U.S. rebuilds French connection

The Pentagon hopes better ties will strengthen NATO and boost the mission in Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer

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    Friends again: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Bush at the Mount Vernon, Va., home of George Washington in November 2007.
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Pentagon insiders call it "the Sarkozy moment" – an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with the French government and military made possible by the election last year of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president.

Mr. Sarkozy's goodwill toward the US has already paid dividends in the form of an additional French combat battalion for Afghanistan. But American defense officials hope an improved relationship will pay off in other ways too, including a stronger NATO alliance, especially since France is expected to take over the next six-month rotation helming the European Union.

The emerging bond between the two countries also represents a change in tone for the Bush administration that, in its remaining months, appears to be more inclined to listen to its allies rather than talk at them, analysts say.

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It's in stark contrast to a few years ago when the US and France disagreed vehemently over the invasion of Iraq, capping decades of dissonance over foreign policy. "Thank goodness we're not talking about freedom fries [anymore]," says Jim Townsend, who was principal director for European and NATO policy at the Pentagon and is now vice president at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Why France, US need each other

Since Sarkozy assumed office a year ago this month he has signaled several times that he wants to start over with the US, wiping the slate clean from the previous government under former French President Jacques Chirac.

He has made it clear he shares the US's hawkish stance toward Iran and announced, this January, the construction of a military base in the United Arab Emirates.

US officials are seeking to capitalize on his support and build a partnership through the countries' militaries that will useful for both.

The US needs another strong ally in Europe to help make the case for its war on terrorism. And France wants to return to NATO's integrated military command structure for the first time in 40 years, as it seeks to strengthen the defense posture of the European Union.

The stakes for the relationship are high with the mission in Afghanistan – and the NATO alliance – in the balance.

And as a self-proclaimed military leader on the continent, France needs to ally with other countries amid shrinking defense budgets – including its own – across Europe.

The country has been at odds with NATO ever since Charles de Gaulle pulled away from the alliance in 1966 over US involvement in Vietnam. More recently, France has pushed for a separate defense confederation within the EU that is seen as a threat to NATO.

With France leading the EU for six months from this July, however, US defense officials are hopeful that both organizations can develop without acrimony.

A gateway to Europe?

Just a year ago, such discussions might not have been possible. But Sarkozy's embrace of everything American provides "fresh prospects for collaboration," as Eric Edelman, undersecretary for Policy at the Pentagon, put it in a speech last month.

"The devil will be in the details," says one senior Pentagon official speaking on background. "But there has been a maturation of the discussion and debate on both sides."

Many analysts hope strengthening Franco-US relations could lead to a improved strategic relationship between US and Europe. "There is an understanding [in the US] that you may actually now need the Europeans for some things, not only for political reasons but for doing some of the work," says Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a policy research group that promotes transatlantic cooperation. "The Europeans have come to the realization that we can't have the Americans to do all the work for us."

Germany figures prominently in discussions. But some analysts say better Franco-US relations won't lead to a change of heart in the German public, which sees their security interests only incidentally served in that mission. "I don't think necessarily the German Bundestag is through France," says Mr. Townsend.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how far Sarkozy's support on Iran will go if the US considers military options against the country. France's position remains that Iran must suspend enriching uranium before talks can begin.

Other analysts don't believe Sarkozy, whose ratings have tanked in his own country, can pull off significant defense changes. France can't afford to spend more on its military; Sarkozy has just delayed building a second aircraft carrier.

For now, the US is treading unusually softly with its new ally. Last month, Mr. Edelman quoted Sarkozy to US defense officials in making the point that the new and improved US-France relationship does not mean the two will always agree. "Allied does not mean aligned, and I feel entirely free to express our agreements and disagreements forthrightly and candidly – precisely because … France is a friend and ally of the United States," he said.

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