France in Pain
Op-Ed, Washington Post
December 12, 2004
Author: Robert D. Blackwill, International Council Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: American Primacy and Its Discontents
After recently spending nearly two weeks in Paris and having many conversations with old friends from France's national security elite, I conclude that intellectually, most French want the Bush administration to succeed in Iraq. But emotionally, many want it to fail.
Their Cartesian upbringing makes the French understand the consequences for France of an American defeat in Iraq. They know that it would give a profound boost to Islamic terrorism everywhere, including in France. It would destabilize Iraq and could lead to a fracturing of that country -- even to civil war. It would introduce another acutely destabilizing element in an already wobbly Middle East region. And it could lead to prolonged U.S. retrenchment as we sought the reasons for our catastrophic failure. In their minds and public statements, the French declare genuinely that Iraq must not fall to Islamic extremism.
But at the same time, these members of the French elite are incensed about U.S. policy toward Iraq and how we got where we are. They are passionately certain that it was a mistake for the United States to force regime change on Iraq, that it has spread international terrorism and made the world more dangerous, and that they told us so before we embarked. They remind us of Charles de Gaulle's equally ignored advice to John F. Kennedy in 1961 not to become militarily involved in Vietnam. And they remember Suez, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and all the other times the United States and France have seen the Middle East so very, very differently.
The French also argue that Iraq is only the latest demonstration of an arrogance of American power that has been growing since the end of the Cold War and has reached new heights during the current administration. They are enormously frustrated because France -- and Europe -- are too weak and divided to affect U.S. international behavior.
As these throbbing emotions swirl around in the City of Light, our French friends are in agony that the United States should now be rescued and rewarded when they are absolutely sure that France is right and the Bush administration is wrong on the most fundamental dimensions of Iraq policy, the Middle East including Israel-Palestine and the global war on terrorism. They think most of the world agrees with them and not with Washington. All this was made clear in President Jacques Chirac's recent comments during his news conference in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Nevertheless, France, because of its own vital national interests, must now work to promote a U.S. victory in Iraq. Oh, what pain. If only the French could find a way for Iraq to succeed without the United States succeeding, that would be a perfect outcome. If only the United States could be made to suffer for its excesses regarding Iraq without damaging France. Alas, for the French that seems an impossible -- if recurring -- dream.
So, on the subject of Iraq, the French are torn between rational analysis, which is so admirable a part of France's national character, and volcanic feelings generated lower in their anatomies. They are therefore ready to join, if haltingly, with the United States in an effort to bring more stability to Iraq and the Middle East and to simultaneously tell anyone who will listen that U.S. policy in that region is a continuing disaster, that they do not expect it to change in the next four years and that France has been proven right all along. To put it mildly, this cannot be a source of bilateral harmony.
It will take skillful and quiet diplomacy at the highest levels to take the next phase of U.S.-French relations in a positive direction, especially since the venture will be steeply uphill. The substantive differences between the two governments on these issues are huge, and their respective domestic audiences make the task even harder. All the same, as a strong supporter of the president, of the liberation of Iraq and of robust transatlantic cooperation, I believe the time is ripe for the two nations to make a serious effort together to choreograph a mutual ascent.
Bad ties between the United States and France complicate America's Middle East diplomacy and cause problems for our friends in Europe who do not want to choose between Paris and Washington. Unlike some of our allies, France does not have a post-modernist army; theirs fights. For those ready to give up on reaching some accommodation with the French regarding Iraq and the Middle East, I say, not yet. With the president going to Europe early next year, let's try with the French as Count Basie used to intone regarding April in Paris, one more once.
For more information about this publication please contact the American Primacy and Its Discontents Project Assistant at 617-496-5324.
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