Politicus: European honeymoon won't happen for Kerry

Posted in Europe | 28-Sep-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry
PARIS A participant on the sidelines of talks in Berlin between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Richard Holbrooke, a would-be secretary of state in a John Kerry presidency, told a story about the meeting and the theme of how a Kerry-friendly Europe would leap to America's aid in bringing stability to Iraq. (Or maybe hide under the bed.)

"Schröder," the American said, "asked Holbrooke what Kerry would do if he were elected. Holbrooke replied one of the first things would be to get on the phone and invite him and President Jacques Chirac to the White House. The chancellor laughed out loud. Then he said, 'That's what I was afraid of.'"

The participant recalled the moment as very jolly. Everybody in the chancellor's office, including Holbrooke, a former ambassador to Germany, joined in the chuckles.

That was in June, when the subject was still handled elliptically. Early in September, a German official, asked privately by a visitor if Kerry's claim of good relations with Europe could get him a German military presence in Iraq, stifled a guffaw; an explicit response, but wordless, and difficult to transcribe.

But last week, just after Kerry's major speech on the war in which he insisted that the United States "must make Iraq the world's responsibility" and that others "should share the burden," Schröder's sense of courtesy collided with reality and he drove a spike into the notion. He told reporters, "We won't send any German soldiers to Iraq, and that's where it's going to remain."

Clear? A faint irony slips in at this point. For many Europeans, the problem in making sense of Kerry's speech was not Schröder's rather predictable reply, but how much delusion or candor there was in the Democrat's campaign promise to enlist countries opposed to the war to bail out the United States militarily. Add to that the candidate's linked idea of leveraging a notional European military presence into a pullout by some American troops as early as next summer. It seemed enough to make Kerry's continental friends cringe.

On one hand, Kerry pleased America's recalcitrant Allies here and in Berlin by describing the situation in Iraq as they do: one of chaos and a crisis of historic proportions. But Kerry's thinking on getting the United States free of the mess, as encapsulated by the anti-Bush Süddeutsche Zeitung, seemed chillingly like, Yanks out, Allies in, Iraq to the Iraqis.

All this was followed two days later - perhaps confusingly to Europeans looking for murmurs of unexpected American humility - by a Kerry statement in which he explained that the plans he had laid out were, in reality, "steps to win the war, not to change, not to retreat, steps to win."

It would be wrong to say that Kerry is losing his popular backing in France or Germany, but he has not done much deep convincing that his American foreign policy, Iraq included, would represent a Golden Multilateral Dawn.

In London last week, a Blair government cabinet minister said he could not see much significant difference between Kerry and Bush on Iraq, Iran or a quasi-obsessional European issue like America's refusal to accept the Kyoto environmental agreement. A French official, talking earlier in September, was not far off this line. Elsewhere, an American supporter of Kerry, who visited with Schröder, complained that, over the last month, the Germans "appear to have become resigned to a Bush victory and are rationalizing it by saying it's the same thing pretty much whoever wins."

In any case, German experts have told the chancellor to reckon with four more years of Bush. This is also the palpable although deniable premise in Paris and London.

So, suggesting that with Kerry's big Iraq statement under their belts it was now a good time for the Allies to ask themselves who would be a better American president for them, Süddeutsche pointed the question rhetorically at Gerhard Schröder, and then responded in his stead.

"The answer: Bush," the newspaper, a constant critic of the president, wrote.

As for the Democrat, Süddeutsche said Kerry "is suggesting that he can produce a little miracle and seduce America's battered friends into high-yield performances along the lines of Washington's wishes." For all of Kerry's opportunity to create a foreign policy with greater credibility and legitimacy, that was not realistic, it said. Schröder couldn't send Bundeswehr troops to Iraq, and there would be "no morning-after special gift for a President Kerry."

It's here that discomfort about what Kerry has been telling America gets a little edgy for governments he would normally count as silent European supporters. It's hard to see how Kerry might miss that, for Schröder, nothing would be more counterinstinctive in domestic political terms than ditching two years before new elections his single pledge as chancellor - staying out of Iraq - that has the support of a wide majority of German voters.

Similar considerations also work for France. It would take exceptional sophistry for President Jacques Chirac to explain putting French lives on the line in Iraq. Besides, sidling up to any American president would not appear to have much appeal to Chirac at a time when Le Figaro says he's busy promoting himself as successor to Nehru and Nasser in leading the "nonaligned world."

But a seat at six different conferences on Iraq's future is a different matter. The French love conferences. This seems to be a Kerry project, but the trouble is the Bush administration has already camped out on that multilateral terrain, proposing over the weekend that Iraq, its neighbors, and G-8 members like France, Germany and Russia get together sometime in October at the foreign minister level to discuss where the country is going.

Uncomfortably, this has nothing really to do with the Americans' unresolved, house-to-house task of restoring security and stability to places like Falluja and Sadr City, the basis for any serious talk about eventual French or German involvement.

Asked about his view of the American presidential election, Chirac's former foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, who first described U.S. unilateralism as a central global problem during the eight "hyperpower" years of the Clinton administration, said it was a shame the rest of the planet could not vote.

It was "sad" to see, Vedrine said, how these Americans, this "nice people" ("peuple attachant" in French), were drowned in propaganda and "cut off from the rest of the world." The term is used in French travel literature, with seeming condescension, to describe interesting savages or exotic but childlike ethnic groups.