Thursday, September 18, 2003

And now, a commentary on the latest, well, droppings of wisdom from New York Times diplomatic sage, and America's most important columnist, two time Pulitzer prizewinner Tom Friedman:

It's time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.

If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war),

Dubya issued an ultimatum, backed by the full strength of the US military, already in place and ready to roll. It didn't work. Does Friedman really think it might have been more persuasive with a UN imprimatur?

More seriously, Friedman distorts (or more properly, ignores) the actual motives of the French -- they were taking us at our word that the casus belli was Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (not weapons "programs", but actual weapons), and pointing out quite properly that we had not shown convincing evidence of the threat, as it happens, for very good reasons. So, so far, Friedman argues that France has shown itself to be our "enemy" for failing to endorse our lies.

and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq),

Was this comment widely reported? During the, well, "major combat operations" (I can't say "during the war" because it seems it's not over yet), I was reading Le Monde daily and can't recall seeing it. In light of the earlier egregious distortion of Chirac's comments, before the war, by the British and American governments, and the entire Anglophone press, I'd sure like to see the context.

and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq's transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.

France wants America to sink in a quagmire there in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its "rightful" place as America's equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs.

Well, a unilateral US occupation either will become a quagmire, or it won't. If Friedman thinks it won't, then we have no reason to care what the French, or anyone else, thinks about it. If he thinks it will, and we need help of others to get out, then we shouldn't expect those others to send us their troops as car-bomb fodder without having something to say about how the operation is managed.

What the French have to say, based on their own experience in Algeria and Vietnam, is that long Western occupations of non-Western countries with a strong nationalistic bent just don't work, and that until there is a governing structure in place that is recognized as legitimate by the Iraqis themselves, tensions will continue to rise and the situation will continue to deteriorate.

(Someone might be tempted to bring up Japan as a counterexample. However, they already had decades of experience with at least elements of a more or less Western political structure, albeit a somewhat authoritarian version. Also, the occupiers had the endorsement of the emperor -- an authority figure recognized by the Japanese as legitimate -- for the occupation, and had scored decisive victory in a much longer and more brutal war than the Iraq war to date, harder fought on both sides).

As to the realism of the timetable, it's true that Dubya's crew doesn't much want to discuss the question of how soon we might leave right at the moment. But earlier on, they were happy to talk about an occupation lasting only a few months, before we set up some sort of provisional authority. So again, it seems, what makes France our enemy is their perfidious insistence on taking the liars in the White House at their word.

But Friedman is perfectly aware that public statements from diplomats aren't always to be taken literally -- he acknowledged himself before the war that Colin Powell's public arguments about the imminence of the WMD threat were not to be believed, and that he didn't believe them. So it's quite conceivable that the timetables that the French have proferred are negotiating positions anyway, and that they would be happy to accept a slower timetable, so long as all parties were genuinely committed to stick to it.

In summary, when Colin Powell goes to the Security Council and prates on for more than an hour about the imminence of a threat which, in reality, does not exist, he's engaged in the sometimes awkward business of diplomacy as it is practiced, and no one should take much offense. When the French engage in a little public hard bargaining, they're our enemy.

Moving right along...

Yes, the Bush team's arrogance has sharpened French hostility. Had President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld not been so full of themselves right after America's military victory in Iraq -- and instead used that moment, when the French were feeling that maybe they should have taken part, to magnanimously reach out to Paris to join in reconstruction -- it might have softened French attitudes. But even that I have doubts about.

What the French have always insisted on throughout this fiasco is that the UN retain its own autonomy, and not be turned into a rubber stamp for ill-conceived American schemes. If the sort of cooperation that Friedman has in mind involves a chain of command ending in the oval office, he's right to have doubts. But if that makes France our enemy, then Friedman needs a refresher in the distinction between "ally" and "serf".

What I have no doubts about, though, is that there is no coherent, legitimate Iraqi authority able to assume power in the near term, and trying to force one now would lead to a dangerous internal struggle and delay the building of the democratic institutions Iraq so badly needs. Iraqis know this. France knows this, which is why its original proposal (which it now seems to be backtracking on a bit) could only be malicious.

Aw, gee. What's wrong with that ruling council that Dubya set up -- is it illegitimate, or incoherent? Or both? Or overloaded with carpetbaggers and terrorists? Or just corrupt?

Regardless, as I noted above, the French insistence on a quick timetable is probably a negotiating position anyway. We'll probably never know, since Dubya's crew has shown no inclination to negotiate anything.

What is so amazing to me about the French campaign -- "Operation America Must Fail" -- is that France seems to have given no thought as to how this would affect France. Let me spell it out in simple English: if America is defeated in Iraq by a coalition of Saddamists and Islamists, radical Muslim groups -- from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris -- will all be energized, and the forces of modernism and tolerance within these Muslim communities will be on the run. To think that France, with its large Muslim minority, where radicals are already gaining strength, would not see its own social fabric affected by this is fanciful.

The French have thought long and hard about these issues. That's why they didn't want us to invade in the first place. Now that we have, the resulting mess is our fault alone. Having foreseen that the invasion might end ugly, and having tried to warn us off, they are now refusing to go along with an occupation strategy that they regard as doomed, and trying to suggest alternatives. Clearly, this makes them our enemy.

If France were serious, it would be using its influence within the European Union to assemble an army of 25,000 Eurotroops, and a $5 billion reconstruction package, and then saying to the Bush team: Here, we're sincere about helping to rebuild Iraq, but now we want a real seat at the management table. Instead, the French have put out an ill-conceived proposal, just to show that they can be different, without any promise that even if America said yes Paris would make a meaningful contribution.

Ahem... the French point is that we need to give Iraqis a seat at the management table.

Beyond that -- come on. The troops exist. The money is there. They could be mobilized quickly, and Friedman knows that as well as anyone else. If Dubya's crew is not inclined to offer a "real seat at the management table", to anyone, what's the point?

But then France has never been interested in promoting democracy in the modern Arab world, which is why its pose as the new protector of Iraqi representative government -- after being so content with Saddam's one-man rule -- is so patently cynical.

Rumsfeld shakes hands with Saddam

Clearly, not all E.U. countries are comfortable with this French mischief, yet many are going along for the ride. It's stunning to me that the E.U., misled by France, could let itself be written out of the most important political development project in modern Middle East history. The whole tone and direction of the Arab-Muslim world, which is right on Europe's doorstep, will be affected by the outcome in Iraq. It would be as if America said it did not care what happened in Mexico because it was mad at Spain.

Either that, or they think that the folks who launched an invasion based on lies, and who are criminally botching the subsequent occupation, have the worst of the argument, and they're not "comfortable" with our "mischief". Which to Friedman, I guess, would make them our enemies.

Says John Chipman, director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies: "What the Europeans are saying about Iraq is that this is our backyard, we're not going to let you meddle in it, but we're not going to tend it ourselves."

Oh, gee. Someone else as silly as Friedman. They can't stop us from "meddling", and they know it -- but they don't have to cooperate. Friedman, and Chipman, are acting as if we have some kind of a right to deploy their troops and their money in the service of our scheme, and that by refusing to go along, they become our enemy.

But what's most sad is that France is right -- America will not be as effective or legitimate in its efforts to rebuild Iraq without French help. Having France working with us in Iraq, rather than against us in the world, would be so beneficial for both nations and for the Arabs' future. Too bad this French government has other priorities.

The French tried to stop us from invading. Now that we've invaded, and even Friedman tacitly admits (above) that the occupation threatens to become a "quagmire", they're trying to convince us to find a way to get out.

The reason that American troops are in a tough spot in Iraq is that their American leadership put them there -- egged on quite a bit by Friedman himself. If the occupation is going badly, it's that leadership that bears the primary responsibility. Much as Friedman tries, we can't blame the French.

Unless, of course, the neocon crew's phantasmal visions of a quick victory and trouble-free handoff to Chalabi came from acid tabs planted by nefarious French agents in Rumsfeld's water cooler. In which case, I suppose, it would be fair to blame the French, and to call them our enemy.

Note: remarks on Japan slightly extended late, amid more general copyediting than usual...


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