Postwar, old allies jostle for position

Debate over Iraq sanctions this week should offer clues to the US vision and how antiwar countries will respond.

In a recent cartoon in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, a solicitous Mexican official is shown extending a hand to an aloof American bureaucrat and asking sheepishly, "Friends?"

In the wake of an Iraq war that the Fox government firmly opposed, Mexico is in essence asking its big neighbor to the North if bygones can now be bygones so the two countries can get back to pending business.

It's a question that a string of America's friends and allies who blocked its plan for a broad UN-based coalition in support of the war are asking - with varying responses from a victorious US in no mood for a general show of magnanimity.

With the US showing particular disdain for France, a willingness to work out differences with Russia, but zero tolerance for any challenges to its dominant role in the Mideast, the post-Iraq-war period is shaping up as the most significant geopolitical reordering since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"This will prove to be a historical turning point, with particular repercussions for transatlantic relations that will look quite different than in the past," says Charles Kupchan, a diplomacy expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "The fact the US is talking about retribution against those who didn't go its way suggests this will not just be a blip."

Just how the US plans to approach the new world order it sees - and how the antiwar countries expect to respond to what they worry will be an emboldened and even more independent America - should begin to emerge this week as the US introduces a resolution to lift UN sanctions on Iraq to the Security Council.

"Countries like France see little opening for influencing American policy in this postwar period, and even little benefit from trying," says Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States in Paris. "So that leaves them to work with the Americans when they can but pursuing their own interests despite the consequences."

The ensuing UN debate, which could extend through much of May, is also likely to recast top US ally Britain in the role of go-between. It's a casting Prime Minister Tony Blair hardly relishes, in part because Britain may reap diminishing returns if the US feels it needs its antiwar friends less.

"Throughout this process, Blair did have some influence on the US position," says Wyn Grant, a public-policy professor at Warwick University in Britain. "The question is whether he can still exert influence in Washington: that is less likely now that the Iraq war is over."

Another UN test

The initial testing of friends will come in the Security Council because the US does need the web of sanctions lifted for Iraq's political and financial rebuilding to proceed. But US officials are making clear they're not going to bend far to accommodate the concerns of those who sat out the war - especially France, which Washington sees as the ringleader behind the pre-war rebellion.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has made clear that France will suffer "consequences" for actions Washington thinks undermined the transatlantic alliance. US officials say the long-term implications for France are likely to include both a process of marginalization from NATO affairs, as well as US efforts to limit its role in the Mideast peace process. Already the US is signalling that it plans to take a lead role in overseeing the "roadmap" for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even though the plan was worked up by a "quartet" of powers including the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN.

"That may be not so much an attempt to keep France out as recognition that the US has to play the major role," says Hurst Hannum, an international relations specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass. "The Clinton administration's last meetings at Camp David were unilateralist, but no one complained about that."

Still, part of the US action appears aimed at making sure the antiwar powers don't gang up on the world's superpower again. Most experts agree that Washington's three main antagonists - France, Russia, and Germany - opposed the war for fundamentally different reasons, so any incentive to stick together in the postwar months will be difficult.

Nonetheless, Mr. Kupchan says the unity the three showed suggests "something fundamental is going on here. It will take a while to play out, but it shows they are willing to contemplate life without Pax Americana."

Only France among the three is seen as having waged the antiwar fight primarily to limit US action and promote its own role in the world. Germany was acting in response to domestic politics, experts say, while Russia, although interested in limiting America's dominance, was primarily concerned about its financial interests in Iraq.

That may help explain why even during the fighting President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was dispatched to Moscow. No similar American visits were made to Paris - and Bush told NBC's Tom Brokaw Friday that French President Jacques Chirac is not likely to receive an invitation to the Crawford ranch any time soon.

"It's a good move politically to try to divide those who might join up to work against you," says Mr. Hannum. "Especially in the case of Russia, the US continues to see a strong interest in developing that relationship without any interference from Europe."

Clash over inspectors

But how much cooperation the US is likely to get out of Moscow on Iraq remains unclear. Russia's ambassador to the UN, Sergei Lavrov, said last week that sanctions cannot be lifted until Iraq is found to be free of nonconventional weapons. The Russians want UN inspectors to return to Iraq to make that determination, a move the US opposes but which even Britain appears to favor.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said last week that UN inspectors should be allowed back into Iraq to take a lead on tracking down weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that, Blair is much more set than Bush on seeing a central role for the UN in reconstruction. He argues that nation-building works better when more countries are involved.

In a published report Monday, he said, "It is not in our interests - America and Britain - to have a government in Iraq that doesn't clearly have international legitimacy."

Mark Rice-Oxley contributed to this report from London.

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