U.S. Relationship With Key Allies Gets Frosty

Times Staff Writers

French and German leaders rejected U.S. criticism of their approach to Iraq on Thursday, worsening a dispute that is generating potentially significant rifts within Europe and between the United States and key European allies.

A day after top U.S. officials expressed exasperation with French resistance to Washington's Iraq policy, French President Jacques Chirac called for "serenity." But he and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said they are united in their refusal to "legitimize war," a stance causing tensions with the Bush administration days before U.N. weapons inspectors report to the Security Council on Monday.

The developments were part of the posturing and sparring that can be expected before a diplomatic showdown like the Security Council proceedings. In a Europe agitated by the specter of war, however, emerging fault lines could pit a Franco-German alliance against Britain and other European Union powers such as Spain and Italy, analysts say.

And the tone became nasty Thursday as other French officials reacted indignantly to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's comment that France and Germany, the economic and political powers of the 15-member European Union, represent an "old Europe" whose dovish views are out of touch with their neighbors'.

France's ecology minister said Thursday that she was tempted to respond to Rumsfeld with an expletive. The economy minister said he was "profoundly vexed." Lawmaker Martine Aubry, a leader of the Socialist opposition, assailed the "arrogance of the United States that wants to continue to rule the world alone and increasingly without rules."

Rumsfeld's words will not improve the Bush administration's image problem in Europe, analysts say. Widespread antiwar sentiment and growing anti-Americanism are obstacles for U.S. allies such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the leaders of Spain and Italy, who appear inclined to side with Washington in the Iraq dispute.

"The reality is that people here don't like Bush -- they certainly don't like Rumsfeld and [Vice President Dick] Cheney -- and though they are certain that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they are saying: 'Go into that haystack and find that smoking gun,' " said Robert Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling firm in London. "People don't want to go to war."

That's the mood in Britain, the staunchest U.S. ally in Europe. It's worse in France, whose government worries that a war will heighten the risk of Islamic terrorism here and of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, where France has strong allies.

Moreover, the Chirac government doesn't want to damage its positive image in the polls to justify a war to voters who are more concerned with domestic issues.

"Chirac feels more and more support for his policy on Iraq," said Alfred Grosser, a Paris political analyst. Grosser said anti-Americanism "among reasonable people is directed against" President Bush.

"But there is also a visceral, unreasonable wave of anti-Americanism made worse by the U.S. attitude."

France, a central player in the Security Council accord last year that led to the inspections in Iraq, has appeared in recent days to sharpen its differences with Washington, a development that could jeopardize the Bush administration's chances to win U.N. backing for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to analysts.

"There is a sense of a shift: Whether it's just a rhetorical shift or a change in policy and approach remains to be seen," a U.S. official said. Ironically, French resistance could push the U.S. to bypass the U.N. and pursue military action with a coalition that leaves France and Germany on the sidelines, according to the official, who requested anonymity.

"This could have negative repercussions for France as a major player and for the U.N.," the U.S. official said. A breakdown in the U.N. process could also hurt U.S. influence on security matters in Europe and weaken an already anemic North Atlantic Treaty Organization, analysts say.

"It would be the first time in history NATO allies have opted out of an operation of such importance," said former White House national security aide John Tedstrom, now vice president of policy studies at the East-West Institute in New York. "And it creates a very dangerous precedent for long-term relationships."

France is the most independent-minded of U.S. allies in Europe, pursuing a policy that uses institutions such as the European Union and United Nations to enhance its power. Now, skepticism about Iraq has pushed Germany closer to France at the expense of the traditionally strong German bond to the United States. During the last two years, France and Germany have often teamed up to dominate EU meetings, forming a duo that clashes with a bloc led by Britain, Spain and Italy.

The German relationship with both Europe and the United States has reached a "hinge point," said Stephen F. Szabo, a European specialist at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Some predict that there is still a good chance the French will eventually stand with the Americans. At the outbreak of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, public opinion here swung rapidly from strong disapproval to majority support for use of force after the French government decided to join Operation Desert Storm. Chirac has promised that France would play its part in a military operation that is justified by international law and approved by the U.N.

The Gulf War, however, resulted from Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. The problem this time is that many Europeans reject the very idea of a preemptive war intended to topple Hussein's regime. There is a widespread belief that the United States has used disarmament as a cynical cover story for an attack whose main goal is to take over Iraq's oil fields.

The anger and suspicion directed at the Bush administration were on display Thursday in the Spanish parliament when Foreign Minister Ana Palacio announced that U.S. forces would be allowed to use military bases in Spain "if war is inevitable."

Although she was careful to add that Spain will not decide its position on Iraq until after hearing the inspection report, legislators unleashed a broadside at the minister and at Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of the European leaders with whom Bush is friendliest.

"Aznar prefers to ... put himself at the orders of Bush against a majority of this country, a majority that is against war," said legislator Jose Luis Centella of the United Left party. "You have no arguments to defend Spain's involvement in a war at the service of the interests of domination of the United States over Iraqi oil."

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Where allies stand

Support for U.S. action against Iraq has wavered recently, with key allies urging more time for inspections. Here are the latest developments:

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Britain: America's strongest ally on the issue, it has been steadfast in its support for possible intervention if deemed necessary. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that there are still ways that the issue can be resolved peacefully.

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France: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that while "the president is confident Europe will heed the call" for action against Iraq, "it's entirely possible France won't be on the line." France is advocating action against Iraq only under the auspices of the U.N.

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Spain: Has generally been supportive of the U.S. in the Iraq crisis. Foreign Minister Ana Palacio announced Thursday that the U.S. could use Spanish military bases to support an attack on Iraq. Palacio did not specify if Spain would provide troops.

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Germany: Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Wednesday that France and Germany were united "in favor of a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis." German leaders, like the French, have said they feel a decision to attack Iraq should made only by the U.N. Security Council.

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Russia: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin told President Bush in a phone call Thursday that the weapons inspectors' presentation of findings to the U.N. Security Council on Monday should be "the main criterion" in determining future action on Iraq.

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Turkey: Has not promised to allow the U.S. to use the country as a staging area for an invasion of Iraq, although it has been allowing use of its bases for patrols of Iraq's northern "no-fly" zone. Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis appealed for cooperation by Iraq with international inspectors.

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Sources: From staff and wire reports

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Rotella reported from Paris and Richter from Washington. Special correspondents William Wallace in London and Cristina Mateo-Yungas in Madrid contributed to this report.

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