Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Vinocur I: France and Germany Turning Down the Heat

In a front-page article in the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur notes that
France and Germany have been strikingly discreet about America's new troubles in Iraq, reflecting what appears to be their judgment that the country's instability threatens any positive development in the Middle East over the long term.

"No one has any interest in an American fiasco," the former French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, said Friday. That did not take in the schadenfreude of some French and German commentary, but it had the sound of an operative formula to describe a situation in which Washington's misery did not objectively equal Paris' or Berlin's gain.

In attempting to draw closer to the United States over the past months — the Germans actively, with American backing; the French in a less public mode — the two countries set courses for improving trans-Atlantic relations that would be destroyed by Iraq-related ironies or we-told-you-so's from ranking officials.

Besides, the French and Germans shared an absence of alternatives and an element of direct self-interest. With time, France and Germany's attempt to turn Europe against the United States in the run-up to the war has come to be regarded by strategists in both countries' capitals as a tactical mistake that resulted instead in a majority of the 25 European Union countries opposing the French-German drive for European pre-eminence.

In a Europe greatly weakened by its fractures over the war, and frightened now by terrorism on its soil, the error of trying to turn the Americans into the ultimate villains in Iraq while they are still the ultimate guarantors of European security was clearly not one the French and Germans would repeat.

In Germany, where a poll on Thursday found that 53 percent wanted the Americans to pull out of Iraq, the government had a rather different stance. Weeks ago, Defense Minister Peter Struck, in suggesting that a Spanish troop withdrawal would be unwise, said an American pullback would mean total instability.

Since January, while refusing to supply troops for Iraq, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government has given its approval to the grand lines of a Bush administration initiative for the Greater Middle East, signed a German-American Alliance for the 21st Century that stresses common goals in the region, and, through Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, defined "Jihadist terrorism" as "the new totalitarianism" that constitutes the greatest threat to global security.

In France ... [Jacques] Chirac's opportunities to maneuver were limited. He is hemmed in by the reality that his surge in popularity at home during the 2003 Iraq debate has dissipated into his current grief-filled domestic political situation.

At the same time, he faces a series of encounters with President George W. Bush and other leaders at four major international meetings through the month of June — with sentiment in favor of righting the situation in Iraq unmistakably outweighing interest in doling out blame.

In a sense, Germany and France's options were also limited by the reality that it was no longer possible to justify countering American policy by the selective demonization of the Bush Administration.

Just as John Kerry had called on the new Socialist prime minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to reconsider his pledge to bring Spanish forces home from Iraq, the Democratic candidate's reaction on Thursday to the worsening military situation hardly let Europe off the hook from its faulty presumption that no unified American view existed on Europe's ongoing share of Iraqi responsibilities.

"No European country," said Kerry, "is made safe by a failed Iraq, yet those countries are distinctly absent from the risk bearing."

Perhaps remarkably, some French commentators appeared to be taking the idea to heart that assisting the Americans, however passively, in Iraq is the best alternative to chaos in the Middle East.

Le Figaro, in an editorial, said that since the United States was not going to clear out of Iraq, "France would be well advised to abstain from diplomatically harassing its ally on the question of the handover of power, and to stop continuously referring everything to the United Nations."
Vinocur's article ends with Le Monde's correspondent in Baghdad presenting a revisionist account of where France's excellent view of its own record stops in explaining how Iraq had gotten to where it was.
Without directly touching on it, the report presaged French discretion on America's grief of the moment.

It said: "Iraqis remain exceedingly critical of French policy. Contrary to what Europeans often think, the fact of having opposed the American occupation does absolutely nothing to boost the popularity of Europe or of a given country in Iraq."

"French policy over the past year is severely criticized," the correspondent continued. "It's impossible to find anyone, apart from a few out-of-work Baathist officials, who support the French position over the Iraq crisis."

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