EUROPE: COZYING UP TO CONDI

Everyone agrees. Condoleezza Rice came to Europe and made very nice noises. A gentler, wiser, more diplomatic Bush administration appears eager to repair the tattered transatlantic relationship. A new era of shared interests, from Iran to Middle East peace, offers opportunities for cooperation rather than unilateral confrontation. Grateful Europeans noted the U.S. president's calls to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and French President Jacques Chirac. "A few weeks ago, such telephone contact wasn't imaginable," gushed Le Monde, touting the "accelerated thaw."

Are Europe and America really entering a new era of good feeling? Dream on. Yes, Rice arrived in Europe buoyed by the success of the Iraq election, applauded even in the "Old Europe" capitals of Paris and Berlin. Yes, Europeans welcome her pragmatism and the ascent of approved "realists" to senior State Department posts. There was even heady talk of "transformational diplomacy"--what you get, one Rice aide explained, "when states act together to create new ideas and institutions." But can the mood last? "You can't rely on the [Iraq election] bounce forever," cautions a senior British diplomatic source. Iraq is, to put it mildly, a work in progress. Much can go wrong and probably will. Throw in fundamentally different views on Iran and the Israel-Palestinian problem, experts warn, and U.S.-European relations could again descend quickly into acrimony.

Begin with Iran. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, U.S., European and Iranian policymakers discussed the contours of a deal that might resolve tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. It centered on Iran's giving up its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for ample European trade and investment, WTO membership and a security guarantee from the United States, as well as linkage to a Middle East peace deal. The so-called EU-3--Germany, Britain and France--are negotiating with Iran along these lines. Yet the United States stands apart, despite the fact that any solution requires U.S. engagement. British Foreign Office officials insist this "good cop, bad cop" tactic is deliberate, but Washington's mixed messages mystify other Europeans. "Diplomacy can work," said Rice in London last week, even as she described Iran as a "chief funder of terrorism" and ruled out any direct dealings with the United States.

Europeans remain suspicious about what the United States might be up to. Inside the White House, especially the vice president's office, there has long been a thinly veiled hope that a new revolution will topple Iran's ayatollahs from power. "We don't know how close the regime is to collapsing," says one senior administration official. Worried Europeans believe that Washington must drop such fantasies if it's to get anywhere with Tehran. "If you wait for the ayatollahs to fall," says a top European diplomat, "you'll get both ayatollahs and the nuclear bomb."

Even America's staunchest ally, Britain, has concerns. Tony Blair's inner circle is unwilling to credit alarming reports that U.S. military planners have already identified targets for missile attacks within Iran in order to cripple its nascent nuclear capability. "We don't feel there's a military plan," says a senior source. But he also acknowledges that there's clearly a "debate" within the Bush administration over whether to take such action. Rice ruled that out last week, saying that attacking Iran was "not on the agenda at this point." But if diplomacy were to fail, what then? At the very least, there could be an ugly blame game over "who lost Iran," and whether America or Europe was responsible for either a new Middle East war or a cold peace with a nuclear Tehran.

Other issues are no less fraught. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 411-3 on a resolution censuring the European Union's plan to lift its arms embargo on China. As members of Congress debated possible U.S. retaliation, Rice vowed to "work it out." But given U.S. military interests in Asia, and its delicate balancing act between Taiwan and the mainland, it's not surprising that many in Washington are prompted to ask, as one U.S. analyst puts it, "What exactly allies us to them?"

Then there's that thorniest of problems, the Middle East. The U.S. and France recently cosponsored a U.N. resolution pressing Syria to pull out of Lebanon. The British government will host a peace conference in London in early March, which the United States will join. (Blair, whose party faces an election in May, is keen to shift the conversation away from the unpopular Iraq war and his alliance with Bush, regardless of whether the topic is Africa, climate change or the Middle East.) Europeans will be assiduously watching every utterance from Rice, especially her address in Paris on Tuesday. The open question: will Washington play the role of honest broker between the Arabs and Israelis, or not--and thereby dash all prospects for a settlement? If the latter, relations with Europe will clearly suffer.

Skeptics ask whether Washington really cares. "Everybody's making a lot more out of Condi's visit than it really is," says Walter Russell Mead at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The Bush administration will approach Europe more deftly than in the past. They're willing to make nice. But make no mistake. This is an intermission. When it comes to the substance of policy, don't expect any big changes. Because they still see Europe as a sideshow." Fair or not, that's a common view in Washington. Yet there's at least one area where America very much does care, and that's Iraq.

Before U.S.-European relations have a chance to cool again, the Americans (and Britain) hope to build on Iraq's postelection glow. For antiwar leaders like Chirac and Schroder, the successful ballot means they can now tell voters they're assisting a legitimate government rather than an occupation. Both countries were quick to squash any talk of sending troops. But German Interior Minister Otto Schily said last week that Berlin was ready to provide experts to help the Iraqis write a new constitution and establish a functioning legal system. Civilian reconstruction teams, who worked on things like water-purification projects until the security situation deteriorated, are also gearing up to go back. Outside Iraq, the German Army is training several hundred Iraqi police and Army officers.

Multilateral institutions, too, are lining up to help. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recently been making noises about the United Nations' playing a bigger role in Iraq, and is expected to say as much in a speech this week in London. NATO training of Iraqi forces looks set to accelerate. And the EU, which has faced American criticism that it hasn't done anything collectively in Iraq, is putting together a plan to train about 800 judges, police and prison guards. Proposing a new 200 million euro aid package for Iraq, the European Commission declared that it would be a "significant partner" for any new Iraqi administration.

Ironically, the erstwhile transatlantic partners are likely to view these developments quite differently. The Bush administration will see them as further evidence that events are finally going its way in Iraq, and that the Europeans are at long last falling into line. For the Europeans, it will be just the opposite. When it comes to their stand on the war, Schroder and Chirac feel every bit as vindicated as President Bush. They are drawing a line between past and future. The war was a mistake, as events have proved, their thinking goes. Yet Iraq is nonetheless making steps and deserves help. They will provide it. But as far as the Europeans are concerned, theirs is a parallel effort--not supporting the United States, but aiding Iraq, independently of America.

That, in a nutshell, is Iraq's legacy. And what an irony. To borrow Washington's own phraseology, this time it's Europe engaging in an alliance of convenience, a temporary coalition of the willing. Condoleezza Rice, like her boss, may talk of mending ties. But bridging the transatlantic gap will take a lot more than just that.

With Stryker McGuire and Carla Power in London, Richard Wolffe and Eve Conant in Washington, Stefan Theil in Berlin and Tracy McNicoll in Paris