Berlin Initial steps by the Bush administration to make the Middle East the new strategic center of U.S.-European relations are encountering muted questioning and moderate skepticism from alliance partners. Count this reaction as progress, of a sort.
Count it, that is, as someone not hitting you in the face with a wet fish.
Countries that angrily opposed the invasion of Iraq want to avoid a repeat of the open bitterness and division of 2003. France and Germany have joined other NATO nations in welcoming alliance consultations recently launched by Washington, which has its own reasons to reach out internationally.
Berlin, the city that was the cockpit of the Cold War, now hosts foreign-policy conferences in which Moscow is rarely mentioned. Instead, events in Ankara, Tehran, Jerusalem or Baghdad are analyzed, celebrated or deplored in terms of their impact on global stability. Conceptually the Middle East today drives U.S.-European relations as directly as the Soviet threat once did.
But a trans-Atlantic strategic consensus on combating terrorism and other threats arising from the Middle East is yet to be reached. Disagreement on Iraq is only the most urgent and salient point of dispute when it comes to a region that many European governments fear can only get worse and the Bush administration feels must be made better.
This psychological gap is important: Europeans decades ago charged into the developing world with a mixture of bold determination and romanticism that presaged the Bush administration's current effort to remake the Middle East. But they bogged down in colonial wars and economic quagmires and can expound at length now on why the "utopian" U.S. effort to implant democracy in Iraq and beyond will meet the same fate.
President Bush and his aides hope to counter both complacency and cynicism with their "Greater Middle East Initiative," a package of political, military and economic programs that the White House will assemble and display at high-level international gatherings. If the initiative fares well, they'll also use it on the campaign trail this election year.
The White House hopes NATO at its June summit in Istanbul will offer to extend military training and other cooperation to Israel and the Islamic countries in the arc from Morocco to Afghanistan. As U.S. diplomats have outlined it to European colleagues, this effort would be modeled on the Partnership for Peace plan that NATO extended to the Eastern European and Central Asian countries that emerged from the Soviet empire at the end of the Cold War.
The discussion would then move to the Sea Island, Ga., summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers, where the administration will seek coordinated economic help for the region to underpin a political transformation akin to the 1975 "Helsinki process" on human and economic rights that helped end the Cold War.
The Europeans are not going to rush to agreement on Bush's still-evolving, vastly ambitious plan. For one thing, they will want to make sure he is going to be re-elected before they commit resources and prestige to the effort. Bush's puzzling delay in formally accepting an invitation to the 60th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in France also slows planning for the summer.
But there are deeper doubts. France is concerned about losing influence in North Africa, and is joined by Germany and others in worrying that the European Union's Mediterranean policy (and funds) will be displaced or absorbed by a bigger U.S. effort. There is also a suspicion that Washington will use its big initiative to deflect urgent action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is not clear whether major European countries will wind up opposing the initiative, ignoring it or, as I suspect, putting forward their own alternative, which will center on diplomatic and economic help for Turkey and Iran as vital to modernizing the Middle East.
A hint of this came at the annual Bertelsmann Forum here last week, where Turkey's future relations with Europe dominated the seminar's opening session. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that Turkish membership in the European Union would entrench democracy in his country and establish conclusively that democracy and Islam can coexist. He made no mention of Turkey's once strong relations with the United States.
Disillusioned Europeans are betting the sure thing. They see failure as the default position for the Arab world: Democratization efforts will bring chaos. Give Bush credit for being much bolder and more imaginative. And hope that he can shape a strategy that gets him to his worthy goals in the Middle East.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.