As France and the United States move farther apart on how to deal with Iraq, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte is getting a real workout defending his government's stance.
In an extensive briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Friday, he reiterated that French leaders have not ruled out military force, but think that the time has not yet arrived. Levitte acknowledged in a question-and-answer session that French-U.S. ties are "quite sensitive" from time to time. "Will it be the same thing in the next few weeks? Frankly, I don't know," he said, noting that usually the countries stand side by side.
In explaining the reluctance in Paris to go to war now, the ambassador said French leaders consider the immediate threat to be from al Qaeda, not Iraq. Citing French intelligence services, he said France has not been "under such an immediate, urgent threat" since the Algerian war for independence, during which violence spilled into France. Levitte mentioned the 11 Frenchmen killed in a suicide bombing in Karachi, Pakistan, last May and the suicide attack against the tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen five months later.
French reluctance to go to war "does not mean that Iraq is not a threat, but is it an urgent threat?" he said.
Last week, Levitte was the guest of honor at a dinner given by Lebanese Ambassador Farid Abboud, just a few hours after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made his case to the United Nations. Levitte raised his glass in a toast and said he did not want to talk about Iraq, but just hoped that "as much energy, time, talent and resources" would be dedicated soon to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Greek Ambassador George Savvaides has been forced to abandon his diplomatic digs at 2221 Massachusetts Ave. and stay at the Westin Embassy Row Hotel. He moved out in September because of cracks that appeared in the walls of his bedroom in the mansion, which includes both the ambassador's residence and the chancery.
The damage was done when a 50-foot hole, dug in an adjacent plot for an extension of the chancery and an underground parking lot, caused the ground to sag and the building to tilt to the right, according to embassy officials. A press-office building on the other side of the lot also suffered some damage.
The ambassador and his staff are still using the lower floors of the main building, but Savvaides was advised to live elsewhere, said a supervisor at Angelos Demetriou and Associates, an American architecture firm hired for the expansion project by the Greek government.
The damage couldn't have come at worse time: Greece currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, which means extra work and entertaining for its diplomatic team here.
According to Faramarz Sabouri, project manager for the U.S. firm, "The movement and the damage was something we were expecting with such an old building." He said the problem would be fixed and the building restored, though it is a very difficult construction job: "Even a car can make the building move, and we are on alert to check any movement" by the building until the hole is filled.
Sabouri seemed unhappy when told the embassy had confirmed the damage, which was first reported by Greek citizens who visited the building and reported seeing reinforcement inside. "Fine, if this is something they want to announce to the rest of the world," he declared.
Embassy officials predictably wish the whole thing had never happened. "It was something we did not like," said one source there, declining to say much more. The State Department was made aware of the development, one embassy source said.
The historic building was constructed in 1906 by a wealthy mining engineer from Kentucky. In 1937, it was bought by William Helis, a Greek American, and donated to the Greek government.
So will the Greek government hold anyone accountable for the damage, or will it all stay in the family? Embassy officials declined comment on that.
Burma's Suu Kyi Honored
The Freedom Forum has awarded the 2002 Al Neuharth Free Spirit of the Year Award to Burmese activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her nonviolent resistance to her country's military government and her struggle for human rights and democracy. It will be the first time that the $1 million prize is awarded to one person.
The Freedom Forum gives the prize annually "to a person in the news who has stirred the public's hearts and souls by demonstrating the human capacity to dream, dare and do," the forum said in a statement. The prize was named after Allen H. Neuharth, the forum's founder, upon his retirement from its board in 1999. Alexander Aris, Suu Kyi's son, will accept the award on her behalf at a March 20 ceremony here.
Suu Kyi already knows she has been chosen, however. Charles L. Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, traveled to the Burmese capital, Rangoon, with Neuharth recently to inform Suu Kyi of the honor. They were accompanied by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams, who shot a video to be shown at the ceremony in March.
What is so wonderful about the human spirit, she said on the tape, is that "you just can't shut it off. It reasserts itself under any circumstances." She urged young Burmese who are leaving their country not to give up. "And if the young people lose hope, then we lose our future," Suu Kyi emphasized.