Moving On

It sounded like they were an old married couple who had just undergone a successful counseling session. "Expressions such as mending fences and defusing tensions have been used in the run up to today's meeting," said Lord Robertson, the NATO secretary-general who met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Brussels today.

"'Continued' and 'cooperation' are much better words. There may have been strains, but there have never been any irreconcilable differences among us."

That may be a low bar in judging the current state of the transatlantic alliance after months of dispute between the United States and some of its major European allies. After all, France took NATO to the edge of an extraordinary rupture by refusing to plan for the defense of Turkey's border with Iraq ahead of the war. Perhaps that explained why Robertson seemed delighted to report that a meeting of the North Atlantic Council--the decision-making group of foreign ministers--had passed by with "a complete lack of acrimony."

The marriage counselor in this case was one of the partners who took them to the brink of divorce. Colin Powell ended a frenetic but almost entirely successful day at NATO headquarters during which he scheduled more than 20 meetings or interviews, with a giant Cheshire Cat smile on his face. His mere presence on European soil--and his calming tone--appeared to have blunted the most hostile criticism of U.S. policy, at least from his fellow foreign ministers.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer expressed his hope that the Iraqi regime would collapse--going one step further than French counterpart Dominique de Villepin, who declined last week to state an opinion on who should win the war. NATO officials spoke of "an emerging consensus" on the need for the United Nations to play a role in the reconstruction of Iraq. They even discussed a possible role for NATO in future peacekeeping operations in Iraq, although they made no commitment to do so.

On the way to Brussels, the Turks patched up their relationship with the United States, agreeing with Powell during his stop in Ankara that they would not invade northern Iraq just yet--and certainly not without telling Washington first. Moreover, they went a step further by agreeing to open supply lines to U.S. troops in the north, although they would only allow nonlethal supplies like fuel and food to flow across their border.

Powell even squeezed in time with Serbian leaders to bolster their efforts to rejoin the international community. That meeting in Belgrade took place 20 yards from the spot where Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindic was assassinated last month, and just across the road from the rubble of the former Yugoslav Army headquarters destroyed by U.S. bombs during the Kosovo crisis. Even in such an unlikely setting, Powell's aides described the session as "uplifting," as if the experience had restored their own hope in reconstructing rogue states.

Powell's brief European tour underscored just how much can be achieved through personal diplomacy. It's not that the Europeans have buried their opposition to the war or to the sight of American power being exercised without U.N. approval. Far from it, in fact. "I don't think anybody has given up their opinions of what happened in the past," says Chris Patten, the European Union's commissioner for external relations. "But I don't think anybody wants to focus or concentrate on the past."

The sheer physical presence of the U.S. secretary of State seemed to mark a line in the sand to separate the bitterness of the last U.N. debate over Iraq from the next debate in the Security Council. Of course, the treacherous discussions over the details remain ahead. And there is plenty of room for dispute over the precise wording of the U.N.'s role in Iraq and the exact shape of a new government in Baghdad. That remains particularly true while the administration has yet to decide on its own position on the precise terms of the U.N.'s role and the shape of the new Iraqi government.

Still, Powell was hopeful for a better outcome next time around. "Notwithstanding the disagreements we had within the transatlantic community--serious disagreement, heated disagreement, where we came to opposite conclusions on a very important issue of the day--we now must move forward and align ourselves again with the need to serve the Iraqi people," he said.

For the moment at least, Powell's commitment to listen to Europe's ideas--and take them back to Washington--was accepted whole-heartedly. "I don't think anybody meets General Powell without being reassured," says Patten. Europeans may be angry with Washington, but the secretary of State still commands the respect of his colleagues abroad.

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