PARIS, May 22: The United States is curtailing military ties with France despite some improvement in relations badly damaged by the rift over the Iraq invasion, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Thursday.
At the same time, Mr Powell, the highest-ranking US official to visit France since the invasion, maintained that the current difficulties would be overcome and noted French support for a UN resolution that lifted sanctions on Iraq.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction of moving forward together,” Mr Powell told reporters at a news conference organized by the French-American Press Club.
Although Mr Powell lauded France’s vote in favour of the resolution, he said the past could not be forgotten and said the US military was taking steps against Paris in light of “the current environment”.
Among those measures are leaving France out of an annual military exercise in Nevada, known as “Red Flag”, scaling down the US presence at next month’s Paris air show and cutting back on military-to-military exchange programs, he said.
“The Pentagon is taking some other steps as well that change the nature of their relationship with the French military,” Mr Powell said.
“It doesn’t reflect an overall administration policy,” he said, stressing that the United States would like to work with France where it could, like on the new UN resolution.
“It reflects the fact that the Pentagon wants to review their various kinds and levels of activities with France and other nations in this current environment.”
“They have decided they have to review all of these efforts,” Mr Powell said.
“Some of them have been reviewed to the point where the Pentagon feels that they have to cut back on some of the exchanges they have been having with France.”
He declined to specify which programs were affected and referring questions about details to US and French defense officials.
The Washington Post reported earlier on Thursday that the Pentagon had disinvited France from “Red Flag” because of the Iraq rift in a sign that Washington’s anger over the refusal of Paris to back the invasion and its decision to lobby others to oppose it had not been assuaged.
Mr Powell, who said last month that France would face “consequences” for its anti-US stance, made clear he thought the relationship would survive in the long-run, but painted a suprisingly gloomy picture for the short- and medium-term.
“I wouldn’t say we’d punish France,” he said.
But, he admitted: “You take note of those who disagree with you and you try to find out why and, if it is appropriate, to draw some conclusions, and consequences follow those conclusions. That’s the way it is.”
He made pointed reference to the fact that France had first warned of Iraq-related “consequences” when a number of European countries voiced support for the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq.
“I just have to point out that ... the French government took them to task for daring to speak their own minds and not simply support the position that had been taken by the French government,” he said.
Paris, the secretary of state said, “implied that there might be consequences to such a decision with respect to EU accession and other such mattters”.
Mr Powell, who will meet privately French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Friday, is in Paris for a meeting of Group of Eight (G8) foreign ministers, in preparation for the G8 summit in the French Alpine resort of Evian on June 1-3.—AFP