A German Plan for Middle East

There's a saying among those who follow US-German relations: The Americans do the cooking, and the Germans do the dishes.

Certainly that's been the case in the Balkans and Afghanistan, where Germany has provided substantial aid and peacekeeping forces after American-led wars. In postwar Iraq, it's again cleanup time. And true to form, the Germans are ready to plunge their hands into the sudsy water - not just of Iraq, where they are offering police training and other nonmilitary help, but of the Middle East.

Earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called for a new US-European initiative to encourage democratic reform in the Middle East. The idea has been well received in Washington. It dovetails nicely with the administration's long-term goals for the region, and is expected to be discussed when German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lunches with President Bush Friday.

Considering the unusual deep freeze that characterized White House relations with Berlin (as well as Paris) over the Iraq war, the idea of revived US-European ties to jointly tackle reform in Iraq and the larger neighborhood is welcome. As Mr. Fischer recognizes, failure in Iraq has "consequences for us all." And Bush must realize the US needs the finances, troops, skill, and connections of all of Europe - and not just a few allies - to carry out his Middle East vision.

Fischer's plan starts with the doable. He suggests that two existing and separate programs that now connect NATO and the European Union to bordering Mediterranean countries be coordinated and ramped up. These partner countries include those in Northwest Africa, plus Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

Think of it as an informal enlargement of NATO and the EU southward, in which cooperation on security, rule of law, economic development, and cultural and civil issues would be enhanced. He even ventures a free-trade zone by 2010.

But these two existing programs don't extend far enough geographically, leaving out everything west of Syria, including Iraq and Iran. Indeed, Washington is keen to have NATO troops take on a peacekeeping role in occupied Iraq.

Fischer pushes the geographic limit by suggesting a "declaration" of reform-minded principles signed by the EU/NATO/Mediterranean countries, plus the members of the Arab League, and Iran. That's far more ambitious than building up existing programs, but worth exploring.

Any number of political boulders could crush the developing dynamic behind this US-European "enlargement" into the Mideast. An Arab perception of Western paternalism is one. So is the unsolved Israeli-Palestinian problem, as well as the intransigence of antireformists in the region. And one has to wonder whether the EU, preoccupied with 10 new members in May, has the attention span to devote to a big, out-of-area project.

Berlin's willingness to leave the war behind, and advance the idea of modernizing the Middle East, should be an example for France. At the same time, the White House needs to forgive and forget as it repairs ties with European heavyweights, who will be essential to forward steps in the Middle East.

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