Charm Offensive

Almost exactly a year ago, Colin Powell arrived at NATO's bleak headquarters in Brussels to heal the wounds of divisions over the war in Iraq. By his sheer presence and charm, the secretary of State reassured the troubled and troublesome allies. Everyone agreed it was time to move on, time to bury their differences, and time to help the Iraqi people. There was talk of a United Nations role in Iraq, talk of NATO peacekeeping in Iraq, and talk of what a new Iraqi government would look like.

Twelve months later, that talk is stuck in aspic. While the United States speeds toward the handover of sovereignty in Iraq at the end of June, the big questions remain unanswered about the U.N., NATO and even the Iraqi government. Will European allies support the U.S. by boosting their token efforts in Iraq? Will NATO take more control of the international sector now led by the Poles? Can the U.N. broker a deal among Iraq's political and ethnic rivals to help set up a new nation? It may be time to move on to a better Iraq, but there's little agreement on how to get there.

That's not to say the world has stood still in the last 12 months. Powell returned to NATO to watch as seven national flags rose into a gray Belgian sky earlier today. They marked the historic entry of former communist nations into the transatlantic alliance: three Baltic countries (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania), as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Nowadays the seismic shifts inside the old Soviet bloc seem routine. Yet we're still dealing with the aftershocks of the revolution in Central and Eastern Europe that brought the Soviet Union to its knees 15 years ago. If it takes that long to adjust to a peaceful upheaval in the heart of Europe, how long will it take to adjust to the violent upheaval in Iraq?

Judging from Powell's reception here this week, it will take years just to bridge the schism between Europe and the United States over the war in Iraq. At NATO, opinions are deeply divided between the new members who strongly support the U.S. in Iraq and some of the old heavyweights like France, Germany and now Spain. Besides, the alliance has its hands full in Afghanistan (where Europe is united in wanting to help) without moving to the Middle East (where Europe is very far from united).

Even in Afghanistan, Europe is still falling short. There were big promises of money this week at a donors' meeting in Berlin--$8.2 billion toward the huge target of $28 billion that the Afghan government believes it needs to rebuild its impoverished country. But, besides cash, the transatlantic alliance is still finding it hard to deliver what Afghanistan desperately needs: security. While NATO has taken historic steps in Afghanistan, operating outside Europe for the first time, it falls short of what the Afghans really want. NATO countries are finding it unusually difficult to deliver a dozen helicopters to Afghanistan this year, as they fret about who will pay for transport costs and how long they will stay there. In Berlin, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai repeatedly pressed for help to disarm the warlords that control most of his country. But while he won plenty of cash pledges, he left disappointed about the warlords. At a press conference alongside Powell, Karzai stood silent until one reporter asked if the U.S. would help to disarm the militias. "Good question," he piped up, barely suppressing his smile.

For its part, the Bush administration is at least trying to find other common ground in Europe beyond Iraq. American diplomats are working hard to win German support for the president's plans to reform the Arab world--his Middle East Partnership. Germany's help on the Middle East, as well as its military support in Afghanistan, offers the U.S. a rare chance to isolate France and repair relations with Europe's leaders. Those plans may well be the last big foreign-policy push before the general election, with the notable exception of Iraq diplomacy.

But it's not just Europe's political leaders who need the charm offensive. Public opinion in key European countries remains hostile to the United States in general, the war in Iraq in particular and President Bush above all else. Powell, to his credit, tried to shift opinion back toward America by visiting a high school in what used to be communist East Berlin this week. There, at the Max Planck School, he took questions from more than 100 students whose attitudes ranged from deep suspicion about American intentions in Iraq to downright hostility.

One teenager, Philip Wengel, who said he wanted to be a heavy-metal guitarist, quizzed Powell about Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker whose books are exceptionally popular in Germany. Wengel, like many of his schoolmates, was especially interested in Moore's suggestion that the war in Iraq was all about oil.

When Powell insisted that the United States would never steal Iraq's oil, the student wanted more. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Yes, yes," said Powell. "Can you promise me that?" the student shot back. "I promise, I promise," repeated Powell.

Speaking after the secretary of State had left the graffiti-strewn building, several students said they thought Powell was just the fall guy for the Bush administration. Most of them took part in antiwar demonstrations last year, and said they were "terrified" by polls showing American support for the war. "Powell is the one who always gets sent somewhere to calm everybody as the face of the U.S.," said Marlene Wolf, a 19-year-old student. "I don't have anything against Americans, but I don't really like the Bush administration."

Powell seemed to be the exception to the rule, which might explain why another questioner was so keen to know if he would stick around in a second Bush administration. "One doesn't know," said Powell. "I serve at his pleasure." Powell paused, looked sheepishly at the gym full of frowning students and grinned. "That's called a slide away," he admitted. It probably wasn't the only one of the trip.

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