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Secretary of State Powell’s Peace Mission

April 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For more on the growing divide between the U.S. And Europe over Middle East policy, we welcome three European journalists and one American: Christiane Meier is U.S. correspondent for A.R.D., a German television network; Patrick Jarreau is Washington bureau chief for the French daily newspaper Le Monde; Gerard Baker is Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times of London; and Jim Hoagland is a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post.

GWEN IFILL: Gerard Baker, we ended that piece talking about Tony Blair’s role in this. Is he all alone in his unstinting support for U.S. policy in the Middle East?

GERARD BAKER, Financial Times: He certainly has been and that’s been an automatic war position for the Prime Minister of Great Britain to be in. He’s been a staunch supporter of President Bush since the early days actually of the administration, but even more so since September 11.

Britain has been the most, I think it’s fair to say, most overwhelmingly supportive of all the European countries since September 11, the war on Afghanistan and so on. Now one of the problems he has is that there is growing opposition at home within his own party, the Labour Party, and in domestic public opinion, to the Bush Administration’s overall foreign policy, in particular to what’s been going on in the Middle East up until the last week or so, when the Bush Administration was so strongly supporting the Sharon government.

Now what Tony Blair has said all along is that by supporting the Bush government, the Bush Administration and everything that it’s done so far on the war on terrorism, he has managed to get much more influence for Britain, and indeed for a broader European view over the war on terrorism, and indeed over U.S. foreign policy as a whole.

He’s got to be able to demonstrate that in this particular case, and British officials, British politicians led by the Prime Minister are trying to demonstrate that they have got real influence, that this has bought them influence over their support for the U.S. has bought them influence over the Middle East at the moment and they are therefore, a lot is riding on both not just for the U.S. and the administration here, but for European governments, a lot is riding on the Powell mission. It must be successful if the Europeans are to be able to demonstrate, the British government in particular, that it really has had some kind of influence and has been able to push the Bush Administration in the way it wants it to go.

GWEN IFILL: Patrick Jarreau, how important is it if there is a broader European view that the U.S. take that into account, or how necessary is it for the U.S. to take it into account?

PATRICK JARREAU, Le Monde: Well, I think that the U.S. has found it necessary to take it into account, as has been said probably that the speech, which was very good by President Bush last week, was triggered partly of course by the situation in the Arab countries, but also by the criticism in Europe. And I think that probably the U.S. Government is aware then in the situation where we are now, and even with this war on terror which has been launched, it can’t be isolated from its European rights.

GWEN IFILL: But in France where there’s been so much pro-Palestinian sentiment, doesn’t that fly in the face of what the U.S. is trying to do?

PATRICK JARREAU: Well, I think that, you know, France has been saying for a long time but particularly since September 11 that this problem in the Middle East had to be dealt with, and that the standing up by the Bush Administration, which for months decided not to get involved in any new attempt to get back to a political process, this time was a mistake. And French government, I guess, and a large part of the French opinion thinks that they were right on that point.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about German public opinion, Christiane. Has it been evolving, and not only public opinion, but also political opinion?

CHRISTIANE MEIER, ARD TV: Yes, there has been a shift. This is very easy to see because the press is reporting in a different way than it used to be, and there’s very harsh criticism on Israel that hasn’t been heard of in years before German politicians have come out with the criticism, and also the press and many public opinion makers.

And I think one of the reasons is that Germany is getting very impatient with Israel at the moment, and it hasn’t been possible to criticize Israel for a very long time because of the special relationships. And there seems to be a shift right now that people feel freer or a little bit more free to country size the French because they are very special relationships between Israel, and I think there has been developed a big friendship. Now you feel a responsibility to tell a friend when you think this is not the right thing to do.

GWEN IFILL: You just heard what Netanyahu said, which is that he wasn’t terribly surprised.

CHRISTIANE MEIER: Well, we want to be his friend anyway, but we also want to be the Palestinians’ friend. And maybe even if he’s not very terribly surprised, he might be a little bit frustrated about, he called it an embargo, but it’s not an embargo, but the suspension of the arms sales at the moment, but that has to do apart from political reasons with a law, the German law is that we are not allowed to export weapons to a region in crisis, and that is exactly what, in the German definition at least of a crisis is happening right now.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Hoagland, you see Colin Powell making nice in Europe, attempting to build up some sort of coalition for support. Does it matter, really, if European nations are behind the United States in whatever it does to try to reach a cease-fire or a peace agreement in the Middle East?

JIM HOAGLAND, Washington Post: Well, I think it matters desperately to Colin Powell, who really has made his job one of reaching out to the rest of the world on behalf of an administration that by and large goes its own way. The Europeans, the conservative Arab governments, these people are essentially Colin Powell’s constituents, much more than are the people in Washington and his own administration to some extent.

So I think the trip to Madrid by Colin Powell, rather than going straight to Jerusalem, is an extraordinary tip of the American hat to Europe, to Russia, to the United Nations. As Benjamin Netanyahu suggested, these are not three entities that normally are associated with good feelings about Israel. So Colin Powell probably has done a lot of good, certainly for his own image in Europe, but I don’t know that he has enhanced his ability to arrive in Jerusalem and say to Ariel Sharon, stop it.

GWEN IFILL: Is your thinking in this Bush Administration that Europeans have special leverage in this case because some countries have established relationships, trusting relationships with the Palestinians?

JIM HOAGLAND: I suspect not. Those countries haven’t really shown a willingness or, more importantly, an ability to use that leverage if they possess it. They have not shown results. The question you get frequently in this Administration, not so much from the State Department, but perhaps at the Pentagon, is what good are the Europeans to us any way in this kind of conflict?

I think Powell has a good point. It’s certainly better for the United States to try to work in coalitions, to try to bring our allies along, because there are lot of other issues, not necessarily this one, but the financing of terror networks, for example, where we need European help. I think he has that in mind. But if you drew up a balance sheet of what the Europeans bring to the table in the Middle East crisis, it’s a deficit.

CHRISTIANE MEIER: I wouldn’t agree on that one. I think America does need the Europeans because obviously America hasn’t gotten anywhere with their own approach. As we can see, Clinton didn’t get what he wanted, Bush doesn’t get what he wants, and the Israelis couldn’t care less about what America and the Europeans may say. But right now I think the Europeans are trying, are trying very hard. Our Foreign Minister Fischer has come up with another plan, which has actually been produced to Colin Powell, he knows about that and they’re going to talk about that on Monday. It’s an idea paper, it’s an idea about what could be, there are many ideas of course, again, and a lot of enforcement – but it will be negotiated with the European foreign ministers, and Colin Powell knows, and I think Kofi Annan knows about that, and at least it is a continuous attempt to stay at the negotiating table.

GERARD BAKER: The problem is the Europeans I think really are compromised on this issue, they really have it very, very difficult for them to exercise any kind of leverage because, as Netanyahu said, the view in Israel, I think with some degree of, I think it’s not an unreasonable opinion, is that the Europeans have established themselves as friends of the Palestinians. They indeed have gone out of their way to do that over a long time.

One of the most striking things I saw at the summit this weekend between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair was that Prime Minister Blair said the Israeli people know that they don’t have, they have, there are no stronger friends of Israel in the world than the United States and Great Britain. I think that must have raised a few eyebrows in Israel because I don’t think that’s how it’s seen in Israel. I think there’s some reason, Britain has like many European countries had a long-standing strong relationship with the Palestinians, with Arab nations in the region, and has been as I think as the rest of the Europeans have, to some extent taken out of the equation simply because the Israelis don’t trust them.

GWEN IFILL: Are Europeans compromised in this sense as well, which is that this rise in anti-Semitic violence in France in particular and Belgium, have those events compromised European countries in this whole mix?

PATRICK JARREAU: I guess as Israeli rhetoric says, it is being used. I think what we’re witnessing in Europe and partly in France is more complex problems, as you know there is a strong community of Arab descent in France, maybe 5 million people, there is a very strong Jewish community. Partly this Jewish community comes from the same place, from North Africa. And while there are several issues, and the second explanation is that what hurts in the European left, there always has been a kind of underground marginal but real tradition of anti-Semitism, in the 19th century it was said that ‘anti-Semitism was the socialism of the morons’, and something of that still exists.

GWEN IFILL: Does that allow Netanyahu to simply dismiss European input on…

PATRICK JARREAU: No, the real problem is not there. The difficult part for the United States, I would agree with Jim Hoagland when he says that the American government says, well, what can the Europeans bring? Not much. But they can damage, you know, and I think that in the present situation the Arab countries are ready to, you know, to use the European stand to oppose the American stand. And this is probably to defuse this nuisance effect, one of the reasons why Colin Powell went to Madrid.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier in this administration probably some version of the four of us sat around this table and talked about unilateralism and how George W. Bush was perceived as being a loner. Does that play into the debate now about what Europe’s role is in the Middle East peace process?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think you’ve come directly to the heart of a big problem for the administration right now. George W. Bush, I think, has done a pretty good job of balancing off conflicting views in his own administration about how American power should be used in the world. He has declared himself an internationalist and said he wants to be friends with the nations of Europe and Asia, Latin America, while at the same time taking decisions and responding to the war on terrorism, the Kyoto protocol, other things, that let U.S. interests dominate, going his own way. He’s been able to maintain the balance.

I think we’ve reached the point here in the Middle East crisis and the lead-up to what will be another big dispute over Iraq, when the time comes for action in Iraq. We’ve reached kind of the definition point where Bush will have to decide, do I really want unilateralism, do I go it alone more often than not, or do I try to work with coalitions? He’d like to do both and to be able to pick and choose. We all would. But the kind of violence that’s occurring in the Middle East today, is taking that option away from him progressively.

GWEN IFILL: Christane, does the president have the opportunity to pick and choose, to step away from European allies on Iraq but try to rally behind them in the Israeli Palestinian conflict?

CHRISTIANE MEIER: Very, very difficult choice, I think. I think he needs the Europeans if he wants to do anything with Iraq, he won’t be able to pick and choose. He will give the Europeans, also the Germans, but all the Europeans I think the feeling they are hurt, you know, and they’re part of a consensus and not a pick and choose option, you know, where sometimes you need and sometimes you don’t, and I think this underlying feeling of many Europeans to be used when you need it, and dismissed when you’re not any more, that makes a big part of all the tensions between America and Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Particularly a big problem for Tony Blair, very briefly.

GERARD BAKER: I think that’s one of the frustrating things for the Europeans. They have seen the prevailing view in the Bush Administration, as Jim said earlier, being one that we don’t really meet the Europeans, we can go it alone, and the Europeans are having — and they don’t have a very strong response to that. It’s quite clear that the U.S. can manage things militarily, can probably manage things politically and it’s the strongest economy in the world too, there’s just a lack of a strong identity among the Europeans about what exactly their role is.

CHRISTIANE MEIER: If you said politically, they might not be able to do it militarily, but maybe not politically.

GWEN IFILL: We’re out of time for tonight. Thank you all very much.