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U.S., France Could Bond as They Rebuild

May 16, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — France and the United States can begin repairing a relationship damaged by the war in Iraq, if France backs U.S. plans for reconstruction, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

Although the Bush administration has threatened retaliation against France for its antiwar campaign, the U.S. and French continue to cooperate on such issues as NATO peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism, said Richard Haass, director of the State Department's Office of Policy Planning.

Coming after visits by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and other high-ranking U.S. officials, Haass' comments expressed the double-barreled postwar attitude that Washington has adopted toward Paris. While U.S. leaders warn that the recent bad blood could bring unspecified reprisals, they have also kept open lines of communication and signaled that President Jacques Chirac's government could avoid further unpleasantness if it becomes more cooperative.

"History shows these countries tend to be better off when they are working in parallel rather than in opposition," Haass said, adding that no decisions have been made about retaliation. "I think France has paid a price already. Its reputation in the U.S. has taken a hit."

Haass predicted that an upcoming U.N. debate about Iraq will not result in a reprise of the all-out confrontation over Washington's war plans that split the Security Council in March. The U.S. has proposed a resolution asking the Security Council to lift longtime sanctions on Baghdad to jump-start the Iraqi economy, particularly its oil industry.

The U.N. consideration of the proposal is an "important opportunity" to heal wounds left by the U.S.-French diplomatic clash, Haass said.

"I'm fairly upbeat about the potential to come to an agreement on this resolution," he said. "I do not see this becoming a replay of what happened in the U.N. several months ago, to be honest. I think everyone understands it's in everyone's best interest ... to make it work. This resolution is an essential way station to get from here to there. There's then the added dividend that, if we get this right, we help ourselves and help the bilateral relationship and the transatlantic relationship."

French leaders have toned down their resistance to U.S. policy regarding Iraq, saying they want to play a constructive role in its postwar recovery. And the Chirac government is likely to be heartened by Haass' emphasis on the potential for reconciliation. He said NATO, a casualty of transatlantic tension, could well play a role in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the French remain wary. Although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said France would face "consequences" for leading the antiwar camp, the French still see the State Department as a comparatively restrained wing of an administration increasingly controlled by Defense Department neoconservatives who intend to make France pay for its defiance.

"The moderate version is Colin Powell warning about consequences for France," analyst Francois Heisbourg said in a recent interview. "The anti-French hysteria in the U.S. is irrational."

French diplomats have complained in recent days about a number of U.S. newspaper stories citing unnamed officials who accused France of coddling the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

Asked about French suspicions of a U.S. campaign against France waged through the media, Haass said French officials had not discussed the matter with him in meetings here. Officials at the Pentagon, White House and State Department denied any such campaign.

"My own experience in Washington is that it's usually not best to get set off by anonymous sources," Haass said. "What matters is whether what he or she says is authoritative. Are they representing the secretary of State, the president, what-have-you? So I'm not particularly worried [about] those kinds of distractions."

Real issues such as the complexities of the U.N. process have tempered the U.S. approach toward France, according to Heisbourg. To finance the mammoth task of rebuilding Iraq, the Bush administration urgently needs the U.N. sanctions abolished or at least suspended, as France has proposed.

"I think a relatively uncomfortable discovery for the [neoconservatives] is that you can't do without the U.N. entirely," Heisbourg said.

The two nations have to concentrate on working together on vital matters of mutual interest on which they agree, Haass said.

"We're not operating in a vacuum, we're operating in a context," he said. "It's part of the challenge to both governments to show that cooperation is possible, to show that it is clearly in the interests of both countries, and I think then gradually you can begin to fix that context. But it's not going to happen overnight."

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