Man Without Qualities

Friday, January 16, 2004


When President George H. W. Bush was not re-elected many people commented that his support and his campaign seemed oddly drained and enervated - and therefore feckless. A good deal of that enervation was, in my opinion, attributable to a particularly self-destructive political habit George H. W. Bush had cultivated: Staking out defensible but controversial positions (such as his "no new taxes" pledge and his veto of a particularly ill conceived civil rights bill), only to reverse course for completely unconvincing reasons that could only be considered pretexts. George H. W. Bush signed both that tax rise and the civil rights act he had denounced - the former "justified" by specious arguments that government financial needs were more pressing than had been known when the dramatic "no new taxes" pledge had been uttered, and the latter "justified" by small changes from the vetoed version. There were other examples.

It is a commonplace that all politics is local. And it is true. The purveyors of that commonplace generally have local political activities in mind. Of the nature of school boards and political clubs. But politics does not stop there. Indeed, all politics germinates around the family dinner table, in one-on-one cocktail party conversation, in steam rooms and racketball courts, during shared jogs, shopping trips and other venues where two or three are gathered - even out of pillow talk (the last appears to be especially true with people who swear they absolutely never discuss politics in an erotic environment).

All politics is ultimately intimate.

A consequence of the ultimate intimacy of politics is that those who defended George H. W. Bush's defensible but controversial policies ultimately found that because they had defended those policies they themselves were personally and intimately embarrassed. Embarrassed at the family dinner table. Hung out to dry at the next cocktail party. Exposed in the banya, on the courts and shopping trips.

Every administration has to reverse course from time to time. But that kind of thing happened far too often and with respect to policies far too profound with George H. W. Bush.

And that led to a lot of enervation. That enervation came not just from the Administration's reversal, but from first causing supporters to personally support policies in dramatic terms, only to reverse those policies in circumstances that strongly suggested that the Administration had never cared about them other than opportunistically. SUCKER.

I mention all that because there are now reports that Bush administration officials are leaning toward reversing a ban on bidding by French, German and Russian companies for U.S.-financed contracts in postwar Iraq.

Now, the Man Without Qualities has from the beginning believed that the reconstruction contract ban was but one component of the larger Administration-Baker strategy for Iraq debt relief - and has probably been presented as such to the more sophisticated representatives of Iraq's creditor nations. So it makes sense to me that the contract ban would give if the Europeans give enough ground in debt relief or other Iraq-related matters.

But that case has not been made explicitly. And in the mean time a lot of George W. Bush supporters have defended his defensible but controversial policy of barring obstructionist nations from reconstruction contracts on the basis of some fairly personal, tough, emotional and intuitionistic principles such as: Those who didn't help with the invasion while Americans risked and lost their lives shouldn't now prosper from the reconstruction expenditures by the US taxpayers.

So far the explanation for the shift has been wanting: A senior official said the White House has always said the contracting policy could change as circumstances change, and the countries are being given credit for their pledges to postwar Iraq.

Those "pledges" presumably include both funding and debt-relief contributions. Debt relief negotiations are only under way - and public reports do not yet clearly indicate that France and the others have given freely and generously to the Iraq effort.

But the President's supporters have ... often in intimate circumstances.

James Baker is superbly competent, but we all have our limitations. It is worth keeping in mind that he was a key player in the Bush administration that didn't get re-elected.

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