THE EVE of the annual Group of Eight summit meeting offered another demonstration of how the bad blood between the Bush administration and European governments continues to hamper international consensus on Iraq. Eager to win approval for a new United Nations resolution endorsing Iraq's interim government, the Bush administration made considerable concessions, acknowledging the new government's right to order the departure of U.S. troops and fixing an end date -- January 2006 -- for the mandate of international forces. Iraq's new prime minister submitted a letter to the Security Council outlining arrangements that he said would allow his government and coalition forces "to reach agreement on the full range of fundamental security and policy issues."
Yet this was not enough for France and its followers, which still appear to be pursuing the prewar strategy of using the council to contain U.S. power. Though they refuse to contribute their own troops to Iraq's pacification, France, Germany and Russia tried to dictate military arrangements on the ground, demanding that the resolution grant Baghdad's incoming government something it hadn't asked for: an explicit veto over U.S.-led operations. Both sides played down the dispute and predicted an agreement could be reached as early as today. But it's hard not to conclude from the debate that a truly cooperative Western effort to stabilize Iraq remains out of reach, despite the critical importance of that outcome for Europeans as well as Americans.
For now, the Bush administration has no choice but to press ahead in Iraq with its patchwork alliance. But in the longer run, the United States must forge a broader and stronger alliance if it is to win the war against Islamic extremism and terrorism. That's why one of the initiatives set to emerge from this week's summit meeting strikes us as constructive and promising: a joint commitment by the rich nations to democratic reform in the "broader Middle East and North Africa," backed by several new programs.
Launched by the White House in January as one of its major diplomatic initiatives this year, the reform plan encountered resistance in Paris -- where Middle Eastern democracy is dismissed as a fool's errand, especially if promoted by the United States -- and from entrenched Arab autocrats, who, not surprisingly, disapprove of a program intended to strip them of power. In Washington, these all-too-predictable reactions have been seized on by administration critics as proof that the initiative is doomed to failure. Yet such assessments ignore the growing pressure for change within the Middle East itself -- an appetite reflected in an unprecedented series of manifestos issued in recent months by groups of Arab intellectuals and civil society movements calling for democratic institutions.
The G-8 platform seeks to ally itself with these reformers and support them through programs promoting democracy, economic growth and literacy. It calls for the creation of a biannual "forum for the future" at which Middle Eastern and G-8 governments would discuss reforms -- and a separate convention of nongovernment groups. No one pretends these instruments will trigger a democratic revolution overnight. But they do represent a start at two critical tasks: concrete action to promote liberalization in the Arab states, and the formulation of a common and cooperative transatlantic agenda for the Middle East. At best this summit will leave a foundation that future American and European administrations can build on -- if and when they are ready to put the rancor over Iraq behind them.