Tuesday, October 05, 2004

 "France wants to turn the Iraq conference into one about the Americans' withdrawal and, to boot, invite the armed resistance"

John Vinocur of the International Herald Tribune on an odd U.S. roundabout on Paris's new Iraq line:
A funny thing happened to the Bush administration on the way to the boss's debate with John Kerry about the United States' role in the world: It seemed to duck or swerve around a new French line on Iraq that some European voices deplored.

Could the administration have commanded a lockdown on international controversy in the days leading up to the debate for fear of fueling Kerry's argument that Bush gets along with no one east of Montauk or Kennebunkport?

Compared with an alternative but richly counterinstinctive theory — that the Americans and French were running an Iraq back-channel of complicit nudges and winks — the notion of the Bush administration shutting its ears and mouth in the name of election-year politics is the more convincing.

With direct debate with Kerry about foreign policy behind him, Bush marked what seemed like a return to the whack-the-French firing line Friday by saying, "The use of troops to defend America must never be subjected to a veto from countries like France."

Senator John McCain chimed in on Iraq, "Nobody believes the French and Germans will come to help."

But the impression remains that the administration had chosen to let slide what mainstream French and German commentators called a new, conciliatory attitude by France toward the groups battling the Iraqi regime and beheading hostages. They talked of an anti-American provocation and the French turning themselves into spokesmen for the "resistance" in Iraq.

The circumstances were these: For more than a month, France, with embarrassingly decreasing self-assurance, had been laboring to win the release of two French journalists taken prisoner in Iraq. A week ago, the efforts looked so excruciatingly futile that Foreign Minister Michel Barnier offered up a political message seemingly intent on assuaging the hostage-takers, offering recognition to terrorist groups, and enraging the Americans.

Referring last Tuesday to an international conference on Iraq's scheduled January election that the Bush administration wants held in Cairo in November, Barnier said the meeting would have to include "a certain number of groups and people who have currently chosen armed resistance." The agenda, he went on, needed to take up the presence of American troops in Iraq, and specifically the question, "How long are they are going to stay?"

The administration initially took a pass on a response. This fit the sense of a published report (in The Wall Street Journal) that the White House had ordered American officials involved in current international negotiations to be quiet for fear of making waves just before the debate Thursday.

But in Europe, there were people who noticed exactly what the French had said. In Berlin, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, hardly the voice of U.S. occupation forces, took the statement as outrageous: "France wants to turn the conference into one about the Americans' withdrawal and, to boot, invite the armed resistance. That has the sound of a provocation."

Not an unreasonable interpretation. It meshed with a report in Le Monde that the hostage-takers had "welcomed" on their Web site the "positive position" taken by France on the conference issue.

Ivan Rioufol of Le Figaro said this was another illustration of the pro-Arab and anti-American line chosen by France on Iraq. He wrote, "Was it necessary that our diplomacy so docilely turn itself into the spokesman of a 'resistance' that refuses the possibility of a Muslim democracy?" French policy, he added, "always creates the pathetic notion of being more conciliatory with the fundamentalists than with the democrats who are fighting them."

Still in hunkered-down, pre-debate mode, Secretary of State Colin Powell turned the other cheek. He hadn't read Barnier the way the hostage-takers apparently did.

Whatever the literal text of Barnier's remarks, Powell, in an interview with a French news agency, found no suggestion that the French had presented discussion of an American withdrawal as a precondition, or insisted that armed anti-government groups should be at the conference table.

Considering that Egypt was already on board as host to the conference, and Germany, the key European naysayer, had signaled its participation, this was exceptionally generous stuff. The Bush administration, through its secretary of state, was offering an interpretation of impossible French conditions that literally took Barnier off the hook without queering his pitch to the terrorists.

Bush and McCain's post-debate shots at France seemed to say that Powell had been abruptly superseded. Still, the events had to leave those Allies trying to find coherence in the administration line with the impression that its steadfastness on Iraq could be suspended a day at a time (or perhaps forever) to enhance Bush's electability.

France said nothing about the windfall. After all, the prolonged hostage crisis was killing what was left of its tattered pretense of special French influence among the Arabs. After proclaiming the crisis would end quickly under the massive pressure of their friends in the Arab world, the French had to watch the release of Italian hostages engineered by the Berlusconi government, habitually portrayed here as a tragicomic Bush ally.

By the weekend, the Islamic Army in Iraq, the "resistance" group that the government said held its hostages, had reversed field to the point of recalling its long view of France in a statement made available in Cairo. Its history with the Muslims, the group said, was a black one "filled with hate and blood." If France stayed out of the American-led coalition in Iraq, it was "for its own interests and not for the good of the Iraqi people."

As for the Italians, Danes, Dutch and Poles, the Europeans who have put their soldiers' lives on the line alongside the Americans, they may be excused if the apparent re-elect-Bush episode last week left them dumbfounded.

Update: Following the historic Iraq election, President Ghazi al-Yawer derides one of the central tenets of French foreign policy as "complete nonsense"