Just as France looked poised to open a new Sarkozy-era in Iraq policy and an attempt to repair bilateral relations with the United States, the new president and foreign minister apparently lost their usually refined sense of diplomatic acuity and stumbled into a mess--sparking a war of words with the Iraqi prime minister and suggesting US policy adjustments that would slam White House doors.
Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner's visit to Baghdad last week signaled that the new administration of Nicolas Sarkozy was prepared to depart from Chirac's previous hands-off approach to Iraq, sparking a positive diplomatic buzz at the prospect of new resources being devoted to the country.
On Monday, Kouchner published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune and President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major foreign policy address in Paris, both of which make clear France's position that the healing of Iraq must begin with the withdrawal of US troops--reasoning that will be a non-starter with Washington.
Sarkozy told the conference of 180 ambassadors in Paris that a military solution does not help Iraq, and the political solution must include "a clear horizon concerning the retreat of foreign troops," adding, "It is then and only then the international community, starting with the countries in the region, will be able to act most usefully. France, for its part, will be prepared to help."
Kouchner writes in the Herald Tribune: "The Iraqis themselves, including those most hostile to the American presence, may not want the foreign troops to leave immediately, but a withdrawal must nevertheless be planned, in consultation with the Iraqi authorities. At the same time, a broad-based government of national unity must be established. France is prepared to act as mediator in this endeavor."
Kouchner may have thought his warm welcome in Baghdad and his experience as mediator for the UN positioned him to negotiate between different Iraqi factions, but recent comments he made to Newsweek about Maliki assure that the he will not have a willing partner in the current prime minister.
"I just had on the phone 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I told her, 'Listen, he's got to be replaced,'" Bernard Kouchner said in an interview for Newsweek published this weekend.
On Sunday in Baghdad, Maliki publicly demanded an official apology for Mr. Kouchner's remarks.
"We received French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and we were so optimistically pleased with the new French stance, but then he gave statements that can never be up to diplomatic courtesy when he called for changing the (Iraqi) government," said Maliki.
"We want an official apology from the French government, not the French foreign minister," he added.
In an interview with RTL radio Monday, Kouchner responded, "I think that (al-Maliki) misunderstood, or that I was not clear enough that I was referring to comments I heard from Iraqis I talked to."
"If the prime minister, Mr. al-Maliki, wants me to apologize for having interfered so directly in Iraqi affairs, I'll do it willingly," Kouchner was quoted as saying.
"But again that doesn't change the facts. I'm not the only one to present a few criticisms ... I should have said, again, I repeat ... that those were the words of the people I spoke to and if it was badly interpreted, I'm sorry."