A Whirlwind Meets the Mideast

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Action is my policy," Nicolas Sarkozy once explained to a foreign acquaintance. And movement is the French president's only constant. So welcome to the Middle East, Monsieur le President. You may have found a crisis to measure up to your metabolism.

His quicksilver qualities made Sarkozy the most interesting leader on the international scene over the past year, if not the most consequential or successful. By interjecting himself into the small but brutal Israeli-Palestinian war in the Gaza Strip, Sarkozy continues to plunge headfirst where others tiptoe away.

Interesting is not the only I-word that his peers in the world leadership club apply to Sarkozy, who came to power in May 2007 promising a "rupture" with France's immobilized domestic and foreign policies. Irritating also fits, as Sarkozy himself proudly acknowledges in private. ("I disturb things? Good.")

A faint gnashing of teeth could be heard in official Washington as Sarkozy raced across the Middle East last week seeking an immediate cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had made it clear they wanted nothing, and no one, to interfere with Israel's timetable for the destruction of Hamas's rocket capabilities.

But they could fault nothing in the positions that Sarkozy laid out as he pressed Arab leaders -- particularly Syria's Bashar al-Assad -- to get Hamas to stop shooting rockets into Israel and smuggling weapons into Gaza as conditions for a cease-fire. In true Assad fashion, the Syrian leader said neither yes nor no, and Sarkozy returned to Paris on Wednesday with no immediate results for his efforts.

This has been the case as well for most of his other grand initiatives, which have been united by his energy and charisma rather than by broad concepts or detailed follow-up.

"He shakes things up, calculates what has been gained or lost, and then moves on," says a close associate. "He is a lawyer, at heart as well by profession, ready to handle things on a case-by-case basis rather than insisting on organizing principles."

President of the European Union for the second half of 2008, Sarkozy "was brutal in the way he ran E.U. meetings, giving the Poles 10 minutes to decide, cornering the Germans when they tried to duck and annoying everyone over something," says another Sarkozy colleague. "But it was the only way to get decisions in an organization of 27 sovereign nations."

While other European and American policymakers vacationed or slumbered last August, Sarkozy rushed to Moscow and Tbilisi to play peacemaker between Russia and Georgia. The cease-fire he got was messy and still has loose ends. But by making himself available as a vehicle for a deal when both Russians and Georgians tired of fighting -- the essential role of most mediators -- he filled a needed role. He may yet replicate that feat with the Israelis and the Palestinians.

After world credit markets cratered in September, Sarkozy forced a visibly nettled Bush into calling a global economic conference in Washington to set an agenda for the post-Bush years. Sarkozy then created new fissures by gratuitously challenging U.S. antimissile deployments in Eastern Europe and publicly criticizing Bush for refusing to take risks for peace and human rights. He subsequently softened both ill-considered declarations.

"Yes, I can" is an internal mantra for Sarkozy, even when he probably can't. Given such activism and considering the issues confronting their nations, he will probably become the key European partner for Barack Obama, who will need to recognize that Sarkozy's heart is usually in the right place, even if his tongue is not.

Sarkozy has transformed French policy toward the United States and toward Israel. He admires both countries and is not afraid to say so. (Actually, it is hard to think of anything Sarkozy would be afraid to say.) At the same time, France remains a major influence in the Arab world. Sarkozy's peacemaking efforts should not be discouraged.

The Gaza tragedy gives new urgency to Obama's promise to address, early in his presidency, the Muslim world's perceived grievances against the United States. When the time for that speech comes, Obama will benefit from comparing notes with the restless, visionary occupant of the Elysee Palace.

"It should be a global Philadelphia speech," former French foreign minister Hubert VĂ©drine told me recently, referring to Obama's transcendent campaign speech on U.S. race relations. "We Europeans are in the same boat with you. Our relations with the Muslim world depend very much on America's relations with the Muslim world. We all need to get it right."


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