Now we know for sure: France is the sort of ally who will always be there when she needs us. When America needs France, by contrast, we’re about as welcome as a McDonald’s at Versailles.
Part of the reason is simple spite, envy, and ambition. France doesn’t want the United States to be the 21st-century “hyper-power.” Instead, France wants to serve as the leader of a European “counterweight” to the U.S.
A second reason is economic: France has for years cut sweetheart oil deals with Saddam Hussein — its TotalFinaElf has development rights to roughly 25% of Iraqi oil reserves.
Third, Saddam has long been one of the best customers of France’s arms merchants. Recently, I talked with Khidhir Hamza, the father of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program until he defected a few years back. He told me used to shop for military hardware in France. He’d make up elaborate stories about why he needed this or that piece of equipment, and hope he could fool the French. He soon realized he didn’t need to worry. The French knew what he wanted and they knew why. They didn’t care so long as they got a good price for their merchandise.
That’s bad — but it’s not the worst of it. There is another factor in France’s decision to direct its energies in an attempt to constrain not Saddam but the United States: It’s called appeasement.
In both words and deeds, the French government is now signaling to Saddam and to Osama bin Laden this message: “When you send terrorists to blow things up, send them to Washington or London or Tel Aviv — don’t send them to Paris. We are not on the same team with the Americans. In this war, we’re neutral — in fact, you may even view us as allies because, as you know, we’ve been looking out for you. Today, we do our best to constrain Bush from making war on you. But yesterday, you’ll recall, we proposed lifting sanctions and we did not vote in favor of returning the inspectors.”
The only thing new in all this is that we are finally, grudgingly accepting reality. The truth is France was not on America’s side during the Cold War either. Instead, France positioned itself about halfway between the U.S. and the USSR. The French Communist party was perfectly respectable in France. French socialists and even those further to the right were outraged when President Reagan used the term “Evil Empire” to refer to the esteemed Union Soviétique.
Nor was France really one of the victorious Allies in World War II. It’s been convenient to forget that throughout the 1930s France refused to challenge Hitler. As a result, Nazi Germany easily conquered France, exercising direct control in the north while installing the puppet Vichy government in the south. Yes, there were some heroic members of the French resistance, just as today there are some heroic French individuals resisting the policies of President Jacques Chirac. But there were not too many then, and there are not too many now.
Knowing what we now know, what do we do? Spilling your merlot down the drain won’t help. But perhaps it is time to resolve never again to go hat in hand to the U.N. Security Council to ask the permission of France — or Cameroon, Guinea, Angola, or Mexico, for that matter — before taking whatever steps are necessary to defend Americans from a megalomaniac waiting for the right moment to take his revenge on us.
It’s particularly ludicrous to be asking “mother may I?” now — at a time when French troops are on the ground in the independent African nation of the Ivory Coast. France did not ask either American or Security Council permission before sending in its soldiers to do whatever Chirac thinks is best.
In the 20th century, the world’s bravest nations fought Nazism, Fascism, Communism, and Japanese Militarism. France was not really among them.
In the 21st century, the challenge to the free world comes from the combustible mix of terrorism, rogue dictators and weapons of mass destruction. Unless, the French public has a change of heart and coveys that to its leaders, France will not be with us in this world war either.
— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign and Washington correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism created immediately after 9/11.