WASHINGTON - It was no accident that a major international conference on aiding Iraq recently occurred in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. But just when President Bush realizes that he needs Europe, the continent has been thrown into what may be a long period of internal debate following French and Dutch voters' rejection of a new EU constitution.
The political turmoil will likely turn its leaders' attention away from world trouble spots and limit what help they can give the United States.
Some of the same European attitudes that exasperated Mr. Bush before he invaded Iraq are ones that make Europe an important partner now, when the United States is trying to foster democratic reform throughout the Arab world while fighting terrorist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and pressuring Syria to keep its hands off Lebanon.
Over the past six decades, Europe has managed to compensate for its military weakness and its public's aversion to war by developing alternative ways to spread stability and modern democratic, free-market norms through a wide region.
Besides keeping the peace in Western Europe - scene of two devastating wars in the last century - the process of EU expansion has played a major role in ending dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal, in lifting Ireland out of poverty and in rooting nations of the former Soviet bloc firmly in the West. The same is promised for Bulgaria and Romania, and possibly for the strife-ridden Balkan states and Ukraine.
The lure of eventual European Union membership has brought striking changes in Turkey, which has improved its human rights record, worked to reform its economy and kept its military from meddling in civilian rule - changes that have continued even under a ruling party with Islamist roots. Turkey's deepening link with the EU is widely viewed as a path to reducing tensions between the West and the Islamic world.
The EU holds out to prospective members "the model for peace and stability that France and Germany developed to prevent their ever having to go to war against each other again," says Robin Niblett, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "When a country joins the EU, it gives up part of its sovereignty in order to enter a process" that can lead to greater prosperity, security and citizen welfare than would be the case operating autonomously.
Though not eligible for membership in the EU, Arab nations in North Africa are being encouraged to open up their governments and reform their economies by the prospect of closer economic and political ties with Europe.
While tight-fisted on defense spending, Europe is comparatively lavish in dispensing foreign aid and skilled in using the levers of power available to it through the United Nations, international financial institutions and private agencies to expand its influence. A headline in Foreign Policy magazine last year dubbed Europe the "metrosexual superpower" for its economic, as opposed to military, leverage - now 25 nations strong - and the talents of its well-tailored diplomats.
But the subtle skills that Europe's political elites have developed in reaching the milestones en route to an "ever-closer union" have made them too clever - and unresponsive to public opinion.
"They tended to make these decisions through a series of salami-slicing tactics," says Jeremy Shapiro of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution. "Each step was necessary because of the last one they took." In the end, the elites would keep narrowing the choices available to the point where they would "paint themselves into a corner," he said. Meanwhile, they never adequately explained their grand vision to the public.
The result was a growing sense that policies set in motion by bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels - such as opening negotiations with Turkey - would move inexorably to a preordained conclusion without the public being consulted.
"I wouldn't say they're out of touch" with the public, Mr. Shapiro said. "They know what they think. They don't care."
Added to the public's growing distrust was a sense that Europe can no longer deliver on its promises of prosperity and social benefits amid worries about stagnant economies, high unemployment and a fear of competition from low-wage workers from Eastern Europe and Turkey. The constitution became a side issue as voters vented their anger against Brussels and against Europe's leaders, particularly French President Jacques Chirac.
Reeling from the shock, European leaders subsequently set out to prove their nationalist credentials at a recent budget summit, causing it to collapse.
"Right after the referendums, the question was, 'Will Europe go through a period of navel-gazing?' Now they've descended deep into the lint," said Mr. Shapiro.
This couldn't come at a worse time for the Bush administration, which is relying heavily on Europe's clout to help salvage its Middle East agenda, whether in stabilizing Iraq, freeing Lebanon from Syria's grip or laying the foundations in the Gaza Strip for a future Palestinian state. The administration also hopes British, French and German negotiators can halt Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, realizing that resorting to military force is, for now at least, too difficult.
"The question now is how to stop the EU from sticking its head in the sand for the next two years," Mr. Niblett says. He urged the Bush administration to act quickly with Europe to prepare for the next steps in the Iran negotiations, plan for the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal and work to bring Ukraine closer to the West.
Without such effort, Mr. Bush may once again have to act on his own - though this time not by choice.
Mark Matthews is a longtime Washington correspondent for The Sun now on leave to write a book about the United States and Israel.