In Berlin this week, Barack Obama capped his European tour with an address to an audience whose numbers reached tens of thousands. But while the media will focus on Obama's call to strengthen America's trans-Atlantic alliance with France and Germany, no doubt lost in the coverage will be John McCain's essential role in undermining it. As it turns out, back in 2003 John McCain stood shoulder to shoulder with the Berlin-bashers and Paris-hating purveyors of "freedom fries" and "old Europe."
As President Bush prepared to pull the trigger on the Iraq war in February 2003, John McCain was at the forefront of those browbeating the Chirac government for France's refusal to back the U.S. at the United Nations. On February 10, 2003, McCain declared on MSNBC's Hardball:
"Look, I don't mean to try to be snide, but the Lord said the poor will always be with us. The French will always be with us, too."
The next day on February 11, 2003, McCain co-sponsored a Senate resolution praising 18 European nations backing U.S. enforcement of UN demands for Saddam's disarmament. In his press release, McCain echoed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in thundering at the France and Germany of "old Europe:"
"The majority of Europe's democracies have spoken, and their message could not be clearer: France and Germany do not speak for Europe...most European governments behave like allies that are willing to meet their responsibilities to uphold international peace and security in defense of our common values. We thank this European majority for standing with us."
McCain's venom towards the French and Germans was on full display two days later during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On February 13, 2003, McCain warned of "new threats to civilization [which] again defy our imagination in scale and potency" portrayed Iraq as "threat of the first order." He proclaimed that "the United States does not have reliable allies to implement a policy to contain Iraq" and pointed the finger squarely at France:
"Compare our great power allies in the Cold War with those with whom we act today in dealing with Iraq.↓ Story continues below ↓
France has unashamedly pursued a concerted policy to dismantle the UN sanctions regime, placing its commercial interests above international law, world peace and the political ideals of Western civilization. Remember them? Liberte, egalite, fraternite...
...Gerhard Schroeder's Germany looks little like the ally that anchored our presence in Europe throughout the Cold War. A German Rip Van Winkle from the 1960s would not understand the lack of political courage and cooperation with its allies on the question of Iraq exhibited in Berlin today."
Here's how influential Senator John McCain sees the French.
JOHN MCCAIN, REPUBLICAN SENATOR: They remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who is still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it.
NORMAN HERMANT: Many in Washington are now saying relations with France have been a problem going all the way back to the end of World War II.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Perhaps Churchill and Roosevelt made a very serious mistake when they decided to give France a veto in the Security Council when the United Nations was organized.
McCain's feud with the French continued even after the start of hostilities and President Bush's May 1 declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq. But in a cynical July 2003 keynote address to the Atlantic Partnership (which promotes "the benefits of a strong and stable Atlantic community of nations"), Senator McCain acted as if he had never uttered his seething words of condemnation. Even in papering over the schism he helped foster, McCain couldn't resist taking a potshot at France:
"France and Germany shared the goals of our campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime. We obviously disagreed over the means. Now that we have achieved our common objective of ending the threat posed by Saddam's Iraq, it's time to stop quarreling over the way we did so and move on. European nations that opposed the war must resist the tendency to say "I told you so," sit on the sidelines as the United States and our partners attempt to transform Iraq, and hope we find ourselves in a sandy quagmire that, in the eyes of some war opponents, would give us our just due...
...The United States must resist the tendency to punish our friends who did not support how we went to war, because things could have turned out differently. By the admission of Germany's leading opposition figures, who lost a close election to the current chancellor's coalition, a government in Berlin led by them would have stood with the United States in the diplomatic campaign preceding the war. France would have been isolated in its opposition, unable to claim to speak for Europe."
But that was five years ago. The United States, humbled by its humiliating fiasco in Iraq, is in no position to say "I told you so" to anyone. French President Chirac and German Chancellor Shroeder, persistent thorns in the side of the Bush administration, are gone, replaced by the more complaint conservative cheerleaders in Paris and Berlin, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, respectively. And most importantly, John McCain is now running for the White House and needing to project a presidential image during his European tour. So it's no surprise why John McCain reversed course and discovered his "friendship" with France during a March visit to Paris.
In the New York Times Monday, Republican water carrier Bill Kristol mocked Barack Obama's looming address in Berlin and its "anodyne message his campaign advertised Sunday - a discussion of the 'historic U.S.-German partnership' and strengthening trans-Atlantic relations."
Given the frayed state of the U.S. relationship with Europe, that is a vitally important message for the next American president - whoever it may be - to deliver. As Barack Obama clearly understands, it's not too soon to begin to repairing the Atlantic partnership that was so weakened by George W. Bush and John McCain.