Three commandments drive the Bush administration's big-power strategy beyond Iraq: Punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia. That vivid formula was reportedly suggested in policymaking councils recently by Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser.
That approach is good as an easy-to-remember slogan and largely justified as an emotional response to the problems those three "partners" have created for Bush. But it is unlikely to be effective in the furious international logrolling that lies ahead. It might be wiser to herd the three miscreants rather than pick them off one by one.
The views of Rice, an expert on the former Soviet Union, can be decisive with the president, who trusts her totally. But Bush should pause before absolving Vladimir Putin alone, especially after the Russian president's sarcastic attacks Friday on the U.S. war effort as "some new form of colonialism."
There is also a tactical consideration. Treating this troika as the good, the bad and the ugly could renew France's destructive diplomatic tug of war, which may be subsiding. President Jacques Chirac did not deride the excellent suggestion that France and Russia forgive Iraq's debts to help that country's reconstruction, as Putin did.
Bush has sufficient leverage to move other nations along a track of making the future more important than the past, while never minimizing the sacrifices the United States has made in a noble cause. Essential to that goal will be Bush's willingness to use the leverage in a low-key if not invisible fashion.
The White House took a first step down that path last week by letting officials in Paris know that Bush will attend the G-8 summit of industrial nations in Evian, France, on June 1, immediately after he goes to St. Petersburg to meet with Putin.
Skipping those trips would have sent a valuable message of retribution, some aides felt. But Bush can push the American agenda more effectively by going to Evian. He also gains politically from the economic dimension of this gabfest. It can be the beginning of his pivot for Campaign 2004, going from being the war president to becoming the national and global economy president.
But it will take eight to tango in Evian (which, as Secretary of State Colin Powell tells friends, is "naive" spelled backward). Chirac as host wants to highlight his commitment to bringing clean drinking water and an end to poverty to the Third World. A continuing French quarrel with the world's financial superpower would rob the summit of all credibility.
To be sure, the frost between the White House and the Elysee Palace is still knee-deep. The two leaders have not spoken on the phone since Feb. 8. In contrast, the French leader is on the phone once or twice a week with Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (who will not benefit from any amnesia Bush extends to Germany).
The three leaders finished their St. Petersburg parley yesterday with Chirac suggesting that their purpose had been not to solidify their anti-American front but to begin to unwind it.
If the latter truly tempts him, Chirac should pick up the phone at the Elysee and call Bush now. And the American president should answer, without any defensiveness or rancor about the war in Iraq. His victory is brilliant enough for Churchillian magnanimity -- if Chirac and the others give him an opening.
One way to do that would be with an assurance that France will not obstruct efforts to have NATO support or participate in peacekeeping in Iraq. That would set the stage for a statement from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan associating NATO with U.N. efforts there -- similar to the precedent-setting statement Annan voiced on Kosovo. These steps would clear the way for participation by, and a division of responsibilities between, both bodies.
There is in fact more agreement among the major powers on the United Nations and Iraq than meets the eye. Disregard the argument over the adjectives -- whether the U.N. role will be "vital," "central" or "key." Chirac pointed up the real argument, which is over "the" or "a," by saying Friday that the United Nations should have "a central role." That is more realistic than "the central role," as Annan and now the French admit.
Condi Rice agreed with Ronald Reagan's famous "trust but verify" slogan he used to encourage the Soviet Union's trip to history's ash heap. Those three words have a better ring than "punish, ignore and forgive" in dealing with three nations that have earned American distrust but that should now grab any opportunity to regain it.