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Cablegate: Former Foreign Minister Vedrine On "Decisive Year"

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 PARIS 001667


E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/11/2015

Classified By: Ambassador Howard H. Leach for reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Former Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told
Ambassador Leach March 11 that Europe was beginning to ask
itself whether the Bush Administration's pursuit of democracy
and reform in the Arab world and elsewhere might be bearing
fruit. Elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories,
the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the pro-democracy
opposition movement in Lebanon had even the most skeptical
European governments adjusting their policy towards the U.S.,
with France under Jacques Chirac at the top of the list.
Nevertheless, Vedrine said that the jury was still out and
that the last half of 2005 would show conclusively whether
U.S. policy in Iraq, in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace,
and for the restoration of Lebanese democracy would be
successful. He also cautioned that "brutal" U.S. tactics in
the Arab world could as easily lead to confrontation and
chaotic change. He foresaw potential "serious conflict" with
Iran, unpredictable consequences if the Basher al Assad
government were to fall in Syria, and a degradation in
U.S.-European relations if Israeli Prime Minister Sharon
tries to make Gaza first Gaza only. Vedrine described
Russian President Putin as a partner for the West, albeit
imperfect. He was sympathetic to U.S. strategic concerns in
East Asia related to EU plans to lift the China arms embargo.
Finally, Vedrine offered some thoughts on France's 2007
presidential race. End summary.

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2. (C) Former Foreign Minister Vedrine, who served in
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's 1997-2002
"co-habitation" government under President Chirac, told
Ambassador Leach over lunch March 11 that the European visits
of President Bush and Secretary Rice had done much to improve
the tone of U.S.-European relations. Even more important
than the atmospheric changes we're now seeing is the growing
discussion in Europe whether Bush Administration policy in
support of democracy and reform in the Arab world and
elsewhere is beginning to bear fruit. Successsful elections
in Iraq and the Palestinian territories and the Lebanese
opposition's push for Syrian withdrawal stand as significant
accomplishments. In none of these cases, however, is success
assured, Vedrine cautioned. The last half of 2005 would be
decisive for U.S. policy in Iraq, it would see whether PM
Sharon was prepared to implement his Gaza withdrawal plan and
begin to pull back from the West Bank, and it would reveal
whether Lebanon would be able to free itself of Syrian

3. (C) Of these challenges, Vedrine identified the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process as central. Progress here
could dramatically improve U.S. relations with the Arab
world. But continued U.S. pressure on Israel will be
critical to success. The U.S. must insist that Israel give
the Palestinians a real prospect of forming a viable state.
If Sharon stops all movement once the Gaza withdrawal is
complete, the situation will rapidly degrade and
U.S.-European relations will suffer, Vedrine said. Vedrine
agreed with the Ambassador's suggestion that both Israelis
and Palestinians should be encouraged to take steps towards
peace. But he said that their capacities to respond were
different. Israel was a strong democratic state and its
elected government would be able to implement any commitment
it made. The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, lacks most
of the attributes of a state and is little able to impose its
authority on rejectionist groups in the territories.
Palestinian President Abbas "needs more than just pressure,"
Vedrine said, he needs to be able to show results. Peace is
in Israel's interest, so it must be prepared to continue its
negotiation with the PA, even if it is attacked. Israel
"cannot allow terrorists to dictate the agenda."
Undoubtedly, Sharon has a political problem, but so did
Itzhak Rabin, who did not allow inevitable isolated terrorist
attacks to deter him. Vedrine said he personally liked
Sharon, found him truthful, and believed therefore that one
could work with him. But encouraging him to move beyond the
Gaza withdrawal would fall to the U.S.; Europe could be
helpful in assisting the Palestinians to manage affairs in
Gaza once the Israelis left.

4. (C) Iraq, said Vedrine, presented a different set of
challenges. The legislative elections had been a success.
If the U.S. could also make a success of the efforts to
reconcile Sunnis and Shiites over a constitution -- the more
important issue for Iraq's future -- most Europeans would be
prepared to acknowledge that U.S. policy had been right all
along in Iraq. Asked whether he perceived any concrete,
supportive steps in Iraq from Chirac, Vedrine said he thought
the French president would be prepared to offer any form of
assistance short of military. But, Vedrine cautioned, the
U.S. "has not won yet." There is still a danger that Iraq
will descend into civil war or that a fundamentalist Islamist
government will take power. The jury is still out. Just as
in Iraq, America's "brutal policy" in Syria and Lebanon could
lead to positive change -- "or to disaster."

5. (C) The Bashr al-Assad regime in Syria was "incapable of
reform," Vedrine said. Bashar, himself, was a prisoner of
the system and not in complete control. His survival, like
Syria's, was dependent on maintaining Damascus' hold on
Lebanon. Economically and politically, this was essential.
The U.S. and France had to understand that getting Syrian
forces out of Lebanon would be just the first step.
Moreover, it is not clear that the Lebanese will be able to
bring sufficient pressure to bear to do this themselves.
They are also fearful that should they try, Syria will exact
a heavy price. Therefore, Vedrine said, the U.S. and France
have to understand that if we start down the path of pushing
the Syrians, "we will have to go all the way." Reaching a
good solution for Lebanon "will require regime change in
Syria," Vedrine said, but pursuit of that policy in Syria
would be just as complex and uncertain as it has proved in
Iraq. If the current regime stays in power, however, "we
won't change a thing" in Lebanon.

6. (C) The U.S. and France should be honest with each other
about what we seek in Lebanon and we should carefully think
through consequences. France, for example, does not agree
with the U.S. policy of bringing about democratic change in
the Arab world. Chirac's policy towards Lebanon is not
determined by any commitment to ideology -- democratic or
otherwise. When former Prime Minister Hariri argued the
necessity of placating Syria, Chirac followed him. When
Hariri decided shortly before his assassination to oppose
Syria, Chirac moved to opposition with him. Vedrine said he
personally was attracted to the democracy doctrine. There
have been lots of examples of attempts to transform the Arab
world, Vedrine said, and none of them has been successful.
Nevertheless, the idea of promoting freedom and building
democracy was "seductive" and "tempting," Vedrine said, while
adding that his attitude was not typical of that of the
French political class, which tended to be much more
skeptical. Vedrine said he has argued in speeches that the
U.S. fails to understand the complexities of the world,
whereas Europe fails to understand the world's toughness. On
balance, the advantage probably goes to the U.S., because
Europe's need to delve into the complexities of issues acts
as a brake on its will to act.

7. (C) Asked for his thoughts on Russian President Putin's
turn towards authoritarian rule, Vedrine argued for
pragmatism. Putin remains an important partner for the West,
albeit an imperfect one. He is rational, even "cold" in his
analysis of events, "and this can be useful," Vedrine said.
The subject, he added, is one that divides Europeans, along
classic old Europe/new Europe lines. France, Germany, Italy,
the UK and other older EU members generally see Putin's
Russia as a partner and a source of energy products. Former
Warsaw Pact EU members neighboring Russia, with their direct
experience of Soviet rule, are much more wary.

8. (C) After asking whether U.S. political differences with
China would lead us to impose trade sanctions on Beijing,
Vedrine deployed some fairly standard French talking points
in defense of EU plans to lift its arms embargo on China.
Vedrine argued that there would be no rush to sell lethal
weaponry to China if the embargo were lifted, asserting that
the EU's Code of Conduct, which has been strengthened, would
provide sufficient checks on European sellers. Vedrine
seemed to shift, however, when the Ambassador noted Beijings
big increase in weapons acquisitions in recent years, and its
ratcheting up of tensions over Taiwan. Vedrine acknowledged
that, unlike Europe, the U.S. had strategic interests and
commitments in East Asia, and recognized the consequences for
the U.S. if the Asian military balance was disturbed. He
suggested that the U.S. and Europe talk with each other
seriously about a long-term joint strategy for dealing with
China. He also suggested that Japan might well decide to
consider whether it needed a nuclear deterrent as China
expanded its ambitions and capabilities in the region.

9. (C) Finally, Vedrine addressed European and domestic
political issues. He said that he believed French voters
would back the EU constitution in the May 29 referendum. He
said he expected a high rate of abstention, and a small but
clear win for the yes. A "no" vote would send France into a
"psychological crisis" because the country heretofore
regarded as a central driving force of European integration
would be seen by fellow Europeans as a "traitor" to the
cause. In reality, however, the constitution draft offers
only marginal improvements over the current Nice Treaty
arrangements, and thus a no vote "would not be the end of the
world." Turning to France's 2007 presidential elections,
Vedrine said he expected the Socialist Party candidate to be
either party First Secretary Francois Hollande or Former PM
Jospin. Hollande, despite having been at the helm of the
Socialist Party through two electoral victories this year
(regional and European elections) and an internal party vote
in favor of supporting the EU constitution, is still not the
unchallenged leader of the party. If, as the election
approaches, Socialists perceive that they will not be able to
defeat the center-right candidate, there could well be a move
to draft Jospin, which Hollande himself could support. On
the center-right UMP side, Vedrine said it could well be that
Chirac and UMP party president Nicolas Sarkozy both run, thus
splitting the center-right vote. Such an outcome,
hypothetically, could produce a second round contest between
Jospin and the candidate who knocked him out of the second
round voting in 2002, far right National Front leader
Jean-Marie Le Pen. In order to avoid such an outcome,
Vedrine said he thought Chirac could ultimately withdraw and
allow Sarkozy, France's most popular politician, to be the
center-right standard-bearer.

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