- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003


There is good news and bad news from Europe. The good news is that the French and the Germans have begun to cooperate in NATO, working to salvage the organization from the havoc caused by disagreements over the Iraq war. The bad news is that the French remain deeply convinced they were right to oppose the United States.

First, the good news. Last Wednesday, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision- making body, decided in an unprecedented move to support Poland’s appointment to lead one of the four sectors in Iraq. For Poland, a new NATO country, this is a great step forward. For French officials, it is nothing short of a giant leap that they acquiesced in a support mission for NATO. (They can hardly talk about Poland’s role without sneering.) For the mission, Poland will need a lot of help with force generation, the staffing of their headquarters, logistics and planning. They are also getting $90 million in U.S. funding.

Importantly, this will be NATO’s second, out-of-area, or out-of-Europe, mission. In a little publicized decision, NATO agreed on April 11 to take the lead in the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. In other words, the organization is doing exactly what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that it must at the Prague summit in November — i.e. transform itself in order to take part in the war against terrorism.

Both of these unanimous NATO decisions show that the Germans and the French are willing to move beyond the bruising fight over the defense of Turkey that took place in January. At the time, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder argued that NATO planning to defend Turkey in the event of an Iraq war would legitimize military action, something they did not want to do.

Yet, one more sign of cooperation was the 14-1 U.N. Security Council vote on Thursday to lift sanctions on Iraq. This was needed to allow the United States and Britain to move ahead with Iraqi economic reconstructions.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the French mindset has changed. “The French have made a tactical move, not a strategic one,” says U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns. “France would like NATO to fade away over time and be replaced by the EU.” This is an idea that other NATO and EU members find ridiculous on one level (given the overall pathetic levels of European defense spending), yet disturbing on another because of the deepening rift this would cause between the United States and Europe.

Meetings in Paris with French officials in the Foreign and Defense Ministries, as well as presidential advisers, revel that anger, anguish and confusion prevail here as to how the French could have lost the bid to stop American military action in Iraq. What does not appear to occur to anyone is that the French government could actually have been wrong.

Much is blamed on anti-French bias in the United States and on a putative neo-conservative cabal in Washington driving U.S. foreign policy. “We were too naive and idealistic in the way we dealt with the Americans,” says one official, unbelievably. As for the U.S. National Security Strategy, the French did read it he says,”but thought it was “absurd” and did not believe it.

While French officials do try at least to project a new spirit of cooperation, that spirit is entirely blown away in a stormy meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, a man who likes to cite Napoleon and Gen. De Gaulle as his sources of inspiration. He is also someone who has the complete confidence of Mr. Chirac.

During a 45-minute finger-shaking harangue against U.S. foreign policy, Mr. de Villepin stated that it was the French and the pope — in that order — who had saved the world from a “war of civilizations,” by opposing the Iraq war and standing up for Arab interests. In this version, a multi-polar world is a much safer one than a uni-polar world; American power must be balanced by one or several other poles. (Hint: Guess who is volunteering for the job.)

Furthermore, fumed the excitable French foreign minister, no country has the right to change the regime of another country, no matter how bad. (Maybe that’s why the French did not oppose Hitler?) “Even if 80 countries are on your side, countries like Nicaragua, you don’t have the right,” he says. International law in the shape of the United States, which France of course can block, can confer legitimacy on such an action. Otherwise, the law of the jungle will rule.

Finally, the French cling stubbornly to the idea that they speak for the rest of the world when they oppose the Americans. It will be up to other Europeans to convince the French that they could not be more wrong in this belief, if relationships across the Atlantic are not to deteriorate even further.

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