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The War's European Casualties

France, Germany and Russia anticipate varying degrees of U.S. backlash for their opposition. Other allies stand to benefit.

May 14, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A recent spoof of a leading newspaper here took the state of transatlantic relations to absurd extremes by imagining a U.S. invasion of France.

Titled The Monde (not to be confused with the influential daily Le Monde), the satiric publication described troops from the United States, Britain and Monaco -- led by "Gen. Chuck Norris" -- charging onto the beaches of Normandy, chasing President Jacques Chirac into underground tunnels and capturing Euro Disney with the aid of Mickey Mouse and other characters secretly in the employ of the CIA.

Amusing silliness, of course. But in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the troubled U.S.-European relationship is not generating a lot of laughs. The short decisive war that swept a dictatorship out of Baghdad has also clouded the diplomatic landscape in Europe.

Paris, Berlin and Moscow are on guard for anticipated U.S. retaliation for their leadership of the antiwar bloc in the U.N. Security Council. In contrast, visiting Spanish and Eastern European leaders got the red-carpet treatment in Washington last week -- a tangible display of their new clout with a grateful Bush administration.

Governments across Europe are maneuvering in an atmosphere of conciliation, resentment and calculation at a moment of uncertainty not only about the Continent's relationship with the United States but about damaged institutions such as the United Nations and NATO, whose roles as anchors of international order are in doubt.

"In general, there is an attempt to mend fences," said Manuel Coma, a security and defense analyst at the Real Instituto Elcano, a think tank in Madrid. "But I think that the damage done to transatlantic relations, especially U.S.-French relations, is very profound, and this is going to change things, some with a rather permanent character."

The overall perception in Europe is that Washington will punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia and reward such pro-war countries as Spain and Poland, according to Coma and other European commentators.

The Chirac government has been surprised by vehement anti-French reaction attributed mainly to neoconservative hawks in the Defense Department, according to a French political analyst.

"The French are under the impression that the neocons are really in charge now," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Some of the talk has sounded as if they want to treat us like an enemy, like North Korea. I don't think anybody imagined it could get this wacky. That's why Chirac and [Foreign Minister Dominique de] Villepin are much less vocal. They are biding their time."

After a determined campaign in the Security Council to block U.S. war plans, Chirac and Villepin's quieter postwar policy mixes conciliatory signals with measured defiance. Speaking at the end of April, Villepin declared that France would be faithful to its "values and principles," but he reminded journalists of the "very old friendship" between the U.S. and France.

Chirac recently met with the leaders of Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg to discuss embryonic plans for an independent European Union defense policy, a project seen mainly as a gesture of independence from the United States. But his government has also offered to assist the U.S. in easing U.N. sanctions on Iraq.

So far, the specter of threatened U.S. reprisals for France's antiwar stance has remained largely that -- a specter. Because of self-interest, Washington seems unlikely to curtail cooperation with France on certain issues, primarily the fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Economic reprisals, meanwhile, would be difficult to pull off because of globalization and France's central economic role in the 15-nation EU.

"I don't think there will be any economic sanctions of France," said one U.S. official who asked not to be further identified. Asked about potential punitive measures, this official said: "We are still considering what to do and see how France proceeds.... A lot of things are being discussed."

One thing Washington is likely to reduce, Heisbourg said, is transfers to France of sensitive software and other defense-related materials that require federal approval. France also seems certain to suffer from the current U.S. suspicion of the U.N., its main vehicle for projecting power internationally. And experts expect the chill to extend to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the sharing of high-level intelligence data.

"The official spin is that nothing has changed," Heisbourg said. "But cooperation in the field of intelligence requires the highest level of trust and confidence. It's difficult to imagine that there will be zero impact."

It should be remembered that the U.S.-French confrontation followed years of smaller dust-ups. The U.S.-German relationship, by contrast, had been closer and less problematic. Now Germany is attempting to nudge its way back into Washington's good graces.

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