WASHINGTON – Now that military operations in Iraq are moving from armed force to reconstruction, the Bush administration is trying to avert congressional payback aimed at nations that opposed the war.
Instead, the White House is asking contemptuous Capitol Hill lawmakers to curb their hostilities toward anti-war countries and use this time to demonstrate U.S. magnanimity.
On April 3, the House passed an amendment to the nearly $80 billion emergency war spending bill that bars French, German, Russian and Syrian companies from any of the $2.8 billion in the budget appropriated for rebuilding Iraq.
The amendment, introduced by Reps. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., seeks to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not get into the hands of key countries on the U.N Security Council that did not support going to war in Iraq.
"I think it sends the wrong message to the American taxpayer and the 49 members of the coalition that have spent their own resources to fight this war, to turn around and give [France, Russia, Germany and Syria] our money," Kennedy told Fox News. "There are consequences for their actions."
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was responsible for getting House cafeterias to substitute "freedom" for "French" in both the French toast and French fries served there, said lawmakers were serious about sending that message.
"They could have been united to get rid of [Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein]. Now, to turn around on the monetary side of things when our men and women have died in this war … I think it would be a huge slap in the face," Ney said.
A similar amendment introduced by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was retracted in the Senate, largely due to White House pressure, sources said.
"We oppose [the measures] on the grounds that they would limit the president’s flexibility" diplomatically, and in his efforts to see successful reconstruction in war-torn Iraq, White House spokesman Mike Anton said.
While the House passed the supplemental package by a 414-12 vote, some are skeptical that the amendment will clear final budget negotiations required before it goes to the president's desk.
In addition, a number of lawmakers say they would rather start mending fences rather than further straining relations.
"I don’t mind sending some of our allies a message about our dissatisfaction with their handling of the situation in Iraq, but in the end I think we ought to be prudent about the need for continued support for our war on terrorism," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House International Relations Committee.
Schiff said he does not support the amendment passed by the House last week and hopes lawmakers will favor more positive legislation in the future.
"I don’t think it’s too early to work to repair the fabric of the torn international community," he added.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, said Americans should be cautious about how they treat the international community now that the war appears to be won.
"I think it’s dumb," he said of the penalizing measures. "It looks vengeful, it looks petty and it goes against the grain of what we need to do when the fighting in Iraq stops. We need to get back on the path of maintaining a friendship with these countries."
While there are no proposals to do so on the table today, Congress can support the president in his diplomatic goals, said Marshall. Already, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has traveled to Moscow to meet with five Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, to return to the pre-Iraq war relationship.
Lawmakers acknowledge that the way the United States treats the nations that did not support the coalition will vary. France, which was most vocal in its opposition to the United States, will likely get the coldest shoulder.
"Each country has a different story," said Ney.
Representatives from the German and Russian communities in the United States say they hope the House amendment is a sign of temporary passions, not long-term policy.
"We need Russia as a partner. Both sides made mistakes," said Ed Lozansky, head of the Russia House in Washington, D.C., which serves as both a welcome center for Russian émigrés and a diplomatic link in U.S.-Russian relations.
Lozansky said Russia's leaders were pressured by public opinion polls that said 85 percent of Russians see America as a bully that had not explained why Saddam Hussein had to go.
"There was never a clear message to the Russian people," he said.
On the other hand, Lozansky also acknowledged that it is hard for the United States to overlook the fact that Russian companies were selling military equipment to the Iraqis.
Oliver Schramm, spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington, said the Germans "have understanding and sympathy for the knee-jerk reaction of the American people" against them.
However, "don't touch the business -- it cuts both ways," he said. "Jobs are on the line here in the U.S. and in Germany. We wish to have good business relations."
Ney and Kennedy acknowledge the need to repair the damage, but nonetheless insist that taxpayer dollars need not go to the hands of their detractors.
"We haven’t shut down communications," said Ney. "I don’t think there will be efforts on other issues to penalize them. But on this issue, it’s serious."