Politics & Policy

Obama’s Foreign-Policy Follies

Wrong on France, wrong on disarmament.

The revelation, thanks to WikiLeaks, that the United States has promised — as part of the recently ratified New START agreement — to identify precisely the Trident nuclear-tipped missiles it sells to the United Kingdom, incites again serious doubts about this administration’s notions of arms control. Its rush to disarm, and to hand over the assured military secrets of its closest historic ally, to buy the evanescent and fraudulent amity of the Russians, and conspicuously to fail to deter Iranian assumption of nuclear capability, are, each in themselves, and doubly so when aggregated together into a comprehensive policy, dangerously mistaken.


President Obama’s recent announcement that America’s closest ally was France, like the strident bluster of the administration’s King Lear–like attempts to meddle in Egypt, raises new doubts about U.S. foreign policy. The reference to France was an insane formulation that has not been accurate since shortly after the departure, from what was then the American Confederation, of the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1783.


For the first third of the Cold War, France was too enfeebled to be of much assistance as an ally, and after the return of Charles de Gaulle and the founding of the Fifth Republic, France’s foreign policy has been devoted altogether to the harassment of the United States. Admittedly, the French were unceremoniously left to be embarrassed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, though they long protested that they needed no assistance before abruptly requesting the use of atomic weapons on the Vietnamese Communists. And, with the U.K. and Israel, France was rather heavily renounced after the undeniably mad enterprise of the Suez invasion. And when de Gaulle returned to office in 1958, he had not forgotten that Roosevelt had kept a prominent ambassador to the tawdry, Ruritanian fascist imposture of a government in Vichy almost to the end of 1942, and had not acknowledged that the Free French de Gaulle led had any status at all until a few weeks before millions of Parisians deliriously welcomed de Gaulle in August 1944. And de Gaulle’s proposal for an executive committee of NATO, consisting of its nuclear powers — the U.S., the U.K., and France — was shuffled off a bit negligently by Eisenhower to be dismissed by Kennedy in his cavalier effort to take over direct command of British and French nuclear weapons.


All of that does not obscure the fact that Americans were the principal liberators of France in 1944, with the British and Canadians (whom de Gaulle also went out of his way to discommode, including using a state visit to observe Canada’s centenary in 1967 to urge the secession of Quebec and breakup of the country), and does not justify the cataract of outrages that France has rained upwards at America these 50 years. As soon as he was able to duck out of Algeria, leaving a million Frenchmen and millions of loyal Arab Algerians to a gruesome fate, de Gaulle began a systematic appeasement of the Arabs and an insidious undermining of Israel. With French leadership, Europe has never had any Middle Eastern policy except to await America’s latest position and then adopt one more favorable to the Arabs. De Gaulle did everything possible to obstruct American policy in Vietnam and even blamed his own near overthrow in 1968 (referred to last week in the Egyptian context), on America’s allegedly unjust, as opposed to merely unwise, policy in Vietnam.


The French have not missed any opportunity, except the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, to align themselves with America’s enemies, while attempting, in a singular act of flimflam, to claim to be a foul-weather friend that could always be relied upon when the chips were down (which the French habitually interpret as when France itself is threatened and needs American assistance). During the Gulf War, it initially supported Iraq, then sent an aircraft carrier with no airplanes on it to the Persian Gulf, and finally, grasping the direction of events, dispatched 10,000 (mostly German and Polish) Foreign Legionnaires and attacked at an undefended border point, announcing they were “advancing at the speed of the blue train” (from Paris to Nice). In Iraq, France consorted with Germany and Russia to oppose America and its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, was unable to tell the Institute for Strategic Studies which side France was on in that war while it was being fought.


The French are magnificent in their way, but you have to know what you are dealing with, and I have always thought that you should be a cat-admirer to appreciate them, as they are feline in their elegance, cunning, and total self-absorption. But as allies, unless your interests are exactly aligned, as in World War I, they are hopeless and usually treacherous.

The present president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is much more amenable, yet France is still not a reliable ally as Britain has been. But Obama ostentatiously sent back from the Oval Office the bust of Winston Churchill, disparaged the Churchill-Roosevelt management of the joint war effort from 1941 to 1945 as an insufficiently collegial arrangement debauchedly conducted by the principals with brandy snifters in hand, although it was probably the most successful and righteous and necessary dual alliance in history, executed with consummate skill and inspirational genius by both leaders. When Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought him a cabinet made from the timbers of a slave ship, he returned the gracious gesture by giving the prime minister a set of DVDs, and Queen Elizabeth — who has been the exemplary British monarch since President Truman’s time — an iPod.


Now he will advise the Russians of the innermost military secrets of this glorious alliance, in wrong-headed pursuit of the phantoms of Russian friendship and nuclear disarmament, which, as he conceives it, is a sop to the equal-opportunity aspiration of the Muslim world, and even of the lunatic regime in North Korea, to a capacity for nuclear blackmail. Our greatest ally, Sarkozy, and German chancellor Angela Merkel both beseeched Obama to refer to the then-unrevealed Iranian nuclear-development sites in his last U.N. speech, and were critical when he did not.


Nor has he followed the commendable European example of making hopeful noises about Egypt while recognizing that foreigners cannot much influence that ancient and intractable country of 80 million people. The American harping on democracy by George W. Bush and Obama has been a failure. When dictators liberalize, they are persecuted, as Pinochet was. The Chinese and South Koreans, Chileans and Taiwanese, and even Brazilians have shown that the road to democracy is to put economic growth first and relax the regime gradually. Gorbachev and Gaza and Belarus have shown that democratization in advance of economic progress makes both the economy and the state of human rights worse. Telling Mubarak what he must do from Washington is ineffectual to begin with, and the absurdity of it is compounded when it is bad advice. Obama says Mubarak must go now, but he doesn’t have to, won’t, and Obama has neither the authority nor the legitimate interest to tell him otherwise.


The nuclear-disarmament regime has always been a fraud, because the non-proliferation agreement pledged the nuclear powers to seek total disarmament, which they will not do and which would be a mistake. But instead of redefining that objective as managing, monitoring, and limiting nuclear weapons and multiplying confidence-building measures, while denying such weapons to apparently dangerously irresponsible regimes such as Iran and North Korea, who speak endlessly of aggressive and even racist war, Obama has had and is trying to induce in the world what looks like a deathbed conversion to disarming while we turn a blind eye to the nuclear self-empowerment of the world’s most belligerent and destructive powers. To the extent that the U.S. reduces its arsenal, it is merely reducing its ability to promote serious strategic policy when it ends its lengthy post-Cold War sabbatical and again generates such a sensible strategic policy. The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables I have seen were all quite perceptive and reasonable; the fault is not in the foreign service, it is in the leadership, and the solution is obvious, if not imminent.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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