The gathering of NATO leaders today in Riga, Latvia, celebrates two events significant for the future happiness of the Western world. One is the agreement, after months of begging by commanders on the ground, to provide enough soldiers to accomplish NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. The other is Jacques Chirac’s last birthday as president of France.
#ad#Both come in the nick of time. NATO, which is less a military alliance than a massive welfare fraud in which rich European countries bilk American taxpayers in order to avoid paying for their own defense, has been saddled in Afghanistan with a bunch of soldiers who aren’t allowed to go to places where bad people might shoot at them — notably, the south, where Taliban activity is heaviest. The need for more flexibility in assigning troops has been a problem in Afghanistan since NATO first took on the leading role there. For months, as this BBC report shows, the alliance has been asking for 2500 soldiers to help out, only to be met with silence.
The press sinister meanwhile has already launched the “spiral of violence” chapter of its now-familiar futility narrative, the one that won defeat in Vietnam and seems likely to do so now in Iraq. This tirade, by Robert Fox in the Guardian, is but one example. As a result, the longer the need for troops drags on, the more problems there are and the more difficult it becomes getting nations to volunteer to send soldiers to places where they might get shot for causes the press has deemed lost. However this morning, a BBC World Service interviewer was shocked into momentary silence after he unwisely asked Poland’s defense minister, Radoslaw Sikorsky, why Poland was sending 1,000 more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan “when the war there is not popular at home.” Sikorsky replied that actually “wars are never popular — they cost money and people get hurt” — but that Poland felt doing its part was the nature of an alliance. Not French, those Poles.
As ITN reports, the NATO agreement today comes after an appeal by President Bush for member nations to “accept difficult assignments” and to share in risks. At the moment, the only NATO members with combat troops in the southern part of Afghanistan are the U.S., Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands. (The Australians are also helping NATO forces in Kandahar province.) Under the agreement announced today, most of the shortfall will be made up by soldiers from countries like Romania and Poland. As Le Monde notes, the alliance’s wealthiest nations — including France, Italy, Germany, and Spain — have refused to send their troops into harm’s way, and despite their rhetoric, they have no intention of changing that policy now. Most of them mouthed pieties such as these in Chirac’s remarks, but the major concession they’re making in Riga is to allow their deployment in the south in case of “emergencies” — something each of them will define as they go and as they like.
One thing Islamic extremists and French politicians have in common? They all think NATO’s a hoot. Put Jacques Chirac in a bag with Henny Youngman’s wife and take them both, please: Yesterday, Chirac claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin had invited himself to Riga to celebrate Chirac’s birthday — something that came as an unwelcome shock, no doubt, to the Latvians who haven’t entertained a Russian leader since their independence and hadn’t thought of doing so until now.
It was an outlandish claim, but for Chirac, it would have been a personal triumph to derail a NATO summit using only farce; after all, France contributes nothing to NATO but regrets and obstacles. For his part, no doubt Putin would have loved to join with Chirac in diminishing the summit. It would have been a help in covering up his own problems with the CIS and, as the Times reports, overshadowing Bush’s welcoming overtures to Georgia and Ukraine. But Chirac’s claim that Putin had invited himself to dinner in the middle of a summit to which he was not invited and in a nation that would prefer not to have him embarrassed even the Russians, who, if the St. Petersburg Times can be believed, carry travel-paks of radioactive condiments everywhere they go.
Most of Riga is closed to business during the summit, so maybe the birthday boy just couldn’t find a pony to rent. No matter. The extravagant story of the man who wasn’t coming to dinner fascinated the French press who saw the Putin intervention as one of life’s random bonuses, like a 35-hour workweek or free global defense. They actually believed Chirac’s wacky story that crazy Putin was the would-be summit-crasher, and when it didn’t come true, they were triste as heck. Le Figaro blamed Bush and the Americans for spoiling Jacques’ party, while Libération suggested maybe it was the lack of hospitality by Latvia toward the Russians — who were houseguests in the country for a mere 50 years — who were the big, wet Baltic blankets.
Either way, in the end, Chirac had to make do with a big white cake given to him this morning by an irritated Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the president of Latvia. It was decorated with French words and blood-red roses and delivered by a soldier — unarmed, except for the cake. There was a hopeful moment as the soldier held the cake in front of the big, slightly drunk-looking geezer. One more pastis, you thought, and he’d be face-down in it. But no. Chirac simply looked suitably surprised — probably because he was allowed to eat his cake and not wear it, too.
After the conclusion of Chirac’s personal business, some ceremonial soldiers blew trumpets. Then the NATO leaders devoted a minute of silence to those fighting in Afghanistan. For the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Germans, it’s a silence that will go on forever. Tonight, Jacques will have a distinctly anti-climactic birthday dinner with a grouchy Vike-Freiberga. Without Vladimir, though, it will be very much like dining alone. In Latvia.
– Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.