WASHINGTON – Former top U.S. officials are blasting the Bush administration (search) for reopening a rift with Europe by excluding critics of the war from prime contracts for Iraq's reconstruction.
"I thought we were in the process of acquiring support rather than alienating it," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (search) said. "And I think it's petty. I really do think we should not be in the business of alienating people."
Former national security adviser Sandy Berger (search) said the decision did not make sense. And Zbigniew Brzezinski (search), who held the job in the Carter administration, called the announcement Tuesday by the Pentagon bizarre.
President Jacques Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and President Vladimir Putin of Russia all raised the contracts issue when President Bush telephoned them Wednesday with an appeal to ease Iraq's debt burden.
The decision on contracts will complicate the task of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was named by Bush to oversee efforts to scale down Iraq's debt. Baker plans to begin his travels and jawboning next week.
U.S. relations with Germany, France, Russia and other opponents of the war with Iraq had appeared to be on the mend.
There was cooperation on trade. Bush and Schroeder agreed to September to bury their differences. Secretary of State Colin Powell steered a resolution through the U.N. Security Council in October to expand the U.N. role in Iraq. Bush also backed down on a trade flap over steel tariffs.
But the European mood has turned bitter again. And complicating the newly troubled trans-Atlantic relationship is a pending decision to relocate U.S. military bases that are now in western Europe.
Germany, among others, is bound to be upset if the administration decides to cut U.S. Army forces in Germany, sending some to eastern Europe and others home.
The Europeans did not attempt to stifle their outcry Wednesday when the Pentagon -- backed by the White House -- said only countries that supported the U.S. war in Iraq could share in the prime contracts being awarded for the American portion of the postwar reconstruction there.
The decision should not have come as a complete surprise.
Several times this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned that countries that did not assist in Iraq's liberation from Saddam Hussein could not expect to be rewarded.
Still, Germany called the decision unacceptable.
Russia, which is owed $8 billion by Iraq -- even more than Iraq owes France, the United States and Germany -- threatened to retaliate by not easing the debt burden.
Russia also is registering concern with the prospect of shifting some U.S. bases to Poland and Bulgaria, placing them closer to the Russian border.
"Any plans to bring the NATO infrastructure closer to our borders prompts an absolutely understandable, explicable concern," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow.
Trying to soften the blow of the contracts decision, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the restrictions applied only to primary contractors, leaving lots of opportunities. "There are very few restrictions on subcontractors," he said.
And, Boucher noted, managers of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund trust funds, through which billions of dollars in non-U.S. assistance will be channeled to Iraq, "may have different, or their own rules for how they contract."
Still, the criticism mounted.
Brzezinski said it was "bizarre" of the Bush administration to make a public announcement on Iraq contracts.
"There are perfectly good reasons to discriminate between those who are very helpful and those who are less helpful," Brzezinski said in an interview. "But why rub it in with a political announcement that will further diminish the probability of serious European participation with men and money in the effort to internationalize the Iraqi conundrum?"
Berger said the United States needs help in Iraq. But he said the contracts decision "has made it politically impossible for those counties to gradually move toward cooperation."
"I wouldn't rule out the potential of the French, the Germans and the Russians helping us at some point," the former Clinton administration official said. "But you draw lines in the sand and I don't think you gain much."
Chris Lehane, an adviser to Gen. Wesley Clark, an aspirant for the Democratic presidential nomination, was harshly critical. "George W. Bush's rewarding of campaign contributor Halliburton makes it clear for all to see that he is of big oil, for big oil and 'buy' big oil. At the end of the day he is putting the special interests before our national interests," Lehane said.
Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution said, "At a time when we should want the rest of the international community to come in and help to the maximum extent possible in the rebuilding of Iraq, this gratuitous slap at our major allies seems to be particularly ill-timed and misplaced."
Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center, said he doubted the decision would have a major impact because subcontractors still could qualify.
"In my mind, this was a small political setback to repairing the trans-Atlantic relationship, but by no means is it a fatal one, and it can be overcome," the former U.S. diplomat said in an interview.