Two weeks ago, the Pentagon called the French Embassy's military attache here to say that France had been disinvited from participation in a long-scheduled Air Force exercise, called Red Flag, to be held next year in Nevada.
Just two weeks before, France had been informed that the Defense Department would limit its participation in next month's Paris Air Show. No generals would attend, and there would be none of the U.S. aircraft demonstrations for which the show is famous. All planes flown over from the United States would stay on the ground during the exhibition.
Months after France said it would veto a U.N. resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, forcing the United States to withdraw the measure and go to war without it, realpolitik has overcome resentment in most of the Bush administration. Although there is little desire to cuddle up with Paris, officials at the White House and the State Department say they are willing to work with the French on issues where views coincide, and work around or oppose them when they disagree.
But the Pentagon apparently is not ready to move on. A defense spokesman said yesterday that slots for foreigners in Red Flag, an exercise held with a rotating group of allies several times a year, in which France has participated annually since the 1980s, "are going to be reserved for those with whom we will likely be participating in operations in the future."
The defense spokesman also said that the Pentagon was still "in the gathering stage and the intelligence phase" of investigating a media report that France had provided French passports and visas for fleeing Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's government. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted in a briefing for reporters earlier this month that "France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq . . . that continued right up until the outbreak of the war. What took place thereafter," Rumsfeld said, "we'll find out."
But a spokesman for Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who had asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the passport report, said yesterday the department had determined there was no truth to it. "They said that as far as they were concerned, the investigation was concluded," spokesman Raj Bharwani said. Sensenbrenner, he said, was satisfied and considered the matter closed.
The passport report sparked a letter last week to Congress and the administration from France's U.S. ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, saying that France was the victim of a disinformation campaign in the United States. The letter cited critical recent news reports sourced to anonymous administration officials. Although the letter did not say so, French officials have made no secret of their belief that the articles emanated from the Pentagon.
"It does look like the Pentagon is on its own private vendetta against France," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, who said it was "not helpful to U.S. foreign policy. It's not smart. Military-to-military cooperation was not the problem here, and the French Ministry of Defense was not the problem," O'Hanlon said. "We need the French Ministry of Defense to help in the stabilization of Iraq. This just smacks of vengeance for pettiness' sake."
Asked last week about the disinformation charge, Rumsfeld said, "There's no such campaign out of this building." But, he explained in response to questions about the Paris Air Show, slots in military exercises would logically go to countries "that have been, for example, helpful in Iraq or helpful in Afghanistan."
O'Hanlon and other experts pointed out that French-U.S. military cooperation has continued at high levels in Afghanistan, where the two are training a new Afghan army. French soldiers participate in the international security force in Afghanistan and provide transport for U.S. forces there. French and U.S. ships jointly patrol drug-smuggling routes in the Caribbean, and France is part of a European maritime task force patrolling the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden in international counterterrorism operations.
Embassy spokeswoman Nathalie Loiseau said France has concluded that measures such as the Red Flag cancellation were "more cosmetic" than substantive, and designed to "show that you're not happy with someone."
France had been schedule to participate in a Red Flag air combat exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in March, but the war game was canceled because of the Iraq war. The next Red Flag exercise will take place in August, but France is not involved, a senior defense official said. Its next scheduled participation would have been in spring 2004. The exercise is the most extensive and sophisticated air-to-air war game in the world, involving dozens of fighter aircraft in addition to specialized planes such as the AWACS command and control jet and the JSTARS ground attack radar plane.
"We were told in a telephone call from the Air Force to the military attache on May 8 that we were not invited to the 2004 session of the exercise," Loiseau said. "We asked why, but were told nothing precise."
An Air Force spokesman said yesterday that "due to the quality of the training at Red Flag, the U.S. Air Force continually has more requests for participation than it can accommodate."
The White House and the State Department, while not going out of their way to mend broken fences, have restored high-level contacts with France. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has spoken twice this week by telephone with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and will hold a bilateral meeting with him Friday in Paris at a preparatory session for the upcoming Group of Eight summit. President Bush will attend the summit, hosted in the French Alps by President Jacques Chirac.
Sensitivities remain high across a wide spectrum, however. When six French journalists, arriving at Los Angeles International Airport this month to cover a video game trade show, were detained and expelled for not having visas, the embassy determined that no discrimination had occurred. But Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international organization that monitors freedom of the media, protested in a letter to Howard Leach, the U.S. ambassador to France, that the journalists were "treated like criminals -- subjected to several body searches, handcuffed, locked up and fingerprinted."
A Homeland Security spokesman said yesterday that U.S. visa waivers applying to tourists and business travelers from 27 countries, including France, specifically exempt working foreign journalists, who must have visas. The spokesman said that handcuffing the expelled travelers during transport to a detention facility until they can be put on the next flight home was standard operating procedure.
Similar incidents took place long before the current bilateral difficulties, Loiseau said. Although temporary arrangements have sometimes been made for visa-less travelers at other U.S. entry points, she said, Los Angeles has always been "particularly difficult."