A senior U.S. diplomat said in Paris Thursday that France has a key opportunity to improve strained relations during the current United Nations Security Council debate on lifting sanctions against Iraq.
The director of policy planning at the State Department, Richard Haass, said upcoming trips to France, first by Secretary of State Colin Powell and later by President Bush, will provide good opportunities to begin healing French-U.S. relations. Mr. Powell is due in Paris next week, and President Bush is expected to attend the Group of Eight summit in France in June.
France and the United States clashed bitterly over whether to wage war against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. With the war over, Bush administration officials have warned they might find ways to punish France for its opposition.
Mr. Haass did not comment on what kind of retaliatory steps Washington might take. But speaking to reporters in Paris, he said France has an opportunity to improve relations during the Security Council debate over lifting sanctions on Iraq.
"The current debate that's beginning at the U.N. Security Council is an important opportunity to get things right," he said. "It will obviously have a tremendous impact on the future of Iraq. But I also think it has the potential to have a significant impact on U.S.-French relations, and trans-Atlantic relations."
Mr. Haass expressed confidence the U.N. debate would not echo the Security Council standoff on the Iraq war. He suggested Washington would succeed in its effort to have sanctions against Iraq lifted. So far, France has suggested suspending the sanctions, but French officials have described the U.S. proposal as a good first step.
Mr. Haass also said it is important to focus on areas of agreement with France, such as counter-terrorism cooperation, and to in his words, fence off areas of disagreement. But he said France is already paying a price for its leadership of international opposition to the war in Iraq.
"It's reputation in the United States has taken a hit. And on one level, you see it with the jokes and all that. But the fact is France's reputation in the United States is not what it was," said Mr. Haass.
With the war now over, French officials have announced they are adopting what they call a pragmatic approach to international issues. But differences remain between Paris and Washington. France wants the United Nations to play the central role in post-war Iraq. The United States says the United Nations should have a significant role, but that the coalition that liberated Iraq should have the leading role.
In addition, France wants Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to be included in Middle East peace negotiations, while the United States says he has supported terrorism and prefers to deal with his new Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
And there are other France-U.S. disagreements. The United States criticized a defense planning meeting involving four European Iraq-war opponents, including French President Jacques Chirac. And on Thursday Mr. Haass called the French president's vision of a multipolar world undesirable and unsustainable.