American anger at France over its refusal to support war in Iraq reached new heights yesterday when President George Bush took a direct swipe at President Chirac.
"I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon," was Mr Bush's tart comment in an interview with NBC News, when asked about Jacques Chirac – a reference to the informal summits Mr Bush likes to hold with favored foreign leaders at his cherished retreat in Crawford, Texas. Many in his administration – by implication, himself among them – had the impression "that the French position was anti-American", the President said.
The latest warnings of retaliation against Paris only underscore that acute strains in the Western alliance have not ended with victory in Iraq. Although Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, made moves last night to repair relationships with countries in North and South America and in the Middle East, in the case of France, they may be about to worsen.
In Paris, one French official was told by a White House official that "I have instructions to tell you our relations have been degraded", while senior Bush aides met on Monday to decide on the nature of the punishment.
The likely sanctions will include steps to marginalize France within Nato, and efforts to downgrade or even bar French participation in US- sponsored international meetings. Mr Bush is still planning to attend this June's G8 summit in Evian, France, though, and – despite earlier reports to the contrary – will be staying in France rather than Switzerland.
But if hardliners in the administration have their way, Washington will try to obstruct French initiatives. On the economic front, French exporters and contractors are already suffering in American markets, even without official retaliatory measures.
In the television interview, Mr Bush professed hope that the crisis would subside and that "the French won't be using their position within Europe to create alliances against the United States, or Britain, or Spain or any of the new countries that are the new democracies in Europe". But several French moves will be interpreted in Washington as precisely that.
At the United Nations, French opposition to the outright lifting of sanctions on Iraq sought by the US is already threatening to reopen the pre-war split on the Security Council. France also wants UN inspectors to return, which Washington has ruled out.
Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, pointedly visited Iran this week, and next month plans a five-day visit to Israel and the occupied territories, in what the White House will regard as meddling in its efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Most serious in Washington's eyes is the planned Franco- German-Belgian summit in Brussels next week. The aim of the meeting – held on the day that Nato discusses the dispatch of peace-keeping forces to Iraq – is to strengthen European defense ties. Robert Bradtke, a deputy assistant secretary of state, has publicly criticized the summit as "a diversion" and "not helpful".
M. Chirac's initiative rekindles the basic US suspicion against France, that it is trying to build Europe into a power to match America. Not only would this contradict the administration's official national security doctrine, explicitly aimed at preventing the emergence of any rival to US military pre-eminence, it goes to the heart of American ambiguity towards Europe itself.
M. Chirac was not alone in the American doghouse. Mr Bush has put off a visit to Canada to signal his displeasure at Ottawa's refusal to provide troops for the invasion, while Mexico and Chile have been scolded for their failure, as members of the Security Council, to back a second UN resolution authorizing force to topple Saddam Hussein.
However, General Powell made conciliatory moves toward the other countries last night by insisting: "We are not plotting ... how to get even with these three friends."
It also emerged that he is preparing to visit the Middle East, possibly as early as next week, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He may also meet the Israelis and Palestinians if the US has presented a Middle East peace plan known as the road-map, said diplomats.
But the US administration's anger at France is real, pervasive and probably long-lasting. Damage to American relations with Germany and Russia will probably be small, despite their almost equally trenchant opposition to the war. Not so, however, for France.
Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, says the strategy for dealing with what she calls "non-nein-nyet" – the alliance against America over Iraq – should be to punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.
The fury is evident everywhere – from Mr Bush's jibe at M. Chirac and the tightlipped "yes" from General Powell when asked if France would be punished, to icy diplomatic exchanges, and using "France" and "French" as omni-purpose insults in Washington's corridors of power.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd