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We Slam Allies at Our Peril

February 13, 2003

Twenty years ago, French President Francois Mitterrand stood before the West German Bundestag to support Chancellor Helmut Kohl's request for approval of a new generation of U.S. nuclear missiles in Germany. Protesters against the weapons deployment filled streets in Europe and the United States, but France and Germany supported Washington's successful effort to counter a Soviet weapons buildup. It was a dramatic example of transatlantic cooperation.

The need for credible allies is no less urgent as the United States prepares for possible war with Iraq. The Bush administration should take care not to fray relations beyond repair in responding to the sometimes shrill objections of France and Germany. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is out of line when he dismissively says those nations are the "old Europe" and wisecracks that the only countries not willing to help attack Iraq are Germany, Libya and Cuba. The strongest man in the house needs to speak softest.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage took a more balanced approach Wednesday. In a meeting in Washington, he told the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times that although "we're having a rocky patch with Europe, we've had rocky patches in the past."

It was reassuring to hear Armitage say that though the number of U.S. troops in Europe might be trimmed -- troop strength should be constantly monitored -- reductions "won't happen as a punishment. We're not there as a reward."

Germany and France obviously have their own foreign policies; threatening or demonizing the two countries is not an effective way to bring them over to the U.S. side. Alienating two longtime allies also is dangerous to U.S. security. Germany was quick to station peacekeepers in Afghanistan and took charge of the international security force in Kabul for more than six months. France is helping to train an Afghan army and has an aircraft carrier within easy steaming distance of Iraq should it decide to join a military coalition.

The collapse of the Soviet Union made the United States the world's lone superpower. Many in Europe expressed concern that Washington would throw its weight around with no countervailing force. The Bush administration's withdrawal from previous treaties and refusal to contemplate new ones deepened European suspicion of what the French call U.S. "hyperpower," one step up from superpower. Warranted or not, that suspicion is reality. It also is not the same thing as broad anti-Americanism, as Armitage pointedly noted.

Diplomacy should not be a demolition derby. Listening to complaints, even those not apparently relevant, and responding to them calmly keep the door open for future alliances. The administration took pains last fall to keep working until it got a 15-0 U.N. Security Council vote demanding that Iraq disarm. That slam-dunk will certainly not be repeated. But intense, levelheaded negotiation will bear more fruit than poisoned words between America and Europe.

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