It is easy to make fun of the French and their pompous pretense to the grandeur they shed a half-century ago when their loss of honor under Vichy, and then their loss of empire, relegated them to the rank of second-class power. But the fun is over.
Before Sept. 11, France’s Gaullist anti-Americanism as a form of ostentatious self-aggrandizement was an irritant. With a war on — three, in fact: Afghanistan, Iraq and the larger war on terrorism — France’s willful obstructionism becomes dangerous and deadly.
That obstructionism was on amazing display at the recent NATO summit in Istanbul. The supremely courageous President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, flies there to beg for our troops to protect his country in the run-up to September elections. Two female election workers had already been murdered and some 16 men had been shot to death by insurgents for registering to vote.
NATO responds with an offer of a small number of troops to be sent around September. Karzai pleads for a more immediate deployment. Britain and the U.S. request deployment of NATO’s new rapid-reaction force created precisely for such contingencies. France’s President Jacques Chirac vetoes it, saying the force should not be used “in any old way.”
Any old way? As if the NATO troops were off to visit the Kabul Disneyland. Afghanistan is the good war, remember. The war of undeniable necessity. The war everyone supported. It is hard to imagine a more important mission for NATO, or for the civilized world for that matter, than assuring free elections in Afghanistan, crucible for the worst terrorist attack in history. Yet with a flick of a hand, Chirac dismisses Karzai — and, of course, the U.S.
On Iraq, Chirac was similarly destructive of any realistic NATO help in democratic nation building. He spearheaded the vetoing of any NATO troops going to Iraq. The most that President Bush could get was an agreement to train Iraqi troops, but Chirac insisted the training be undertaken not by NATO as an organization (only by NATO countries individually) and not in Iraq itself. He suggested Rome. Nice for sightseeing, but hardly the most efficient and cost-effective way to train the Iraqi police and army.
Chirac knows America’s stake in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is so great, and so obvious, that even in the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign, the opposition presidential candidate embraces the current Administration’s objective of democratic reconstruction in both countries. Why then is Chirac making things as difficult as he can for the U.S.?
It is not just pique. It is not just antipathy to George Bush. And it is not just France’s traditional and reflexive policy of trying to rein in, cut down and domesticate the world’s greatest superpower so that ultimately secondary powers like France could emerge as leaders of a multipolar world.
There is something far deeper going on here. Beyond the anti-Americanism is an attempt to court the Muslim and Arab world. For its own safety and strategic gain, France is seeking a “third way” between America and its enemies. Chirac’s ultimate vision is a France that is mediator and bridge between America and Islam. During the cold war, Charles de Gaulle invented this idea of a third force, withdrawing France from the NATO military structure and courting Moscow as a counterweight to Washington. Chirac, declaring in Istanbul that “we are not servants” of America, has transposed this Gaullist policy to the struggle with radical Islam.
Explosive population growth in the Arab world coupled with Europe’s unprecedented baby bust presages a radical change in the balance of power in the Mediterranean world. Chirac perhaps sees a coming Muslim future or, at least, a coming Muslim resurgence. And he does not want to be on the wrong side of that history. The result is a classic policy of appeasement: stand up to the American presumption of dictating democratic futures to Afghanistan and Iraq; ingratiate yourself with the Arab world. Thus, for example, precisely at a time when the U.S. and many Western countries are shunning Yasser Arafat for supporting terrorism and obstructing peace, Chirac sends his Foreign Minister to the ruins of Arafat’s compound to shake Arafat’s hand for world cameras.
This is pure pandering but with an agenda. Chirac wants not only to make France the champion of the oppressed in general against the great American hegemon but also to make it in particular the champion of Arab aspirations against American imperialism. Even the left-leaning French newspaper Le Monde criticized Chirac for acting the “killjoy” in Istanbul. But Chirac’s behavior was no mere outburst. It is a strategy for a French future. Chirac is charting a course — a collision course with America. Istanbul was just one accident scene. There are many more to come.
Charles Krauthammer writes a syndicated column for the Washington Post that appears in more than 125 newspapers worldwide. He writes an essay each month for TIME