke like this in private with Andy Card and Condi if he wants. After all, as I suggest above, it's funny to a fashion. But keep the jocular exchanges, if just a little, under control in open press conferences where said utterances land on the desks of Schroeder, Chirac, Putin etc the next day.

Note: This is sheer speculation, but I still think this decision might be reversed and that Baker might hold that carrot (ie., reversing the decision) out in his meetings this week (also worth noting, the universe of subcontracts, if materially smaller, currently remains open as well to the likes of France, Germany etc. and Baker will doubtless be mentioning that).

That's probably, all things considered, the right way to go. Maybe when Bush does call his lawyer (you know, James Baker, the one that helped ensure he holds the office he currently occupies) Baker might so counsel him.

UPDATE: Looks like the whole Iraq contracts ban might indeed get used as a "carrot" going forward:

"Even as Bush took a hard line in public, there were signs that he was working privately to calm the furor. He called Jean Chretien on the Canadian prime minister's last day in office and, according to Chretien, said he would seek to exempt Canada from the new policy. "He told me he wasn't happy we were on the list," Chretien told reporters in Ottawa. "He said we would take steps so that we weren't on the list any more."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested countries that forgive Iraqi debts could be added to the list of those eligible to bid. "If countries want to join in our efforts in Iraq," he said, "circumstances can change, and we'll make that very clear."

Baker will travel to France, Russia, Germany and other countries next week to ask the governments there to forgive part of Iraq's crushing national debt. France and Russia, which are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and carry major Iraqi debts, are particularly crucial." (emphasis added)

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