WASHINGTON - Just weeks after the angriest rift with a close ally in decades, the United States is quietly backing away from threats to penalize France for its strenuous efforts to block the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent ripples across the Atlantic with his warning April 23 that Paris would suffer "consequences," serious steps to punish France are "not being taken seriously" in the Bush administration's top ranks, a White House official said this week.
After a series of high-level meetings, the administration has settled on a strategy of trying to outmaneuver France in global forums or, if that doesn't work, going around the French to achieve its goals with the help of other allies, as in Iraq.
"The goal is to give them an opportunity [to work with the United States] but not give them a stranglehold," a senior Bush administration official said.
For example, U.S. officials are trying to figure out ways to proceed with the reconstruction of Iraq if France, or Russia, blocks the lifting of U.N. sanctions and thus delays generation of Iraqi oil revenue. The two countries are reluctant to give the United States control over Iraqi oil revenues and want the United Nations to play a stronger role in postwar Iraq.
The United States said this week that it would lift some of the sanctions the first Bush administration imposed on Iraq in 1990 after the invasion of Kuwait.
To achieve desired results in NATO, the United States could seek action through the organization's Defense Planning Committee, to which France does not belong, rather than trying to forge consensus within the alliance's political body, the North Atlantic Council.
Powell, signaling an effort to bury the hatchet and renew cooperation on the Security Council, said Wednesday at the United Nations: "Whatever happened in the past is in the past."
The new, pragmatic attitude toward Washington's most aggravating ally stems from the need to avoid damaging the many areas where the United States and France cooperate well, such as trade and investment, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping in the Balkans.
President Bush has made a show of welcoming allies in the Iraq war, playing host Wednesday to Prime Ministers Jose Maria Aznar of Spain at the White House and John Howard of Australia at his Texas ranch last weekend. The prime minister of Denmark, the emir of Qatar and a half-dozen other allied leaders met with Bush yesterday. Of French President Jacques Chirac, he told Tom Brokaw of NBC News, "I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon."
But a parade of U.S. officials has been streaming to Paris for meetings in recent weeks, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Undersecretary of State John Bolton.
Powell will go to France this month to prepare for the June summit of the Group of Eight, at which Chirac will be host to leaders of the world's major industrial nations.
Economic cooperation is crucial to Bush and Chirac, because each is grappling with a troubled economy that could spell political turmoil despite their recent surge in popularity. Like Bush, Chirac saw a wartime bounce in public opinion polls but for a different reason: His strong opposition to the invasion appealed to French anti-war sentiment.
"I believe there will remain a strong and active economic relationship," Zoellick said April 30 in Paris.
Yet bitterness lingers. U.S.-French relations "have taken a hit; nobody should pretend otherwise," a senior Bush administration official said.
Having backed the U.N. resolution in November requiring Iraq to disarm, France broke ranks with the United States early this year when it sensed that Bush was rushing into war.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin infuriated Powell on Jan. 20, when, after the secretary attended a French-sponsored U.N. Security Council meeting on terrorism, de Villepin declared at a news conference that nothing would justify a war against Iraq.
A senior U.S. official said France's refusal to join in threatening force against Iraq doomed the united front assembled in November and convinced Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he could split the international community and avert war without divulging his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
But Chirac was skeptical of U.S. intentions.
"My feeling is, he did not believe the game was [just] to put pressure" on Iraq, said Etienne de Durand of the French Institute of International Relations. "There were so many in the administration who were after regime change."
As the United States and Britain lobbied for a second U.N. resolution that would authorize the use of force, France played hardball, openly competing for Security Council votes and trying to intimidate supporters of the U.S. position among Eastern European countries.
It wasn't just France's anti-war stance that Washington resented, but the "gleeful organizing against us," a senior U.S. official said. This generated even more disfavor within the Bush administration than was reserved for Russia, which opposed the war less aggressively. Bush ultimately launched the war without a second resolution.
Anti-French fever quickly gripped Capitol Hill and the conservative broadcast circuit, and a wave of France-bashing spread around the country, typified by "freedom fries" on menus and a bumper sticker that read: "First Iraq. Then France."
If certain members of Congress had their way, French wine would carry grisly warning labels, the United States would halt participation in the Paris Air Show, and the remains of American soldiers who died in France would be dug up and shipped home.
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh mocked the dapper de Villepin as a man "whose name in French must mean 'he whose suits are three sizes too big.'"
Some of the fever has subsided. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, put on hold his proposal that wine imported from France be required to carry a label warning that it is clarified using cow's blood.
But Rep. H. James Saxton, a New Jersey Republican, remains determined to use his seat on the House Armed Services Committee to mount a U.S. air show that would rival the Paris extravaganza.
Saxton, in an interview, said he feels in sync with "a great feeling of disappointment" across the country, but indicated that the Bush administration had not embraced his idea.
"The administration's desire is for a good working relationship with the French govern- ment," he said, "as is mine."
Roots of bitterness
U.S.-French strains did not start with Iraq, and are unlikely to end anytime soon. Determined to act as a counterweight to American power in Europe and to preserve its influence among former colonies in Africa and the Middle East, France has long viewed the United States and its power with a mixture of gratitude, Old World disdain and sheer mischievousness.
President Charles de Gaulle set the relationship on its rocky course in 1966 when he pulled France out of the military arm of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization while remaining part of its political umbrella, the North Atlantic Council, and providing troops and equipment for NATO missions.
In the years since, France has refused to give unblinking support for U.S. actions, even blocking the use of its airspace when the United States, under President Ronald Reagan, bombed Libya in 1986.
French officials are unnerved by U.S. military dominance and appalled by Bush's tendency to operate outside international security mechanisms such as the Security Council, where France wields outsized clout.
Chirac wants Europe to play a more independent military role, though his effort last week to form a new military planning center with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg was laughed off in Washington.
The French want "an international order with maximum legitimacy so individuals can't decide for themselves to take military action," said Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution.
"It's good to have people who are essentially reliable willing to stand up to us," he said.