Richard Perle is not a Bush administration official. Most Americans don't even know his name. But when President Reagan's former assistant secretary of defense speaks, Washington listens. And what Washington heard last week was this: "France is no longer the ally it once was."
Mr. Perle is a close friend of Vice President Cheney. He's chairman of the Defense Policy Review Board, a group of influential civilians who advise Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And he's one of the architects of the administration's policy of "regime change" to oust Saddam Hussein.
Now Mr. Perle is making big waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Perle warned a group of Middle East experts in Washington that French President Jacques Chirac believes "deep in his soul that Saddam Hussein is preferable to any likely successor."
Publicly, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was careful to reaffirm the president's view that France remains an ally. But Mr. Perle's comments came shortly after Secretary Rumsfeld sparked heated controversy among politicians and editorial writers in Europe by calling France and Germany part of "Old Europe" while those countries willing to confront the Iraqi threat were part of a "New Europe" of dynamic, forward-thinking leaders.
The Rumsfeld and Perle remarks appear to be a carefully orchestrated shot across the bow of the Chirac government. The White House doesn't take kindly to France reneging on its NATO security obligations. Even Mr. Fleischer's carefully worded remarks appeared to be designed to isolate the French: "The position France takes is a ... minority position in Europe."
The message may be getting through. Paris has just dispatched its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the eastern Mediterranean for a series of "military exercises." The joke here in Brussels is that Mr. Chirac is simply sending the French navy to protect France's Club Med resorts. But the move does suggest that under American pressure, the French president may change his mind and back the United States, or face unpleasant diplomatic and economic consequences.