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Bush's New Ally: France?

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

PARIS -- Once every five or six weeks, a French presidential adviser named Maurice Gourdault-Montagne flies to Washington to meet with his American counterpart, national security adviser Stephen Hadley. They spend several hours coordinating strategy on Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other hot spots, and then the Frenchman flies home. In between trips, the two men talk often on the phone, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Welcome to the French Connection. Though the link between the top foreign policy advisers of Presidents Bush and Jacques Chirac is almost unknown to the outside world, it has emerged as an important element of U.S. planning. On a public level, France may still be the butt of jokes among American politicians, but in these private diplomatic contacts, the Elysee Palace has become one of the White House's most important and effective allies.

During a visit here this week, I had a chance to talk with French sources who know some of the closely held details. It's an intriguing story of back channels and secret missions, but it illustrates a larger change in America's approach: Bruised by the war in Iraq, the administration is now working hard to conduct its foreign policy in tandem with international allies and, where possible, through the United Nations.

America's key intermediary in this search for international consensus has been France. Sen. Hillary Clinton may have been using political hyperbole last month when she charged that the administration has been "outsourcing" its Iran policy to France and other European countries, but she wasn't entirely wrong. An administration that was blasted during its first term for being overly unilateralist has indeed decided to work more closely with allies. Contrary to Clinton, I think that's a positive development -- and one that's likely to make U.S. policy more effective.

The French Connection's impact is clear from some examples. Let's start with a secret trip to Damascus by Gourdault-Montagne in November 2003 to see Syrian President Bashar Assad. At the time, French-American relations were still in the deep freeze because of Chirac's refusal to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but the French were doing some early damage control. Gourdault-Montagne brought the Syrian leader a message from Chirac and two other critics of the Iraq war, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The message to Assad was: The war has changed things in the Middle East, and you have to show you have changed, too -- by visiting Jerusalem or taking some other bold step for peace with Israel. The French were probably hoping to gain diplomatic leverage with Washington by acting as a peace broker, but that's not how Assad took it. "Are you the spokesman of the Americans?" he asked Gourdault-Montagne. Worried that France, Germany and Russia were joining a U.S. pressure campaign, a nervous Assad soon began trying to consolidate his control over Lebanon. He forced the reelection of Lebanon's pliant pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, and began squeezing Syria's nemesis, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. That process culminated in Hariri's murder in February 2005.

Gourdault-Montagne began making his quiet trips to Washington in August 2004 to coordinate French-American efforts on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. It was in the midst of a presidential campaign, and the French were obviously hedging their bets. After Hariri's murder, Washington and Paris collaborated in forcing a Syrian withdrawal under Resolution 1559. To discourage mischief by the Shiite militia Hezbollah, Gourdault-Montagne told the Iranians during a secret visit to Tehran in February 2005 to advise Hezbollah to play it cool.

In framing policy on Syria and Iran, the French and Americans have consciously played a good cop-bad cop routine. The Americans demand tough U.N. language; the French bring the Russians and Chinese on board for a slightly watered-down version. It's a classic diplomatic minuet, but it has probably produced tougher and better resolutions than would have emerged if either side went alone. An illustration is the compromise that came this week -- to refer Iran to the Security Council for its violations of nuclear agreements, but give Iran another month to comply before any formal recommendation. The French argue that it's crucial now to maintain international solidarity on Iran, even at the price of a brief delay. What's interesting is that the Bush administration seems to agree.

Hadley and Gourdault-Montagne even look a bit alike. Both are thin, dapper, bespectacled advisers -- men for whom the term "buttoned down" was invented. Paris and Washington still disagree sharply on the substance of many issues, but they seem to have concluded that they'll get more of what they want if they collaborate rather than bicker. Indeed, the quiet partnership has probably benefited from the fact that the world still thinks France and America are enemies.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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