Of all Bush administration officials, Colin Powell is the one held in highest esteem in Europe. It's not hard to see why.
Just like the Europeans, he doesn't want the United States to disarm Saddam Hussein without the backing of the United Nations. The secretary of State even managed to convince President Bush to seek U.N. support back in August.
Thereafter he spent two months heroically haggling -- mainly with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin -- over the text of a resolution that would win the assent of the entire Security Council.
So how does De Villepin repay his negotiating partner? With a kick in the teeth.
On Monday, De Villepin all but threatened to use France's Security Council veto to block any resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. So much for Powell's assurances within the administration that he could work constructively with our cantankerous European allies.
De Villepin doesn't even want to wait for the weapons inspectors' report next Monday. "Already we know for a fact," he asserted with breathtaking Gallic insouciance, "that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen."
Well, that's a relief. We can all sleep soundly at night, protected by French reassurances.
It may even be true that Iraq's programs are temporarily stymied by international scrutiny, which will be sure to fade over time. But Resolution 1441 -- which France, along with the rest of the Security Council, endorsed Nov. 8 -- doesn't call for Iraq to block or even freeze its weapons of mass destruction. It calls for Iraq to give up those arms completely.
To be exact, Resolution 1441 offers Iraq "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations."
The last chance has come and gone. Has Hussein turned over any of the tons of chemical and biological agents that he is believed to own? No. He hasn't given up so much as an aerosol can.
In the process, Hussein has committed at least three clear violations of Resolution 1441.
Violation No. 1: On Dec. 8, he filed a 12,000-page "full and complete" weapons declaration that, as chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said, "failed to answer a great many questions."
Violation No. 2: U.N. weapons inspectors have discovered that Iraq has bought engines for ballistic missiles and raw material for their fuel.
Violation No. 3: The inspectors last week discovered 12 warheads designed for chemical weapons. Iraq then coughed up four more. Like the missile parts, they had not been declared.
And although he insists there's no evidence of a "smoking gun," even Blix admits that Hussein hasn't provided "proactive support" to the disarmament process. Being a good international bureaucrat, however, Blix won't certify a "material breach" because he believes that no problem is too intractable to be solved by endless negotiations.
The French are not prey to the same delusion. They are quite ready to use force when their interests are threatened. They recently dispatched 2,500 soldiers to Ivory Coast, for instance, and they didn't bother to ask for the U.N.'s permission.
So why is France pressing for endless U.N. palaver in the case of Iraq? Its first motive is crassly commercial: France has about $1.5 billion in contracts with the current Iraqi government and doesn't want it overthrown for fear that a more democratic regime might take its business elsewhere. Its second motive is essentially wounded national pride. France, a noted poet recently wrote, "used to have the ability to inspire princes and kings" but now "comes the time when no one listens to her anymore and the universe turns without her, except when it judges her with spite or commiseration." This writer suggested that the solution was for France to adopt "a humble and global approach."
Those sentiments are found in a best-selling French book called "The Cry of the Gargoyle." Its author is now foreign minister of the republic.
It is hard to see anything humble about De Villepin's grandstanding Monday, but it was certainly "global": France is taking advantage of Franklin Roosevelt's dispensation -- a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- to maximize its influence at the expense of the "hyperpower."
The bad news for Paris is that it can get away with this game only as long as Washington lets it. After Monday, even Powell's patience may wear thin.