President Bush labored mightily in the fields of diplomacy and world politics last week to halt the downward spiral of his reelection campaign and his leadership abroad. Modest Mission Accomplished. But it is unlikely to bring Bush lasting relief.
A whirlwind of summiteering in Georgia and bargaining at the United Nations over a new resolution on Iraq gained the administration favorable headlines and cosmetic fixes useful in countering John Kerry's attacks on Bush's unilateralism. To get that, Washington gave way on matters of substance to those who fought Bush over invading Iraq and who have now concluded that he has lost the war there.
France's Jacques Chirac bit his tongue rather than voice such negative sentiments to Bush at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island. Germany's Gerhard Schroeder hid his misgivings under fulsome praise for Bush at the gathering of the world's most affluent industrial democracies and Russia. So did Vladimir Putin.
Momentarily, the Bush reelection campaign eclipsed Iraq as the driving force in American-European relations. That was the overriding significance of this G-8 conclave. No foreign leader would risk insulting an incumbent president on his home soil a few months before he may be returned to office. Not even Chirac. And certainly not the chameleon-like Schroeder.
But the shape of their diplomacy, and private communications from officials of both countries, establish that France and Germany have launched separate but similar efforts to limit the damage that they fear American failure in Iraq will -- not may, but will -- inflict on international institutions.
Chirac's focus is on the United Nations, where France occupies one of the Security Council's five permanent seats. The French president has recently expressed his fear to several foreign leaders that mounting casualties will force the United States to abandon Iraq and dump the problem into the lap of the United Nations, according to an authoritative account. That step, Chirac warns, would bring disaster to the international organization.
Germany, meanwhile, has progressively clarified and hardened its opposition to any significant NATO involvement in Iraq. Berlin does not want the credibility of the alliance that helped win the Cold War and reunify Germany shattered by taking on the insurgencies and political fractures that U.S. occupation has not been able to quell. At this juncture, NATO training of Iraqis outside the country is the only new step Germany and France would probably support.
The reading of the American plight in Iraq is more dire in Paris and in Moscow than it is in Berlin, where "losing" is defined by some officials not in military terms but as the looming moral and political failure by Bush to deliver on his promises to bring stable democracy to Iraq and then to the Middle East. Those options are no longer attainable under Bush policies, they suggest.
Even Britain's Tony Blair, who increasingly acts like a prime minister preparing to seek a third term in next spring's election, focuses on damage control in Iraq today. "It is important for Bush and Blair just to establish that they know what they are doing, to show they are competently managing this," said one person aware of Blair's thinking at the summit's outset.
That molehill of competency in managing perceptions at home was brought forth by what a New York Times news story hailed as "a substantial diplomatic victory for Mr. Bush" and "a tableau of solidarity" in the Security Council vote on a new resolution on Iraq. Bush's "victory" included his agreeing to give a new Iraqi government more opportunity to order U.S. troops out of Iraq and granting other concessions on ending the occupation that he had refused to make earlier.
The U.S. concessions are not damaging in themselves. The resolution's terms are abstractions that are far removed from the daily reality in Iraq that will determine the viability of the interim administration run by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a longtime CIA asset. Allawi's first decrees and statements have shown a preference for fiction that perfectly parallels Bush's own recent statements on Iraq.
Here lies the bigger problem: The Bush administration has trapped itself in a cycle of awarding concessions on Iraq's sovereignty not to Iraqis who could use them to calm opposition to the American presence in their land, but to foreign leaders and the United Nations. This fits a strategy of disarming the Kerry campaign's promises to "internationalize" Iraq. It has nothing to do with the moral and national security reasons Bush put forward for invading Iraq.