PARIS — Let's assume that John McCain is not crazy, and that he wants to show America he will steer a different course in foreign policy than George Bush's, while remaining faithful to his party's values and traditions. How does he do that? How can he present himself as both a change agent and a force of continuity?
There's an interesting model for McCain here in France, in the remarkable realignment that President Nicolas Sarkozy has accomplished in foreign policy over the past year. Youthful and energetic, and accompanied by his celebrity wife, Sarkozy might seem closer in style to Barack Obama. But he's a conservative, a maverick and a man with a famously volatile temper.
And this is McCain's week — so let's imagine what the GOP candidate would look like with a Sarkozy makeover.
Sarkozy succeeded a deeply unpopular Jacques Chirac, whose conservative government was dead in the water — alienated from many of its allies and attached to ideas that had long outlived their usefulness. Sarkozy had infuriated Chirac and many other conservatives over the years with his renegade style and his refusal to accept party discipline — in much the same way McCain has done in the Senate.
The French public knew that in voting for Sarkozy in 2007, it was opting for change — he spoke of the need for "rupture" in French economic and political life — but also for continuation of conservative government. He was able to paint his rival, the glamorous Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, as inexperienced, aloof and a risky choice, without offending those who were proud that she was France's first viable woman candidate for president. Obviously, that's not unlike McCain's challenge.
Sarkozy's advantage as a change agent was that everyone in France knew he loathed his predecessor, who had tried and failed to destroy him. One suspects that McCain, if given truth serum, would say some pretty harsh things about George Bush and the other Republican operatives he's now trying to pretend are his old pals. That isn't working very well; it makes McCain look phony.
The real model for McCain is what Sarkozy did after he took office in May 2007. While asserting that he was maintaining the fundamentals of French policy, he changed many of the visible signs. Sarkozy stopped feuding with the United States, he moved to bring France back fully into the NATO alliance, and he altered the pro-Arab tilt of French policy in the Middle East.
In making these changes, Sarkozy assaulted (ever so stealthily) the legacy of received wisdom about foreign policy known as "Gaullism." That approach tended to define French interests in reaction (and often, in opposition) to those of the United States. This arrogant style was costly and Sarkozy decided to get rid of it. His France was going to be a team player again.
By changing the software, Sarkozy was able to mobilize French diplomacy for what has proved to be a remarkable turnaround over the past year.
Suddenly French emissaries are everywhere: in Tripoli, organizing the release of prisoners and a breakthrough in relations with Libya; in Doha, helping Qatar negotiate a new power-sharing relationship for Lebanon that ends a deadly impasse; in Damascus, exploring a deal to open direct peace talks in Paris between Israel and Syria; in Moscow and Tbilisi, negotiating the six-point agreement for withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.
And through all these machinations, the French are in daily contact with Washington to coordinate strategy. They maintain a Kissingerian network of back-channel contacts, through Sarkozy's chief of staff, Claude Gueant, and his diplomatic adviser, Jean-David Levitte. This inner team embodies something McCain badly needs — trusted, discreet aides who can convey clear messages for a man whose range of advisers sometimes leaves you wondering what, precisely, his own views are.
Okay, so granted, McCain is not going to win any points this week in St. Paul arguing that he can be an American Sarkozy. But his challenge is very similar to what the new French president faced — and the success of Sarko's formula is hard to contest.
McCain needs to show that he is the man who can shake things up — while also keeping them under control. Otherwise, the tag that he's running for a third Bush term is going to stick — and it's a killer.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is [email protected]
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