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U.S./Europe: Officials Squabble More About Rhetoric Than Change In Policy

The quarrel between the United States and several prominent Western European officials over what President George W. Bush has called the "axis of evil" has intensified in the past several days. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker speaks with a French analyst of U.S. affairs who says the escalation of the dispute has more to do with rhetoric than with basic changes in policies.

Paris, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The charges flying across the Atlantic in recent days have been anything but diplomatic -- even though most of them have been made by diplomats.

The quarrel began in early February when French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine bluntly described as "simplistic" U.S. President George W. Bush's notion of an "axis of evil," saying it "reduced all the world's problems to the struggle against terrorism."

Bush had used the expression to describe three so-called "rogue" nations -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- in a speech to Congress on 29 January. In it, he suggested the United States might take pre-emptive action against one or more of the three, whose efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and the means to deploy them at long range, Bush said, represent a danger to the United States and it allies.

Vedrine's blunt criticism was soon followed, albeit in less harsh language, by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and European Union Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten. Evoking a Cold War expression, Fischer said the United States should not treat its allies as "satellites." Patten warned against Washington "unilateralist" and "absolutist" tendencies.

The United States counter-attacked with no less candor. In an interview in the British daily "Financial Times" on 14 February, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Vedrine's remarks showed he was "getting the vapors," which Powell later explained was a 19th-century term meaning he was near to swooning over the issue. As for Patten, Powell said, "Chris did manage to work himself up a bit last week, and I shall have to have a word with him."

When it came to replying to the French, the State Department resorted not only to words but to action. In Washington, French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang was called in for an explanation of Vedrine's remarks. In Paris, the charge d'affaires, the number two post at the U.S. Embassy, visited with a top Vedrine adviser for the same purpose.

The exchange of personal, as well as political, barbs was highly unusual for members of what is, after all, called the Atlantic Alliance. How serious is the quarrel? Our correspondent spoke with a French analyst of U.S. affairs, Jacques Beltran, at the French Foreign Affairs Institute in Paris.

"[In analyzing the remarks of Vedrine and other French officials], I think we should distinguish between form and content. The form is clearly aggressive, and I think the end of this government [before the French presidential and parliamentary elections in the spring] explains [Vedrine's bluntness]. It allows him to say things he wouldn't have said before," Beltran said. "As for the French position on some U.S. policies, there is really no basic change. [As before,] it's against American unilateralism and the doctrine of rogue states. That consists of putting very different nations in the same category and announcing the same policy will be pursued toward all of them, when in fact it is not. Indeed, Colin Powell acknowledged as much [in remarks made on 18 February]."

When it comes to U.S. policy toward Iraq, Beltran said the long-held idea that the Pentagon and State Department have different views on how to treat Baghdad now might need revision.

"Civilians in the Pentagon had favored immediate intervention. The State Department adopted a more cautious point of view. The military in the Pentagon were [initially] very hostile to the idea of an intervention in Iraq, believing the situation there could not be compared to that of Afghanistan. Now, one has the impression that Colin Powell has joined those who want to get rid of Saddam Hussein as soon as possible. But here, too, you have to distinguish between rhetoric and substance," Beltran said. "All such declarations on international affairs are also directed at a domestic audience. Perhaps Colin Powell decided that, to remain influential in policy-making, he had to adopt the other side's position, and for that reason he has toughened his public stance. But still, the more American officials assert that they will intervene in Iraq, the more they are likely to do so."

Beltran does not see French or German policy toward the U.S. playing a determining role in the two countries elections in the spring and autumn, respectively. He allows that French and German politicians may seek some electoral gain in speaking out against U.S. "unilateralism," but warns of attributing too much importance to such electoral rhetoric.

The French analyst says there is now a general feeling among many European officials of being "fed up" with what they view as U.S. unilateral action. And he cites the case of Patten, who is not running for any electoral office, to prove his point.