WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is cutting the number of people and aircraft it's sending to the prestigious Paris Air Show (search) following the rift with France over Iraq, military officials said Thursday.
The weeklong air show, a premier biannual international event for the aerospace industry, is to begin June 15. An industry official criticized the Pentagon move as bad for business.
France is smarting from a series of perceived U.S. slights, and French officials have outlined what they say is an organized campaign from within the Bush administration of false allegations of complicity with deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack denied the accusation. "There is no such organized effort," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said the Franco-American relationship was too involved to say whether it had changed. "There's so many linkages and connections between the United States and NATO (search) allies that I wouldn't want to say yes or no."
He said military commanders and other defense officials want "to work closely with those countries that want to work closely with us. And that logically leads you to countries that are of a certain relationship with us."
Regarding the Paris Air Show, Rumsfeld said: "It's not as though people won't be going from the United States. It may be at a certain level."
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Daniel D. Hetlage said "international circumstances and department resources" would limit participation.
A limit of 150 people will be allowed to go -- no one the rank of above colonel, a defense official said later on condition of anonymity. He did not know how many people normally attend.
Only six planes will be sent, less than half of the 13 sent last time. All will be for stationary exhibits rather that the usual flying demonstrations, the official said.
Two other officials said the administration felt it would appear unseemly for officers to be "wining and dining" and "living the good life" in Paris while troops are in danger in Iraq.
The show is not something officials would stay away from out of spite, one insisted, because it is an important industry event. An industry official agreed.
"I understand there are those in the Pentagon who are annoyed with the French, to put it mildly," said Joel Johnson, a vice president at the Aerospace Industries Association of America. "But a quasi-boycott of the Paris Air Show will undercut the U.S. industry and discourage current and future customers."
He said several hundred American companies will exhibit at the show, which he called the industry's largest single networking event. American defense contractors in the association include Boeing Co., Raytheon Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
The French government has started a list of what it considers to be false reports on its activities.
"We have begun to enumerate the false accusations that have appeared in the American press and have profoundly shocked the French people," Marie Masdupuy, a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told reporters in Paris.
French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte sent a letter to administration officials and lawmakers complaining that "some members of the American media have issued false accusations against France."
Among the stories cited were alleged French weapons sales to Iraq and a report last week that French officials provided passports to escaping Iraqis. Levitte called these "denigration and lies" and blamed some in the administration.
"I have to believe that it's coming, yes, from officials or intelligence sources," he told WETA, a Washington area PBS affiliate. "And I wonder why these officials carry these kinds of lies."
The French government has heatedly denied all the reports.
"Everyone knows that France never had a soft attitude toward the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said last week.
Asked if there was a disinformation campaign, Rumsfeld said: "Certainly, there's no such campaign out of this building. I can't speak for the rest of government, but I have heard of nothing like that."
A senior State Department official said the two countries should start resolving differences soon.
Richard N. Haass, director of policy planning, said debates next week in the U.N. Security Council on postwar Iraq, as well as coming summits of leading industrial nations, would present opportunities for conciliation.
It won't be easy, said Haass, in Paris for meetings with senior French officials. "That's going to require more than politeness."
Levitte also said "it will take some time," but he was counting on goodwill at the coming talks.
"We are trying with our American friends and partners to find the appropriate words to say things," he said.