Congress reconsiders all things French

With threats of restrictions on French wine and of troop pullbacks from Germany, lawmakers express frustration with 'old' Europe.

The Congress that all but took itself out of the final decision to take up arms in Iraq is waging a war of words with "ungrateful" and "perverse" allies who oppose it. The target du jour is France, long the bete noire of lawmakers and late-night TV hosts alike.

From boycotts of French water, wine, and the Paris Air Show to threats to cut funding for NATO or to pull American troops out of Germany, many lawmakers are competing to send a message to "old" Europe: Oppose us if you must, but don't look as if you enjoy it.

NATO's initial failure to reach a decision to support Turkey's defense in case of a war with Iraq - in apparent violation of the principle that an attack against one member state is an attack against all - shocked many on Capitol Hill. So did the applause for the French foreign minister on the floor of the United Nations - and the stony silence for US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

While some lawmakers quietly noted a failure of American diplomacy to bring other nations along on Iraq, others in both parties used the occasions to inveigh against the perfidy of "nominal" allies. "One would think that the French, of all people, would be quick to understand the high price of appeasement," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio, referring to their experience in World War II.

Others see it as what economists might describe as a "free rider" problem: If Saddam Hussein is disarmed or removed, many nations benefit without having to pay the cost. It's all the worse if they sound ungrateful.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California charged France, Germany, and Belgium with "blind intransigence and utter ingratitude" for opposing help to Turkey. (That stalemate was later broken by a NATO planning group that does not include France.)

The prize for cutting phrase goes to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who in a television interview last weekend likened France to an aging film star who once lived on her looks but "no longer has the face for it." He said separately last week that "the rift is clearly serious." .

At the same time, calmer voices note that the US and France have a long relationship that has weathered many harsh words. And some worry that the US, through lackluster diplomacy, bears some responsibility for a spat that could damage the NATO alliance over the long term.

Indeed, some of Congress's threats may have consequences well beyond offending national pride. House Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter (R) of California is opening hearings on whether to close US bases in Germany, where 71,455 troops are currently stationed, and base troops instead in former East bloc nations. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama plans to raise the issue in the Senate.

Other threats are for sport, such as a suggestion batted around at a recent GOP House conference to slap orange "warning" labels on French wines that have been clarified with bovine blood - a practice abandoned when "mad cow" disease surfaced in the 1990s. Last week, 17 House members proposed a resolution calling for the US to pull out of aviation's prestigious Paris Air Show in June.

"It's not the first time Americans have poured French cognac down the sewers," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution. "But it's a bad time ... because it encourages Saddam Hussein to hold tight, because he sees the West as split."

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