White House Hails Renewed Ties With Europe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, greets U.S. and French business leaders meeting in Washington. He is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress today. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shortly after Angela Merkel became chancellor of Germany two years ago, President Bush told her about the frequent videoconferences he held with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Bush wanted to know: Would Merkel be interested in doing the same?

U.S. technicians were soon installing the necessary equipment at Merkel's offices and, according to White House and German officials, the two leaders began conferring regularly on Iran, Afghanistan, climate change, trade and other issues -- one small sign of the warming of the once-chilly relations between Bush and one of Europe's biggest powers.

Four years after then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's dismissive comments about European opposition to the war in Iraq, "Old Europe" is back -- and the White House is trumpeting its strengthened transatlantic ties with two highly choreographed official visits this week.

New French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an unabashed admirer of the United States, arrived in Washington yesterday for a round of high-profile appearances -- including a black-tie dinner last night, an address before a joint session of Congress today, and a scheduled tour of Mount Vernon with Bush to commemorate ties dating back to Revolutionary times. Merkel, meanwhile, has snagged a rare invitation to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., where the two leaders will meet Friday and Saturday over dinner and breakfast.

"I never quite understood why we had to fight with the United States," Sarkozy told a small group of French and U.S. business leaders soon after his arrival yesterday. "We may disagree," he said. "We remain friends."

France and Germany feuded with the Bush administration over Iraq, and Bush never bonded with either the previous German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, or Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, whose propensity to mention his past association with Bush's father seemed to grate on the current U.S. president, according to some people familiar with that relationship.

But the European leaders that Bush did connect with -- Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar -- are now gone, and the White House finds itself in need of support from France and Germany as it tackles a wide range of foreign-policy challenges. Though administration officials said Bush believes he has forged strong personal ties with both Merkel and Sarkozy, tensions still exist on some key issues -- especially on how to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions, beat back the Taliban in Afghanistan and combat global warming.

And it is far from clear that Sarkozy and Merkel have much running room to be of great help to Bush given the continuing and deep unpopularity of the Bush administration in France and Germany. Both leaders have been careful not to move in lockstep with Bush, mindful of the political drubbing Blair took over being perceived as the president's "poodle."

"The Europeans are making nice -- the animosities of the first Bush term are not ones they want to revisit; and there are issues, like Iran and Kosovo, that need to be dealt with," said Daniel Benjamin, a former Clinton administration official who directs the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. "But they see the Bush administration as out of time, out of gas and obsessed by Iraq, so their focus is on 2009 and after."

Perhaps the most immediate issue on the U.S.-European agenda is Iran. The Bush administration is pushing hard for a new round of international sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran to give up activities that the president alleges, and Iran denies, are aimed at developing a nuclear weapon. Sarkozy has been outspoken in his support for Bush's approach, telling the business leaders yesterday that a nuclear bomb in the hands of the current Iranian leadership "would be unacceptable to France."

Merkel has been more cautious, and U.S. officials appear frustrated that they have not made more headway with Germany, where officials have voiced private doubts about the unilateral sanctions recently imposed by Washington against Iran.

Afghanistan poses a longer-term problem. Both France and Germany have deployed troops there, but Bush administration officials have complained about the restrictions on where they can go in the country.

There is also serious concern at high levels of the U.S. government over the long-term commitment of European countries, especially Germany, where the public has been restive over the presence of more than 3,000 German soldiers in Afghanistan.

Merkel made her first visit to Afghanistan over the past weekend, and German officials have called attention to their new efforts to embed 200 trainers with the Afghan army. But retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO supreme allied commander, said in an interview: "The German public doesn't understand why German forces are on the ground in Afghanistan, period, and the chancellor has been pretty silent."

U.S. officials seem more pleased with the recent actions of Sarkozy, who they said dropped the long-standing French objections that held up NATO's development of a consortium of planes for transporting troops and equipment. The new French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, also pointed to recent efforts to help rebuild public health in Iraq. Though Sarkozy has not changed the general French position on the war, he said that "there is a clear sign that we want to be helpful."

Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and a top foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said that Bush appears to be grasping the new opportunity presented by the changing politics of France and Germany but that the results on issues such as Iran are not in yet.

"It's good for him to put on these shows, but this administration does not seem to know how to do diplomacy at the highest levels to produce sustained positions," Holbrooke said.

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