As US Secretary of State Colin Powell prepares to convince UN skeptics on Iraq Wednesday, now is the time for a cease-fire in the war of words between Washington and Europe's biggest holdouts on a war: Germany and France.
Recently, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to these two countries as "old" Europe, because they are in the minority among European government leaders in their disapproval of US policy toward Iraq. Indeed, last week, leaders of eight European countries - including "new Europe" players Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - published a statement supporting President Bush, going against public opinion in their countries.
The "old" Europe label triggered great resentment in Paris and Berlin, and while the remark was off the cuff, it reflects a view among some in the Bush administration that America doesn't need Europe - at least, not the stubborn Germans or French.
But these longtime allies are valuable, for tactical reasons in war and its aftermath, and for the model they can present to the world of how democratic alliances work.
True, the end of the cold war has left the United States the sole super power. That's hard for some of America's European friends to adjust to, as they must. Equally difficult, however, is for the US to remember it needs Germany and France - even in Iraq, where, technically, it has the military might (and right) to go it alone.
If there is to be a war, France can be very useful before the shooting starts and afterward. If Mr. Powell presents enough convincing evidence of Iraq's concealment of banned weapons and its links to Al Qaeda, momentum might build for a new UN resolution approving military enforcement. France, which holds veto power on the UN Security Council, could be instrumental in this effort, which would have the benefit of building unity - and thus increasing pressure on Saddam Hussein.
But France could also be important militarily, taking over patrols of the no-fly zone as the US and Britain hunt weapons of mass destruction; or protecting bases in Turkey from attack.
Germany, on the other hand, would be vital in the postwar phase. The Germans have proven themselves in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan as masters of reconstruction - securing peace, and building infrastructure and democratic institutions.
Like security issues in the past (nuclear missile deployments in Germany), Iraq has uncovered old fault lines in the transatlantic relationship - and within Europe itself. The lines delineate concerns that France and Germany have about American power, and, on the other side, about these countries' hesitancy to share military burdens more equally.
Within Europe, the fissure between "old" and "new" reflects a caution that stretches back centuries: Germany and France can't be allowed to dominate. The intracontinental debate, not unlike that during the founding of the US, holds import for European integration, as it does for Washington, which may be tempted to play one side off against the other.
The Iraq issue can serve to move all parties to an honest discussion - and, let's hope, resolution - of differences, but it should not be a litmus test of friendship. What will impress nondemocratic countries most is the way in which the strength of an argument, not strong-arming of friends, unites like-minded countries. An Iraq war could be a milestone in defining how the US as a superpower either ignores, or respects, partners that share its values.