Leading Article: America will not heal the wounds of its rift with Europe until it accepts some home truths

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OF ALL the engagements on the new US Secretary of State's travel schedule, yesterday's speech before an audience at Sciences Po (the Institute for Political Studies), on Paris's left bank, was the prickliest challenge. Less easily managed than her carefully choreographed stopover in London, more of a gamble than her Berlin dinner-date with Gerhard Schroder, more diplomatically sensitive even than her efforts to lay a new foundation for US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, Paris was a spider's web of risk just waiting to snare her in its threads.

She began with certain advantages. Retrograde though such discrimination may be, Paris adores an elegant and articulate woman - and Ms Rice did not disappoint. Paris also indulges power and Ms Rice came as plenipotentiary of the US President; she kept a deferential distance from her listeners and they from her. She also took care to punctuate her speech with references to points of history and thinking that the US and France have in common. "To our enemies," she said, "liberte, egalite, fraternite are evil principles." Continuing the theme of past revolutions, she called on her audience to imagine "if France or the US had been content with the world as it was...". Regime-change, in other words, has its merits.

There were also two welcome signs, if - that is - they come to be reflected in US foreign policy as it develops in George Bush's second term. The first was an acceptance of the benefits - at times, indeed, the superiority - of so-called soft power: "Even more important than military or economic power," she said, "is the power of ideas, compassion and hope." These words, it should be noted, were spoken by the same woman who expressed the administration's attitude to nation-building by snapping that the US did not "need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten".

The other was her clear signal that the Bush administration, if not yet the whole US political establishment, has accepted the increasing cohesion of Europe. Where the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had set about sowing discord between old and new Europe, Ms Rice told her Paris audience that "the US welcomes the growing unity of Europe". That Ms Rice herself and next month President Bush are both visiting EU headquarters in Brussels reinforce this view.

Otherwise, what Ms Rice had to say was less apologetic than the French foreign policy establishment may have hoped to hear, let alone the mass of Europeans who opposed the Iraq war. Throughout her speech, she perpetuated a strand of dishonesty that has permeated much US (and some British ) discourse about Iraq. We heard Ms Rice, for instance, conflating the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as though they were fundamentally one and the same. We heard her list Iraq and Afghanistan in a long line of popular democratic uprisings that included the civil rights movement in the US and Lech Walesa's stand.

What happened in Iraq was nothing of the sort. It may indeed, as Ms Rice argued, be time to turn from the disagreements of the past and open "a new chapter in our relationship and a new chapter in our alliance". But Iraq was not by any standard a popular uprising. It was an enforced regime- change, imposed from outside, which plunged a country that had been sorely oppressed into murderous chaos. The elections may or may not mark the first stage of Iraq's rebirth as a free and democratic state, and a new Iraqi state may indeed deserve as much assistance as we can afford. But it is not possible to open a "new chapter" in transatlantic relations without an honest recognition of what went so badly wrong, and why.

Ms Rice's adamant refusal even to acknowledge the nature of the dispute will not heal many wounds. She may have sounded a conciliatory note when she stated American willingness to work with Europe, but when she added that Europe "must stand ready to work with America on our common agenda", it sounded very like a command - and if not a command, then a threat.