U.S. envoys in France seek delicate balance

Diplomats juggle desires of administration, ally

February 26, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - For the U.S. diplomatic corps around the world - and especially here in the French capital, the epicenter of rumbling about President Bush's policy on Iraq - successes are measured these days at least as much by what does not happen as by what does.

Yesterday, in the latest round of public-relations efforts to sway world opinion in favor of passing a United Nations resolution authorizing war against Iraq, there was reason to feel satisfied, not that diplomats would talk in those terms: The president had said nothing critical of France or the rest of Europe, nor had Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Which meant that rather than working in damage-control mode, the diplomats could concentrate on spinning the news forward in hopes of winning greater public support.

"Let's put it this way," said Richard Lankford, chief of the press and information section of the U.S. Embassy here, "when the president or a senior official speaks, their words are their words, and I can't change them or interpret them. Their words are what they are. But what I can do, and what I spend a lot of time doing, is add my own experience to what is being said, to explain, `Here's what you need to know about the United States and U.S. policy if you're to understand what's going on.'"

A career diplomat, Lankford is not critical of Bush or Rumsfeld but said that their rhetoric is heard in France much the same way it is taken in the United States: Some people hear it as refreshingly blunt; it makes others recoil.

Far from merely serving as the overseas eyes and ears of the State Department, embassy diplomatic officers around the globe are also mouthpieces for government policy. The State Department operates 250 embassies and consulates in 180 countries, employing 27,400 people at a cost of $25 billion a year. Within that group, about 200 public affairs offices, ranging in size from one person to about 30, work to shape public opinion, with a budget of about $550 million.

In addition to their normal duties, theirs is the task of helping to move public opinion abroad to support Bush's stance on Iraq and, it is hoped, make it politically feasible for foreign leaders to back the president.

The public affairs office at the embassy here, like those around the world, is divided into two sections. An outreach and exchange office focuses on swapping professionals between the United States and other countries and lining up pro-U.S. speakers to make their pitch to think tanks and other opinion-shapers in France.

Also, a press and information section has responsibility for providing information to Washington about news and public opinion in France and gaining support here for U.S. policy.

Yesterday, Lankford's 15-person office was at full throttle, working to shape speeches and create news to move public opinion in favor of passing the U.N. resolution proposed Monday by the United States, Great Britain and Spain.

At 7 a.m., Howard Leach, the U.S. ambassador to France, was in the television studios of LCI, a French 24-hour news station, to tape an interview on the resolution.

The interviewer wanted to know what it would mean to France if President Jacques Chirac followed through with hints that he would veto the resolution.

"I hope that we will continue to work together," said Leach, in the bland language practiced by diplomats. But then he pointedly added: "I hope, in any case, there won't be a veto because a veto, to my mind, would be very unfriendly, and we wouldn't look very kindly upon it."

"He didn't duck the question, say something like, `I'm not going to answer a hypothetical,'" said Lankford. "The strategy, as it were, is that here's a friend to France saying, as a friend, `You really ought to think about what a veto would mean.'"

There is evidence of a shift in the debate about Iraq within France.

Each morning in the press information offices, a team compiles a report of news stories in French media and sends it to the State Department. Yesterday's news included an article in the influential newspaper Liberation quoting the chairman of the French National Assembly, Axel Poniatowski, saying, "A French veto would be particularly inappropriate and unfortunate."

In the newspaper Le Figaro, an opinion piece told readers that the "game being played at the U.N. and the negotiations undertaken by the U.S. should not offend us. Tradeoffs have always been part of diplomacy."

Subtle shift

The shift, during the past two weeks or so, has been subtle, Lankford said, but rarely is public opinion moved quickly, particularly in a dispute that has grown so contentious.

Perhaps reflecting confidence that such a shift is a precursor to a change in the French position, Alex Wolff, the deputy chief of mission in the Paris embassy, altered a speech prepared for him to deliver to French businessmen, in which he would give his views about the odds of the new resolution passing.

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