Thursday, February 10, 2005

Odd meetings

One can spend a good deal of time trying to work out exactly why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose Paris for her first big speech and, parenthetically, what had passed between her and Blair and Straw.

Ought she to have given a bigger boost to the British and made her speech here? Is she perhaps already tired of Tony Blair’s self-righteousness and insistence that the Americans should show endless gratitude for his support?

On the other hand, perhaps she ought to have made the speech in one of the East European countries. We can but guess but the best guess is still our earlier one: that she can tell the folks back home that the American government through her and President Bush did all it could, even going to the heart of the enemy, Paris, to pronounce on the need to have warmer relations.

While we are on the subject of those warmer relations, are the Europeans and, specifically, the French not being a little ungrateful? What happened to the special relationship and understanding that they were supposed to have had with Rice’s predecessor, General Colin Powell? Has he been written out of history?

Rice’s choice of words was quite interesting. She called on Europe to work together with America to promote the ideals of liberty and democracy.
“America stands ready to work with Europe on our common agenda and Europe must stand ready to work with America.”
Not the European Union, as some people might have preferred, but Europe. This leaves a great deal of lee-way for future manoeuvring. Of course, Chirac would not have liked any references to the European Union either. He may represent France or he may represent Europe, as the mood takes him, but he does not represent the European Union.

Two things need to be noted. One is that the most hopeful development as far as the Middle East is concerned is the meeting between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, sponsored, so to speak by the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan.

The other one is slightly odder. According to an article in the New York Times, reprinted in Wednesday's International Herald Tribune, President Chirac had a meeting with five senators at the Elysée Palace a week ago and seems to have confused them all.

Chirac insisted on his vision of a multipolar world but, it seems, did not quite make it clear what the other poles were going to be. Perhaps Europe, perhaps France.

It seems that President Chirac and former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, for some reason present at the meeting, though he is now Minister of Interior, showed themselves to be uncertain what to say about Iraq.

On the one hand they were taken aback at the high turn out at the election, on the other hand they continued to maintain that it was all a complete disaster.

On the one hand they were supportive of the plan to train Iraqi police officers, on the other hand, no French soldier was to set foot on Iraqi soil. And, anyway, the Americans got it all wrong. (Not like the French in their various colonial and semi-colonial adventures.)

The senators were particularly confused by what Chirac had to say about Iran. Since then Ms Rice has insisted that Iran comply with the various conditions laid down by Germany, France and Britain or face the United Nations Security Council.

For some reason, it has been assumed that when America says that Iran’s case must go to the Security Council, it is actually discarding the possibility of diplomatic negotiations.

It seems (one does keep saying that but the story is rather confused) that President Chirac told the senators that he would support taking the case to the Security Council if Iran did not comply with the demands made by the International Atomic Authority, adding that he did not trust the Iranian government. He explained that, in his opinion, you could negotiate with the Sunnis but not the Shiites, an odd point of view, but, perhaps, coloured by his own and other French politicians’s past dealings with Saddam Hussein.

All in all, it is President Chirac’s view that President Bush should take political lessons from him and remember France’s great knowledge of and experience in the Middle East. Does he mean all those dealings with Saddam and the catastrophic support for Chairman Arafat, whose death has finally made some progress in the Palestine possible? Perhaps not.

Was the French Foreign Minister one of those who agreed over what must have been an unusually friendly and pleasant lunch in Brussels, that NATO will provide more support for the officer-training mission in Iraq?

We do not know. In fact, details of the agreement are frustratingly few. We do not know which countries were involved (by NATO one increasingly means the European allies, who have not exactly been pulling their weight recently).

Officials say they hope to triple the size of the NATO training contingent by this summer to about 300 and to train 1,000 new Iraqi Army officers a year. In other words, there have been no definite commitments. Will this include the German contingent, who will train Iraqi forces but not in Iraq? We do not know. What will the French do? Cheer from the sidelines? Again, we do not know.

At the moment, everybody is relieved at the friendly atmosphere of Rice’s visit and her own elegant self seems to have vowed the Continental media.

Such rather awkward matters as the genuniness of some of the Europeans’ contribution to the Western alliance, the developments in Iran and the rather confused but determined intent by the EU to lift the arms embargo on China, are being swept under the carpet until the next big spring cleaning.

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