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December 13, 2003
A Fetish of Candor
By DAVID BROOKS
I think we are all disgusted by the way George W. Bush's administration has allowed honesty and candor to seep into the genteel world of international affairs.
Until the Bush team came to power, foreign relations were conducted with a certain gentlemanly decorum. The first Bush administration urged regime change in Iraq, without sullying itself with the Iraqi peasants actually trying to do it. The Clinton administration pretended to fight terrorism without committing the sin of unilateralism by trying very hard.
The United Nations passed resolution after resolution condemning the government of Iraq, without committing the faux pas of actually enforcing them. The leaders of France and Germany announced their abhorrence of Saddam's regime, and expressed this abhorrence by doing as much business with Saddam as possible.
Then came George W. Bush, the cowboy out of the West, and all good manners were discarded. The first sign of trouble came when the Bush administration declared its opposition to the Kyoto treaty. Up until that time, all decent governments had remained platonically in love with the treaty. They praised it, but gave no thought to actually enacting it.
Bush said he would scuttle it and did.
Then Bush scandalized the world by announcing his desire to enforce the U.N.'s resolutions on Iraq. And he gave a speech announcing his doctrine of pre-emptive war. Instead of merely taking out Saddam while pretending to abide by the inherited rules of conduct, he actually announced what he was going to do before doing it. This was honesty taken to a reckless extreme.
Now his administration has taken to honesty like a drunken sailor. It has made a fetish of candor and forthrightness. Things are wildly out of control.
The U.S. administration is confronted with three nations that have stabbed it in the back with alacrity. The German leader vowed not to run a re-election campaign based on anti-Americanism, then turned around and did just that. The French government has done all it could to ensure that the U.S. effort to transform Iraq would fail. Russia was also willing to let the Iraqis rot in their slave state.
The U.S. now has roughly $18 billion to spend on the effort to rebuild Iraq, and it must figure out whether to allow companies from these countries to profit from the effort.
The wise course is obvious. You loudly announce that all is forgiven, that, of course, the companies from the wayward nations will be allowed to bid for contracts. And then behind the scenes you stiff them cold.
This policy is hypocritical, so it is probably the right policy to enact. It acknowledges that the United States has important business to do with powers like Germany, Russia and France, and cannot afford continued bad relations. It acknowledges that good-hearted people in the United States and abroad do not want to see the U.S. acting like a bully. But it recognizes that people who undermine U.S. policy must pay a price.
But the Bush administration, drunk on truth serum, has done the exact opposite. It has declared in public that countries that did not help overthrow Saddam do not get to benefit from the aftermath. But then in private White House officials seem to be offering every assurance to the offended nations. Moreover the U.S. is still allowing the offending nations to bid on the subcontracts, where there is much money to be made.
This is a policy based on candor, and therefore it is a mess.
If the U.S. is going to right its foreign policy, it is going to have to rein in President Bush's tendency to be straightforward. It is going to have to acknowledge that honesty is a good thing when it comes to international affairs — in theory.
The administration's fundamental problem is that it is not very good at dealing with people it can't stand. The men and women in this White House are exceptionally forthright. When they come across someone they regard as insufferable, their instinct is to be blunt. They seek to be honest rather than insincere, to not sugar things up but to let these people know how they really feel.
Sometimes you've got to be slippery to accomplish real good. The Bush administration is thus facing an insincerity crisis. It has become addicted to candor and forthrightness. It needs an immediate back-stabbing infusion.
Perhaps Al Gore could be brought in to offer advice.