for the Devil: France
February 19, 2003
By Davis Sweet
through enough channels right now and you will find somebody
making a derogatory comment about France. From the reflexively
Euro-phobic Fox News to the completely irrelevant "Regis and
Kelly" show, which unfortunately represents the entire spectrum
of commentary in America, France-bashing is de rigueur.
Here's America's conventional wisdom vis-à-vis France:
"Those crazy, wimpy, pain-in-the-ass Frenchmen are at it
again. Every time the US wants to protect our interests or
flex our superpowers a bit, they get all sniffy and blow smoke
in our faces from their thin cigarettes. Shouldn't they be
kissing our asses in perpetuity for that whole Nazi thing?
And for the few who remember this little incident, for Vietnam
too? It's not like Iraq's the first time they've tried to
inconvenience the US military. They got all miffed over our
bombing of Libya, too! But America's military has always been
there to help the French when they stub their toes. More inspectors
in Iraq?! How naive! They used to be a world power, and now
they're just pouting over losing all that power. Just ignore
them and they'll go play with their croissants."
Then there's the occasional "serious historian's" milquetoast
"But they were there for the colonists in the Revolutionary
War, you know. Lafayette and all that..."
It's tough to take some of this seriously since it's so ridiculous.
Kelly Ripa farting through her nose as a derogatory impression
of "the French" isn't exactly eloquent or informed political
comment. Delicate right-winger George Will trying to verbally
emasculate Jacques Chirac with tough talk is likewise laughable.
Andy Rooney claiming he has earned the right to oppose Bush
policy while the French government hasn't is, well, understandably
But however feebly these peripheral opinion leaders try to
exploit it, American conventional wisdom is what it is, and
not without reason.
Yes, America did help liberate France from Nazi occupation
in World War II (though credit for crippling the German army
may well rest more with the persistent Russians than anyone
else). Yes, we did take over that Vietnam quagmire from the
French so they could go fight a rebellion in then-French Algeria.
And yes, France did refuse to help Reagan bomb Libya after
propped-up dictator Muammar Khaddafi drew an ill-advised "line
in the sea." France even tested a nuke after we explicitly
told them not to. And now, when we're trying to line up support
for an invasion of Iraq, they sound like they're more against
us than with us.
If that's all you know about France, it looks like a pretty
one-sided relationship. We help them out all the time while
they keep slapping us in the face.
But of course there's more to the story, and you don't have
to go back 225 years to see it. Less than 2 years ago, when
America was attacked by terrorists apparently based in Afghanistan,
France's offer of military, financial, and humanitarian assistance
for an Afghan invasion was immediate and real. US and French
soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Bosnia and Kosovo within
the last decade, and in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War.
Actually that's not entirely true. America wouldn't set its
precious toesies in Kosovo - French ground troops went instead
- but we stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the planning table
anyway. The point is these are hardly the actions of a country
that is anti-American or anti-military.
Has the US really been the victim in this trans-Atlantic
codependent relationship? Not if you know anything about the
last decade of international terrorism.
Christmas Eve, 1994, bin Laden-funded Algerian terrorists
hijacked an Air France jetliner loaded with fuel and explosives
and headed for the Eiffel Tower. Let's go through a few key
words again: "bin Laden," "terrorists," "hijacked," "jetliner
loaded with fuel," "nineteen-ninety-FOUR." The French foiled
their plan, their Special Forces dramatically raiding the
plane when its crew falsely claimed they needed to stop for
fuel 50 miles from Paris. France, which had been dealing with
terrorism throughout the Middle East and at home, now had
a smoking gun to show to the world community. The threat against
Western states was real, urgent, and much more sophisticated
than anyone believed.
So how did the US respond when France took its case to the
world? Did we rush to the aid of our ally? In a word, not
in a million years. Warren Christopher, who famously said
the Bosnian problem was too far away to worry about, said
France's terrorism problem, too, was not in America's interest.
We even welcomed the leader of the terrorist group (Anwar
Hadam of the FIS) to the White House. Talk about a slap in
the face! Can you imagine how many coronary attacks Cheney
would have if the French invited an anti-American terrorist
over for a state dinner? Sorry, Etats-Unis, but if there's
an abuser here, you're it. Yet the other player keeps showing
up to help when you're in trouble.
France's 40-year battle with Islamic extremist terrorism
(yes, 40 years) has paid huge dividends for the US now that
we've joined the party. France has captured or provided the
key information to target most of the terrorist "masterminds"
that are now in custody or in Paradise.
And now we come to Iraq, specifically an unprovoked war led
by the United States against an already-crippled enemy. The
Bush administration's official justifications for this have
been all over the map - nukes that don't exist, potential
threats to Israel that are hardly Iraq-specific, and the omnipresent
bogeyman of al-Qaeda which we say operates in over 100 countries
worldwide. It seems to many folks, even on this side of the
world, like a premeditated attack in search of a provocation.
The only factor that gives the Iraq issue any legitimacy
is the Gulf War. They lost, period. They agreed to disarm,
period. They didn't agree to change rulers, to embrace their
enemies, or to commit mass suicide; they agreed to disarm.
Is there a way to get there without killing a whole bunch
of people and trotting Saddam's head through the street on
a spear? Yes. And - surprise! - France is advocating just
such a plan. Surprise! - again, they're catching hell for
it from apparently bloodthirsty US politicians and media.
The French idea achieves the goal of disarming Iraq without
compromising our principles or theirs. It's active enforcement
of UN resolutions with UN staff. You need people to find and
destroy weapons? Send those people in and get the job done.
Who gets killed? Maybe nobody - quelle horreur!
To make this work, we don't have to do anything stupid, like
trusting Saddam. (And let's face it, he's an easy target because
he's a monumental jerk not because he's any kind of threat.
He has no friends, as we keep telling each other, and that
appears to be true enough.) We also don't have to do anything
evil, like killing innocent people to get to Saddam, who for
all we know may be in China by now.
The smart approach, the moral approach, is not the current
Bush scorched-sand approach. But Bush may find that he can
satisfy even his most cynical advisers, those who want war
specifically for re-election purposes, if he turns off the
war machine and does the right thing in public. He probably
wouldn't even have to admit it was a French idea.
Davis Sweet edits The