The US military may be present in Iraq on the open-ended plan, with no fixed terminal date, but that is hardly true of most of the other Coalition forces – including the Dutch battalion stationed in southern Iraq, whose deployment the Dutch Parliament (specifically, the dominant lower house, or Tweede Kamer) approved for only one year, until next July. As you can well imagine, that upcoming deadline for withdrawal evidently weighed heavily on Colin Powell’s mind on Monday as he met the new Dutch foreign minister, dr. B.R. (for “Bernard Rudolf”) Bot, for their first ever tête-à-tête “getting-to-know-you” lunch. (They had met once before in December at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. Bot is the new Dutch foreign minister in the first place because Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the previous one, was snatched up to become NATO Secretary General as of the beginning of December; his selection was covered on €S here.)
It’s a little early to be making definitive decisions about whether those Dutch troops are going to stick around for another murderous Iraqi summer (not to mention those murderous Iraqi insurgents – but there hasn’t yet been a Dutch casualty, knock-on-wood). That’s the opening message Bot is said to have delivered to Powell. That may also be why the meeting received relatively little attention in the Dutch press, basically getting it only from the top and the bottom, i.e. from the somewhat-tony NRC Handelsblad (Powell to Bot: Keep Army in Iraq) and from the popular-but-not-quite-gutter-press De Telegraaf (Powell to Bot: Stay Longer in Iraq). Ooooh, those headline similarities are spooky – but oh-so-commanding!
LAUNDRY-LIST OF CONDITIONS
OK, then, so what are the Dutch conditions for keeping its soldiers there? (Whoa, wait a second, the NRC also reported that Powell raised the question of how the Dutch would like their very own sector in Afghanistan! Let’s not even go there – speaking figuratively and, I suppose, literally – and there’s no further mention of that subject in the article.) Both papers report that Bot had plenty to say about those conditions. The Dutch would like more political influence on what goes on in Iraq; the Dutch would like more influence for the UN on what goes on in Iraq; the Dutch would like to see involvement (presumably political) by their as-yet-uninvolved European compadres – that’s the Germans and the French – in Iraq. Oh, and the Dutch would like some nice commercial contracts for reconstruction in Iraq to start coming Dutch firms’ way.
That last gives you opening-wedge access to the sheer fog of unreality lurking not far beneath the surface of this whole encounter. To keep their troops in Iraq, the Dutch government really would like contracts for Dutch firms – but OK, as the NRC hurries to add, Bot did state that of course it was not a matter of quid pro quo; his government is really just talking about a “level playing field” (in Dutch the rather-less-elegant “bargaining on an equal basis”) for Dutch companies, i.e. for some Dutch “say” in reconstruction matters. And the further thing is, the deployment of that battalion in Iraq is of course ultimately not Bot’s decision! It’s the Tweede Kamer’s decision. (Nor is it Dutch Defense Minister Henk Kamp’s decision, although De Telegraaf quotes him as maintaining that it’s quite likely that the Dutch troops will stay.)
Now, it’s true that in a European-style parliamentary democracy such as the Dutch model relationships between the Foreign Ministry and the legislature tend to be pretty tight. On the other hand, the Tweede Kamer is 150 individuals, divided into a number of political parties – of which it currently takes three (CDA, VVD, and D66, for those of you wanting to test me) just to make up the governing coalition. So it’s just a trifle amusing to read about Foreign Minister Bot laying out all the Dutch conditions when it is easily imaginable that the US could meet them and still have the Dutch parliament ultimately vote against an extension of the deployment – or vice-versa! Maybe Bot had that extra “bounce” of authority in his step in light of the Netherlands’ upcoming presidency of the European Union (as of next July 1), which could give the Dutch a key role indeed, especially if the EU continues into the second half of this year with the proposed Constitution still not agreed-upon. And it’s true that Bot got to meet not only with his American counterpart during the Washington visit, but also with Paul Wolfowitz (but not Rummy) and with Condoleeza Rice. Both articles identically mention Bot’s determination that his country will function as a “bridge-builder” as EU president – to try to repair a bit the trans-Atlantic relations that took such a hit during 2003, although he didn’t state this undiplomatic bit outright.
No, dr. B.R. Bot is much too much the professional to do something like that, as his CV page on the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry website attests (sorry, only in Dutch): deeply learned in law, including an LLM from Harvard Law School, then doctorate in law from Leiden; service in the Dutch diplomatic corps from 1963 to 2002, then work at a consulting firm in 2003 before being called upon to replace De Hoop Scheffer. Forgive my irreverence, though, but this weblogger is mainly salivating over the linguistic-trick and turn-of-phrase possibilities offered by his last name, which in Dutch means all sorts of things: “bone” (as in “bone of contention,” perhaps?), but also “flounder” (as in the fish, but the pun-extensions are clear), and, as an adjective, “blunt” (as in “knife,” but also as in “answer”) and “flat” (as in “refusal”) (and “stupid,” as in “fellow,” but certainly we throw that one out for dr. Bot). And “bot vangen” apparently is a Dutch expression meaning “to draw a blank”! To think that I used to admire the monosyllabic directness of the name “Jack Straw” (Britain’s foreign minister, for those not in the know) . . . What a smart-alecky weblogger’s treasure-trove! Activate anti-bon mot force fields (remove the middle three letters and you get “bot”!) and proceed!