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Transatlantic Wounds Won't Heal Overnight

America's strained relationships with its allies go well beyond the Iraq issue, observers say.

March 21, 2004|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush sought last week to call a cease-fire in the sniping between the United States and some of its longtime allies over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but diplomats on both sides believe that the breach will take more work -- and time -- to heal.

"There have been disagreements in this matter among old and valued friends," Bush told an audience of foreign diplomats Friday at a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the invasion. "Those differences belong to the past."

But judging from the swelling unrest in allied countries over the dangers and costs of troop commitments in Iraq, the debate remains very much in the present. Ironically, the most immediate problems the U.S. is facing are not with France and Germany, the two major allies that opted out of the Iraq war entirely. Instead, they are with countries whose governments joined Bush's coalition -- and now face voters who are unhappy with the results.

Early last week, the newly elected leader of Spain denounced the invasion as "an error" based on "lies" and said he planned to withdraw his country's troops unless several new conditions were met. Then Poland's president complained that he felt "misled" about weapons of mass destruction, and mused that he might end his troop commitment early too (but backed down after a phone call from Bush). Then South Korea, normally the most reliable of allies, said it didn't want to put its soldiers in Iraq's unstable north.

It was little more than a footnote when France's foreign minister -- not the most reliable of allies -- marked the anniversary with a blunt declaration that the war "did not make the world more stable."

"Let's face facts," Dominique de Villepin told Paris' leading newspaper, Le Monde. "Terrorism didn't exist in Iraq before the war. Today, the country is one of the world's principal sources of world terrorism."

The problem of America's strained relationships with its traditional allies goes well beyond disagreements on Iraq, and will not be easy to repair, warned former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.

"We are now at a point that is different from any previous one," Kissinger said last week. "Tensions have existed throughout the history of the Atlantic relationship. But what is unique about the present situation is that there is not -- as there was in the Cold War -- an overriding threat to provide a common reference point."

During the Cold War, he said, the threat posed by the Soviet Union pushed the United States and Western European nations to believe that they shared similar defense interests, even when they disagreed over other issues. But now, with no Soviet Union, the "glue" in the relationship has melted away. In the case of Iraq, for example, the leaders of Britain and Italy agreed with Bush that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat; France and Germany, however, did not.

Over time, Kissinger warned, the consequences could be grave.

"What if the United States believes that Europe has become irrelevant and is just another player with which we have relations of convenience?" he asked. "Then we will be living in a world very similar to the pre-World War I world" -- an era when major powers competed with one another for influence, forged no strong alliances and plunged into "an armaments race and ... a huge conflict."

But Bush administration officials say they are committed to improving U.S. relations with the allies -- and bristle at the suggestion that they have alienated other countries by reaching most of their major decisions without consulting others.

"I will not deny that there is a lot of noise and chatter among the world's great powers," Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said last month. "But this noise is obscuring one of the most striking facts of our time: The world's great powers have never had better relations with one another."

European diplomats in Washington acknowledge that the administration has mounted a campaign to work more closely with them -- with some largely unheralded successes.

"We have encouraged the administration to do more consultation for a long time," a European diplomat said. "Miraculously, the Bush administration is doing exactly that."

In nuclear talks with Iran, the administration has largely fallen in line behind a European-led effort to persuade Tehran to submit its nuclear program to tighter international control.

In Haiti, the United States is sharing leadership of a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping mission with -- of all nations -- France.

In nuclear-disarmament negotiations with North Korea, the United States has insisted on including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea in the talks -- in large part to increase U.S. leverage against the secretive dictatorship.

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