As President Bush embarks upon his mutual “good riddance” tour around Europe this week, here’s an underreported tidbit from France that has real implications for America’s military future:

Five years after France became one of Washington's most vociferous opponents of the war in Iraq, [president Nicolas] Sarkozy is the only European leader who answered recent pleas from the United States and NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan.

In July, France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union, giving Sarkozy a powerful platform from which to promote his military plans Europe-wide at a time when the United States is eager for Europe to exert more military muscle.

"He wants to reduce the number of military bases in Africa, he wants to send fewer troops abroad, and his goal is to integrate French troops more efficiently to the European forces," said Fabio Liberti, a European Union specialist at the Paris Institute of International Research and Strategies. "This attitude of acknowledging that we need our European partners and that France is deciding to stop acting on its own is seen positively by Washington."

While this move may be an attempt at misdirection from the unloved "Sarko l'Americain”—and no one's crazy aboout NATO—it is firm and legitimate good news for America. For years now, US blundering into and in Iraq had been an excuse for European inaction in Afghanistan or even Darfur. (Contrast this announcement with France’s spiteful, systematic weakening of NATO as recently as 2006.) Now, as promised in Sarkozy’s 2007 run, France will attempt to engage—as Tony Blair did during his run at the head of the EU in 2005—more widely (albeit with streamlined, integrated teams), and with a credible threat of force. It helps that millions of regular Europeans are showing an outpouring of interest in American politics—right up to the highest levels of government. (Sarkozy’s prime minister is rumored to favor McCain, while Germany’s SPD party leader Kurt Beck has unambiguously backed Obama.)

This is all rendered more interesting given Bush’s confessional interview in Slovenia (coalition alert!) yesterday, wherein he basically, and for the first time I can recall, expressed contrition about his clumsy tenure as commander in chief:

In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. “I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric.”

Phrases such as “bring them on” or “dead or alive”, he said, “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace”. He said that he found it very painful “to put youngsters in harm’s way”. He added: “I try to meet with as many of the families as I can. And I have an obligation to comfort and console as best as I possibly can. I also have an obligation to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain.”

Heavens--that’s change you can believe in.

Anyway, I feel the initial war standoff between the US and EU powerhouses has led to a discursive neglect of the many theaters in which American (and European) interests are in sync, in stasis or being actively eroded. I understand that, for both politicians running for Bush’s job, Iraq is a good hobbyhorse, but the next administration will evidently have the chance to enlist and engage Europe and NATO in less clear-cutting fashion. The US ought to seize it, and it looks like Bush has enough crocodile tears in him to try. Politically, however, I suspect our middle eastern obsessions will make it tough for either candidate to make a pivot before 2009.

--Dayo Olopade

(Photo courtesy Getty Images)