Nicolas Sarkozy is as pro-American a president as France will ever have. But when he was received last Saturday at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for an "informal" meeting with President George W. Bush, he was probably hoping this would not be interpreted gastronomically. The Bushes offered hamburgers and hot dogs rather than lobster or swordfish, leaving the slighted family fish supplier, Steve Kingston, to declare: "I hope it won't be taken badly in France."
In fact, detractors in France seemed far more disturbed by where Sarkozy was vacationing, namely the tony retreat of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, than by what he was putting into his mouth. The high price tag of the president's holiday was a consistent object of derision, but the reality was that many Frenchmen seemed even more uncomfortable with Sarkozy's plain message that things were back to normal with the United States—meaning the United States of the reviled George W. Bush.
If so, the critics might want to look again. On the U.S.-French agenda were three Middle Eastern issues of common concern: Iran, Darfur, and Lebanon. But while Bush and Sarkozy are closer than Bush and Jacques Chirac ever were, when it comes to the Middle East, Sarkozy's France is going the way other European states are in detaching itself from Washington and from the implications of the Bush administration's war on terror. That's not to say there invariably is disagreement. Rather, the European-American relationship with regard to the Arab world and Iran is drifting back to what we had before 9/11, when the pursuit of national interests trumped any declared common effort to advance democracy and human rights while isolating repressive regimes and "rogue nations."
Take the recent release by Libya of six foreign medics, most of them Bulgarians. This opened a Pandora's Box of recrimination when it was suggested that France, which played a principal role in the liberation, had overseen a more sinister quid pro quo: the medics in exchange for Libya's being allowed to buy weapons and a nuclear reactor from France. The French government insisted there had been no tradeoffs. Sarkozy was even more affirmative in denying a nuclear deal. However, Paris was forced to concede that a weapons deal had been agreed after the son of Libya's dictator Moammar Qaddafi broke the story to the French daily Le Monde.
But what Seif al-Islam Qaddafi disclosed suggested more than just arms sales, which are allowed now that Libya is no longer under an international sanctions regime. He told Le Monde: "First, the agreement [with France] involves joint military exercises; we will be buying Milan anti-tank missiles from France to the order of 100 million euros, I think. Then there is a project for the manufacture of arms, and for the maintenance and production of military equipment. You know it's the first arms supply deal between a Western country and Libya [since the sanctions ended]."
At home Sarkozy was attacked by the Socialists for being willing to transact with an autocrat like Qaddafi. But the president is likely to weather that storm. His party agreed to a parliamentary inquiry scheduled to begin in autumn, and most probably this will serve to push the dispute to the backburner. After all, the Bulgarian medics deal involved many more states than France. According to the head of Bulgaria's intelligence service, Kirtcho Kirov, some 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, participated in what looked like a bazaar of liberation. Kirov recalled that the person who put him in touch with his Libyan counterpart was Marc Allan, the former head of global operations for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service.
Why the U.K.? Because the British authorities hold a vital card in the game of bringing oil-rich Libya back into the international fold. He is Abdul Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan former intelligence agent being held in Scotland for his alleged involvement in the Pan-Am bombing over the town of Lockerbie. In June, Britain's judiciary allowed him to appeal his sentence for a second time. For most observers Megrahi is a scapegoat; someone who went to prison so the international community would not have to go after the real culprit: Moammar Qaddafi. Megrahi's future release may be part of the tentacular medics deal, in exchange for which, presumably, the U.K. will also be invited into the lucrative Libyan market.
It hardly takes Libya to show that the U.K. is going its own way in the Middle East, or that the mood toward the United States is changing in London. Already, U.S. forces are preparing for a possible British withdrawal from the southern Iraqi city of Basra early next year, amid signs that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants out of the Iraq conflict.
The growing U.S.-U.K. disconnect was also evident in the conclusions of a report by a select committee of the House of Commons addressing Middle Eastern matters. Among other findings, the report criticized the British government's rejection of an early cease-fire during the summer war in Lebanon last year—a decision taken by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in accordance with Washington. The MPs also called for an opening of dialogue with "moderates" in Hamas, cast doubt on the success of the U.S. "surge" in Iraq, and warned that the use of such terms as "war on terror" and "arc of extremism" provoked "resentment" and was "unhelpful and that such oversimplifications may lead to dangerous policy implications." The real target of these conclusions was, plainly, the Bush administration's post 9/11 terrorism policies.
An older nemesis of the administration, the Socialist government in Spain, is also taking a much freer line on Lebanese and Syrian affairs than the U.S. would like. The Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has repeatedly sought to engage Syria's dictatorship, despite open U.S. skepticism. Moratinos' attitude has also disturbed the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Lebanon, with one parliamentarian describing his benign attitude toward Syria as "not reassuring." Recently, Moratinos traveled to Damascus to meet with Syria's leadership, even though there was a very high probability, confirmed by United Nations officials, that Syria played a role in the bomb attack that killed six Spanish peace-keepers of the U.N. Interim Force in South Lebanon on June 24.
Still, it's not all bad between Washington and Europe—nor is the U.S. itself particularly consistent when it comes to dealing with autocrats, as it continues to bolster the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Most European states are on the same page as the U.S. in opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions and its rising power in the Persian Gulf. On the Palestinian front, up to now European governments have sided with Washington on isolating Hamas (though that may be changing). In Lebanon, France may soon adopt measures similar to two White House Executive Orders denying travel to or blocking the property of individuals deemed to be undermining Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy.
However, the more uniform rhetoric heard in the aftermath of 9/11 is now a memory. The Europeans are doing their own thing, and so is the U.S. What that means in practical terms is that it is once again acceptable to cajole despots if national interests mandate it. So whether your name is Qaddafi, Assad, Mubarak, or Abdullah, the moral of the story is: Enjoy the greater breathing space you now have to asphyxiate your own people.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon