It looks like a rerun of a bad movie: the United States and Europe are again arguing over Iraq — this time, over whether the U.S. will allow Iraq’s caretaker government to have real power after June 30.
“The Iraqi government has to be in a position to govern and that’s why I mean it has to be a break with the past,” said French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.
Why does French opinion matter? Because France can veto the United Nations resolution that is critical to the U.S. exit strategy.
Friday, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said he is sure the new government will want U.S. forces to stay, but said if asked to leave, the U.S. would. "Were this interim government to say to us, ‘We really think we can handle this on our own, it would be better if you would leave,’ we would leave,” he said.
But the leaders of France and Germany, who met Thursday, suspect the new Iraqi government will just be a front for the United States.
That's because coalition leader Paul Bremer has been quietly issuing orders that will keep U.S. control over Iraq's military, criminal investigations, contracts and even the Iraqi media, for months or even years.
Why would the U.S. want to tie the hands of the new government? Because it feels the Iraqis are not ready to govern themselves.
“There’s no way that Iraqis are really ready right now, if given all of the levers of government, to govern that country,” according to Philip Gordon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "There's not an agreed constitution, the government won't have legitimacy because it will have been appointed and not elected. Nobody thinks, quite frankly, that we will really be able to put Iraqis entirely in charge of their government on June 30," he added.
The United States has asked other countries to send troops after the handover, but Friday, all said no. “The issue of French troops on the ground is a non-question from our point of view,” added French Foreign Minister Barnier. "There will be no French troops not here. Not now. Not tomorrow.”
Powell’s leverage is severely weakened by the prison abuse scandal, which the Europeans have criticized sharply.
To avoid embarrassing questions when the G-8 foreign ministers met with President George W. Bush Friday, the White House did not permit news coverage.
Powell told NBC News he opened Friday’s meeting by trying to assure the allies that the United States will deal with the prison scandal — but clearly, it is undercutting American diplomacy on Iraq.