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Small Fries

The House of Representatives has not exactly risen to meet our present world-historical moment. After France opposed invading Iraq this winter, congressional Republicans acted like a petulant band of Bill O’Reillys. French fries were replaced in House cafeterias by “freedom fries,” conservatives tried to kill a contract with a French firm to feed U.S. Marines, and a Colorado representative demanded an end to the use of French-made headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

These were largely symbolic, if infantile, gestures. But, now that the United States is planning for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, congressional conservatives want to make their childishness concrete by preventing any country that opposes the war from sharing in postwar reconstruction contracts potentially worth more than $100 billion in total. Last week, the House backed such a measure, and although it appears stalled for now, conservatives vow to press on. “The whole notion that France wants to be part of the reconstruction process takes a lot of chutzpah,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay last month. “I think France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, China have removed themselves from this process by causing the United Nations, frankly, to be irrelevant in what's going on.”

Gratifying as it may feel, this latest round of Euro-bashing is foolhardy. After triumphing over Iraq militarily, the United States can afford to be magnanimous, thereby showing the world that U.S. foreign policy is not a zero- sum game. Indeed, the need for broad international support for America's postwar efforts in Iraq clearly outweighs the cheap thrill of giving the European crowd its comeuppance. Sharing contracts will win the United States both the financial and political support it needs to effectively rebuild Iraq.

The first reason for spreading the reconstruction wealth is economic. The cost of building a stable, democratic Iraq will be immense—$20 billion per year, according to a March estimate by the Council of Foreign Relations. (Some of this money will presumably come from Iraqi oil exports, but experts warn that it will take years to get the country's decrepit oil infrastructure up to capacity.) If the United States shoulders this burden largely alone, perhaps with help from Great Britain, our deficit-bound budget will groan under the weight. Worse, once the drama of war has passed, Congress may well lose interest in Iraq and begin to shortchange its reconstruction. That would not only undermine our essential long-term goals, it would vindicate every critic who insisted we wouldn't follow through with nation-building once Saddam was deposed.

Giving a broad array of other nations a stake in reconstruction, however, is the best way to make sure reconstruction actually takes place. Governments in nations whose companies are making handy profits pumping oil and building bridges will have an interest in paying for security and stability by training police and a new Iraqi military—or even contributing peacekeeping forces of their own. Certainly, given congressional Republican stinginess, the willingness of other countries to write checks has been crucial to building stability in the wake of other recent U.S. wars. After the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign, the European Union was the largest contributor of humanitarian relief and reconstruction aid: $3 billion over the first two years, compared with $900 million from the United States over the same period. And, when the United States pledged just $300 million to rebuild Afghanistan in 2002, several European and Asian countries pledged an extra $4.2 billion. Indeed, it's only thanks to the presence of Turkish and German peacekeepers that Kabul is a reasonably safe city today.

But there's another, less tangible reason countries such as France and Germany should be allowed some postwar contracts. The United States needs to prove to the world that its invasion of Iraq was not driven, as perhaps billions of people still assume, by crass commercial motives. The perception that the United States invaded Iraq so Halliburton can begin pumping oil for Exxon is shockingly widespread and is a major part of the reason the Bush administration had so much difficulty winning world public opinion for its Iraq campaign.

Those who would shut out non- “coalition of the willing” nations from Iraqi reconstruction argue that defiance of U.S. interests must not go unpunished. “The governments of France and Germany chose to sit on the sidelines while the United States and our allies are ousting a bloodthirsty dictator,” Republican Senator John Ensign said after trying to pass such a ban last week. “I could not sit by and allow those countries to make millions [of dollars].” Sometimes children must be spanked, in other words. But, beyond some measure of satisfaction, what would the United States really gain? Large democracies such as France, Germany, and Russia cannot simply be bullied to our side. After all, the Bush administration has already tried bullying, and it failed to convince Berlin or Paris to join the battle against Saddam. The best route to winning broader international support for America's ongoing war on terror and weapons proliferation is to win over international public opinion--as we might if we show some magnanimity. If it means the French will help us pay our bills, surely even DeLay could show a little restraint. He’ll still have his freedom fries.