Careful readers of The Corner probably don’t run with scissors. But that’s not important. Still, those same readers may have noticed the distinct whiff of friction between Rich Lowry and me when it comes to our erstwhile “partners in peace,” the French. Just yesterday, Rich declared in The Corner (our super-cool NR hangout, if you still haven’t been there) that “if the French get anymore wimpy and adverse to conflict they’re going to invade Poland.”
Why Rich seems to think that angry speeches at the U.N. and cranky interviews by President Chirac have any serious relation to actual bellicosity is beyond me. If verbal histrionics were an inevitable prelude to physical violence, Chris Matthews would be on a multistate killing spree, Bill O’Reilly would have been picked off by police snipers years ago, and I’d be asking the nurse if I could have green Jell-O today. And, needless to say, the French would be a hegemonic colossus ruling the earth with a brie-stained fist. In other words, even France’s harshest critics are willing to concede that the French are very good at saying things. As Thomas Carlyle noted in 1837: “France was a long despotism tempered by epigrams.”
Regardless, after a close reading of Rich’s argument, I’ve located the crux of our disagreement: He doesn’t believe the French are appeasers. His argument is subtle and nuanced, but I think the giveaway was when he blared in a headline “THE FRENCH AREN’T APPEASERS.”
I have to say a lot of the conservative commentary on the French and Germans is beginning to irritate me… Yes, the French surrendered in World War II, they are whiny and irritating, they eat cheese, yada, yada, yada. But to characterize the current French position as appeasement seems radically wrong-headed given that they are making pretty much a full-frontal assault on American power and seeking to transform “Europe” into an explicitly anti-American institution dominated by a Franco-German entente. This isn’t appeasement, it’s a power grab in defiance of the world’s sole super-power. If that’s weakness, give me a glass. Pass some to President Bush too.
Now, I should point out that John O’Sullivan has fleshed out this perspective in detail in the current issue of the dead-tree magazine, and I agree with both him and Rich wholeheartedly about Chirac’s ambitions.
But I think they’re both wrong when they say France isn’t appeasing Iraq.
COWARDICE ISN’T THE ISSUE
The Wall Street Journal claimed yesterday that I “made my career” bashing the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” so you might be surprised to learn that I don’t necessarily think the French position is based in cowardice (though I do think the fact that France has a large and angry Muslim population heightens their fears of the possible repercussions of war). Which is why it’s important to clarify something: Cowardice and appeasement aren’t the same thing.
I think the confusion stems from France’s behavior after they appeased the Germans. French resistance to the German invasion wasn’t exactly what French patriots would like it to have been. That doesn’t mean good and brave men didn’t die trying to fend off the Huns, but surrendering your capital without firing a shot simply never fosters an image of strength. Add in such factors as the fact that the French voluntarily deported their Jews to Nazi Germany when even Hitler’s ally Benito Mussolini refused to do that; that they stuck us with Vietnam; that they like poodles, talk funny, etc., etc.; and you can understand why some of us enjoy making fun of them.
Whether you think calling the French cowards is vile slander, or just good friendly ribbing from a brother Western nation, is a debate for another day. For me, that debate was settled by Al Bundy on Married… With Children when he declared: “It is good to hate the French.”
But, it is simply wrong to confuse cowardice with appeasement. Cowardice is a failing of character. Appeasement is a failure of policy. Stalin appeased Hitler when he signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Stalin was an evil character, to be sure. But cowardice really isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Stalin — that word is “sexy.” I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Of course, poor Neville Chamberlain does conjure nasty associations with cowardice and pusillanimity. And — as John O’Sullivan has noted — this is more than a bit unfair. Chamberlain may have been profoundly wrong at Munich, but he was hardly a coward. O’Sullivan (and the late NR contributor Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn) are sympathetic to the argument that Chamberlain’s deal with Hitler was a defensible strategic decision given the circumstances at the time. I’m not persuaded. The Munich Pact bought Britain more time to re-arm, but it also allowed Hitler to seize Czechoslovakian border fortifications without firing a shot, and freed up some 30 German divisions for use elsewhere. Worse, as Paul Johnson argues, it eventually gave Hitler full ownership of Czechoslovakia’s military might, including its armaments industry.
But the primary reason Chamberlain was wrong can be summed up in the old mantra, “You can’t do business with a man like Hitler.” Chamberlain believed, as did most of the British public, that Hitler was merely a latter-day Bismarck bent on uniting the German people. That’s why most in the West supported the return of the Sudeten Germans to Germany. More importantly, Chamberlain assumed that Hitler’s aims were reasonable, and so did the British public. When Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia, British public opinion swung massively against Hitler and in favor of war. And Neville Chamberlain swung with them.
This highlights one of the interesting things about appeasement. For something that is allegedly so bad, it is almost always popular. If public opinion had been against it, the Munich Pact wouldn’t have been signed. Which brings me to the last deservedly infamous appeaser: Bill Clinton. During the 1990s Clinton played footsy with terrorists and rogue states. Indeed, he even renamed rogue states, calling them “states of concern.” His idea of effective national security was to sweep problems under the rug. In 1996, we declined to take custody of bin Laden because we didn’t know what law we could accuse him of breaking. After the African-embassy bombings, rather than unleash the righteous fury of the arsenal of democracy, Clinton delivered a “proportionate response” attacking two of bin Laden’s assets, because bin Laden attacked two of ours — doing anything more would be unfair. He paid North Korea to stop producing one kind of nuclear weapon while they started another secret program almost immediately. The Clintonites still defend this as a success — as if getting a man to promise to stop making swords matters much if he immediately switches to battle-axes.
Bill Clinton did this because it was popular. Or, to be more accurate, he played these games because to do otherwise might jeopardize his popularity. Clinton is famously vexed by the fact that he had no opportunity to become a “great president.” But the fact is, when you’re terrified of rocking the boat, it’s difficult to achieve greatness. In fact, when you sweep all the nation’s problems under the rug so the next guy has to deal with them, you stack the deck for the next guy to become a great president — if for no other reason than that you’ve let problems fester into crises and hence greatness will be thrust upon him.
And here I think the real meaning of appeasement comes to the fore. Appeasement doesn’t stem from cowardice; it stems from arrogance. Bill Clinton believed he could will events into being because he knew more than everybody else. He believed he could manage Osama bin Laden and Arafat and North Korea — and history itself. Tit-for-tat, bribes, endless memos-of-understanding and treaties, and, most of all, talk, talk, talk: When you look back you can see that Bill Clinton wasn’t the first black president or the first feminist president so much as he was the first French president.
The French, too, believe they can keep the whirlwind at bay. They talk endlessly about the need for “stability,” for “staying the course,” and so on. But “Stay the course!” is the dumbest order you can give when the boat is sinking. “Staying the course” is Clintonism with a French accent. It’s ignoring real problems in order to satisfy the desires of ego. So when I hear the French insist that we must stay the course with inspections and the status quo, I see a French officer on a sinking ship fomenting mutiny against the American captain. The Frenchman doesn’t much care if the ship is sinking, or on fire, or overrun with pirates. He just wants to make sure he’s in charge — not some hotshot American with crazy ideas about how we should actually solve the problem at hand.
Rich thinks France is making a bold move by challenging the United States over Iraq. Again, he’s right. But implicit in France’s “bold move” is its continuing policy of appeasing Saddam Hussein, based upon its arrogant faith in the “European miracle.” They don’t see the risks because they believe they can manage evil in order to avoid their own September 11. France’s ambition to rival the United States is predicated on the assumption that Iraq can continue to defy the West. Chirac doesn’t care about the moral plight of the Iraqi people, and he doesn’t care that other would-be Saddams and Saladins and Stalins are paying attention to the West’s seeming failure of nerve.
Who knows how many angles the French are seeing in all of this? Maybe they think that if they oppose America, the Islamists will ignore France. Maybe they are entirely sincere and believe a war wouldn’t be worth the risks. Maybe they think they’ll be in better shape to challenge Saddam once they rule a new “Europe.” Maybe they think their Muslim populations will behave like irredentist Germans did under Hitler.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. But, as far as I can tell, all of these explanations were used to justify appeasing Hitler 60 years ago and they amount to appeasement of Hussein and his ilk today. If the French win, they will have rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic in precisely the manner they wish, but in the process they’ll also have appeased Saddam and other tyrants by proxy, showing that it is possible to stare down the democratic West. The French may not be afraid, but they sure are arrogant. And that’s all you need to be an appeaser.