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Sympathy for the Devil: France
February 19, 2003
By Davis Sweet

Flip 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--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 rebuttal:

"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 senile.

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 Bean Magazine

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