- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

Bush administration officials point to Feb. 22 as the day when the United States and France set aside the ill feelings created by the war in Iraq and began to work together for reform in the Muslim world.

President Bush and his aides were stunned when, at a meeting that day in Brussels, French President Jacques Chirac said something that seemed to echo his U.S. counterpart’s call for greater democracy in the Middle East.

Mr. Chirac — the very man who had infuriated the Americans with his diplomatic efforts to block the war in Iraq — had a concrete plan, U.S. and French officials recalled.

He said that if the two countries joined forces to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon and help that country become a real democracy, it could be an example for the broader Middle East.

“He framed the case for advancing democracy in Mr. Bush’s terms,” said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, who participated in the Feb. 22 meeting.

Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where Christians make up a large part of the population, has a long tradition of power sharing, in which the presidency and prime ministry always are held by a Christian and a Muslim, respectively.

“[Mr. Chirac] said, ‘Let’s use a country that already looks like a democracy,’ and he also talked about defending ‘this beleaguered nation Lebanon.’ President Bush thought it was a good idea from the beginning,” Mr. Fried said from Paris, where he was visiting this week.

Officials said the partnership has carried over into other areas, with France significantly increasing its military presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

French jet fighters have been flying sorties under U.S. command in Afghanistan since Aug. 16, said the French Embassy in Washington.

It also said that, earlier last month, France took command of an international naval task force on terrorism-related patrols in the seas between the Horn of Africa and Pakistan.

“It’s France’s wish to show that we are cooperating in the fight against terror and in support of you in Afghanistan,” Col. Gilles Michel, who oversees the French air force’s role in the theater, told the Associated Press last week.

“We told the Americans, ‘If you need some assets, we will provide them.’”

That marks a significant change since last year’s Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., during which the French expressed reservations about Mr. Bush’s plan to bring about reforms in the Middle East, another senior U.S. official said.

French officials said there had been “divergence” at Sea Island, but that their reservations had to do with tactics rather than the objective.

“We didn’t reject the idea, but said, ‘Let’s discuss the method.’ At the time, the Americans were talking about a process similar to the Helsinki process that brought changes to Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War,” said a senior French diplomat in Washington.

“We didn’t think that approach was right because the situation was different — with the Helsinki process we sought the collapse of communism, and we don’t want the collapse of Islam,” the diplomat said.

France is not soft on terrorism, he said, noting that his country has had legislation for more than a decade allowing the arrest and imprisonment of suspects merely on suspicion of planning terrorist acts.

That goes beyond anti-terror laws in the United States. Britain is moving to introduce similar laws only in the wake of the July 7 attacks on the London transit system.

Mr. Fried said the tone of U.S.-French communications had changed markedly in the past year.

“In 2004, the French were skeptical about seeking reforms and reformers in the broader Middle East, but they have gradually come around,” he said.

“We are finally moving in the same direction. They don’t seem to emphasize our differences anymore.”

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