US mends split with Russia but France and Germany out in cold

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Indy Politics

With smiles and a firm handshake, George Bush and Jacques Chirac set about repairing Franco-US relations yesterday. But Washington in particular is making it crystal clear that the process will take some time, to put it mildly.

Three days in Europe have merely confirmed in public what Bush administration officials have been saying for weeks in private, about how the US intends to deal with France, Russia and Germany, the leading opponents of war with Iraq on the United Nations Security Council.

With Russia, a US President with a habit of bearing grudges has evidently decided to let bygones be bygones - to forgive, if not necessarily to forget. In St Petersburg, Mr Bush and President Vladimir Putin were chumminess personified.

"My good friend" Vladimir is being granted anew the honour of a repeat visit in September to the Bush ranch at Crawford, Texas, to which, famously, President Chirac will not be invited "any time soon".

With Mr Bush smiling beside him, Mr Putin told reporters: "I must say the fundamentals between the United States and Russia turned out to be stronger than the forces and events that tested [our relationship]." The fundamentals, in this case, are Moscow's support in the war on terrorism, and its increasing alignment with the West.

Germany's opposition, by contrast, will not be forgotten. Mr Bush and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder did shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries. But there will be no bilateral session in Evian, and no invitation for Mr Schröder to the White House, let alone Crawford. The US intention is to play on Germany's enduring historic insecurities by keeping it out in the cold.

With France, however, the resentment goes deeper still. The sin of Paris lay not in opposing US policy on Iraq, but in its systematic marshalling of that opposition on the Security Council and beyond. Unanimous passage of resolution 1483, lifting UN sanctions on Iraq, has mended a few fences but neither side will give ground on the fundamental issue. "We have not changed our point of view and neither has the United States," M. Chirac's spokeswoman said.

On the eve of Mr Bush's arrival in France, his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, gave an interview to Le Monde in which she called the French stance on the war "particularly disappointing". She said: "There were times when it appeared that American power was seen to be more dangerous than Saddam Hussein."She also attacked the French President's warnings to various central and east European countries poised to join the European Union about their support for military action against Saddam. "We thought we had a common understanding that there was no conflict between a European identity and a transatlantic identity," she said.

But even if the feud over Iraq is set aside, the Evian meeting is unlikely to linger in Mr Bush's memory as the highlight of this relatively rare foray abroad. He prefers to deal with matters of "hard" US power (such as his attempt tomorrow to prod Israelis and Palestinians towards a settlement) to the meanderings of "soft" power. And nothing, in his eyes, symbolises "soft" power as much as these unproductive talking-shop summits.

In that sense, his early departure from Evian is not merely a less-than-subtle signal of his feelings towards M. Chirac. It reflects Mr Bush's own belief that such sessions, with their rambling agendas and set-piece dinners, are not a very profitable use of his time.