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Sarkozy Outshines Biden

MUNICH-Nicolas Sarkozy’s star has fallen a bit since his election, what with his divorce and remarriage, his country’s economic woes, and various other problems. But Sarko was definitely the star of the Munich Security Conference. Amid the usual drone of cautious, boring, and often inane rhetoric, he delivered a humdinger of an address. For instance, while many of the speakers (including, sadly, Henry Kissinger, who should know better) were genuflecting before the starry-eyed notion of abolishing nuclear weapons, Sarko said forthrightly, “We will maintain our nuclear deterrent along with the British,” and told the delegates that France was less dependant than they were on Russian natural gas because of its nuclear energy program.

He also challenged the growing pacifism of the continent, saying: “Does Europe want peace or do we want to be left in peace?” If the former, he went on to argue, Europe will have to provide for its defense. If the latter, it can “blindfold” itself to the world’s dangers but will likely pay a high price for such foolish behavior. “Europe isn’t simply a market or an economy,” he argued, but also a set of values that need to be defended. “Do you know anyone who can be rich without an assured defense?” he demanded.

It wasn’t just what he said but the way he said it. Sarkozy was a bundle of energy, gesticulating with his hands, raising and dropping his voice for emphasis, and frequently turning to address “Angela,” the German chancellor who was sitting on the stage behind him (and whose own speech was a study in boredom).

By contrast Joe Biden, the conference’s most highly touted speaker, wasn’t nearly as impressive. In a gesture sure to strike his European audience as a bit high-handed, his handlers put a special podium on the stage for him complete with a vice presidential seal and he walked off after his prepared remarks without taking any questions. His speech itself broke no new ground. (The New York Times headline claims, “Biden Says U.S. Will Pursue Missile Plan Russia Opposes,” even though he said nothing about whether the U.S. will base interceptors in Eastern Europe.)

His primary message was pretty much what you’d expect. He promised Europeans: “we’ll engage, we’ll listen, we’ll consult.” But at the same time, “we say to our friends that the alliances, treaties and international organizations we build must be credible and they must be effective. That requires a common commitment not only to listen and live by the rules, but to enforce the rules when they are, in fact, clearly violated. ”

But he didn’t ask anything specific of the Europeans-no troops for Afghanistan, for instance, presumably because the administration is still trying to figure out what will be needed. In fact Afghanistan and Iraq were barely mentioned, without a word about the importance of the recent Iraqi elections or the need for building democracy in Afghanistan.

Biden once again parroted Obama’s promise to negotiate with Iran but gave no real reason to think that such negotiations should succeed. In fact he offered pretty much the same “bargain” that the Bush administration was offering: “Continue down the current course and there will be continued pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism, and there will be meaningful incentives.” Those “meaningful incentives” presumably boil down to normalization of relations with the U.S., a goal that the Iranian leadership has shown no interest in pursuing. Nor has Iran shown much concern about the “continued pressure and isolation,” perhaps because it’s not feeling that pressured or that isolated.

If I were in the Iranians’ camp, I would actually take the Obama-ites at their word and offer to negotiate endlessly even while the Iranian nuclear program draws closer to completion. Instead, as I reported yesterday, the Iranian representative here, Ali Larijani, gave a giant up-yours to the Obama administration. You might think that would nix the prospects for U.S.-Iran talks, but if so you would be cruelly deceived. The Democratic delegates I talked to dismissed Larijani’s remarks on the grounds that they were just for “domestic consumption” and if you listen to his words carefully enough (perhaps by playing them backwards at half speed?) you will hear a coded willingness to enter into fruitful dialogue with the United States. So despite their counterproductive rhetoric, the Iranians may well get the kind of negotiations that will serve their interests — if not the rest of the world’s.


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