Chirac: Obstructionist or Appeaser

Charles Krauthammer has a column in TIME called, “Why the French Act Isn’t Funny Anymore.”

It is easy to make fun of the French and their pompous pretense to the grandeur they shed a half-century ago when their loss of honor under Vichy, and then their loss of empire, relegated them to the rank of second-class power. But the fun is over. Before Sept. 11, France’s Gaullist anti-Americanism as a form of ostentatious self-aggrandizement was an irritant. With a war on — three, in fact: Afghanistan, Iraq and the larger war on terrorism — France’s willful obstructionism becomes dangerous and deadly.


NATO responds with an offer of a small number of troops to be sent around September. Karzai pleads for a more immediate deployment. Britain and the U.S. request deployment of NATO’s new rapid-reaction force created precisely for such contingencies. France’s President Jacques Chirac vetoes it, saying the force should not be used “in any old way.”

Any old way? As if the NATO troops were off to visit the Kabul Disneyland. Afghanistan is the good war, remember. The war of undeniable necessity. The war everyone supported. It is hard to imagine a more important mission for NATO, or for the civilized world for that matter, than assuring free elections in Afghanistan, crucible for the worst terrorist attack in history. Yet with a flick of a hand, Chirac dismisses Karzai — and, of course, the U.S.

On Iraq, Chirac was similarly destructive of any realistic NATO help in democratic nation building. He spearheaded the vetoing of any NATO troops going to Iraq. The most that President Bush could get was an agreement to train Iraqi troops, but Chirac insisted the training be undertaken not by NATO as an organization (only by NATO countries individually) and not in Iraq itself. He suggested Rome. Nice for sightseeing, but hardly the most efficient and cost-effective way to train the Iraqi police and army.

Chirac knows America’s stake in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is so great, and so obvious, that even in the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign, the opposition presidential candidate embraces the current Administration’s objective of democratic reconstruction in both countries. Why then is Chirac making things as difficult as he can for the U.S.?

Good questions and a case fairly put. I’ve never begrudged states the right to dissent from U.S. policy when it wasn’t in their interest. There were plausible reasons for many European states to resist joining the Iraq War effort, for example. Intentionally trying to undermine the U.S. is a different matter, of course. Moreover, it’s hard to come up with a logical rationale for opposing efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq (although one could argue against the specific policy of sending NATO’s elite force in for election monitoring).

Although I don’t have a better one, Krauthammer’s answer strikes me as implausible:

Beyond the anti-Americanism is an attempt to court the Muslim and Arab world. For its own safety and strategic gain, France is seeking a “third way” between America and its enemies. Chirac’s ultimate vision is a France that is mediator and bridge between America and Islam. During the cold war, Charles de Gaulle invented this idea of a third force, withdrawing France from the NATO military structure and courting Moscow as a counterweight to Washington. Chirac, declaring in Istanbul that “we are not servants” of America, has transposed this Gaullist policy to the struggle with radical Islam.

Explosive population growth in the Arab world coupled with Europe’s unprecedented baby bust presages a radical change in the balance of power in the Mediterranean world. Chirac perhaps sees a coming Muslim future or, at least, a coming Muslim resurgence. And he does not want to be on the wrong side of that history. The result is a classic policy of appeasement: stand up to the American presumption of dictating democratic futures to Afghanistan and Iraq; ingratiate yourself with the Arab world. Thus, for example, precisely at a time when the U.S. and many Western countries are shunning Yasser Arafat for supporting terrorism and obstructing peace, Chirac sends his Foreign Minister to the ruins of Arafat’s compound to shake Arafat’s hand for world cameras.

This is pure pandering but with an agenda. Chirac wants not only to make France the champion of the oppressed in general against the great American hegemon but also to make it in particular the champion of Arab aspirations against American imperialism. Even the left-leaning French newspaper Le Monde criticized Chirac for acting the “killjoy” in Istanbul. But Chirac’s behavior was no mere outburst. It is a strategy for a French future. Chirac is charting a course — a collision course with America. Istanbul was just one accident scene. There are many more to come.

I don’t doubt that Chirac fears the Islamicization of his country. But, surely, if that were his main concern he’d ally with the US and UK in fighting it. He strikes me as a first class jackass; he’s not an idiot, however.

I do, however, agree with Steve Bainbridge‘s point that we should think of France as “a strategic competitor rather than an ally.” France is currently in the same category as Russia and China: important countries with whom we can often do business as our interests overlap. They’re not, however, friends in the sense that the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and many of the recently-liberated countries of Eastern Europe are. They have been in the past and, perhaps, they will be there again in the future. But it’s been a half century. Holding one’s breath is not advisable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. HankP says:


    Countries don’t have friends, they have interests. Don’t kid yourself, even if a countries interests overlap ours for a lengthy period of time, as soon as interests diverge they are gone. As they should be.

  2. Richard Arnone says:

    I’m probably oldder than you. I remember when the Republicans were the minority and they were called the Loyal Opposition. Politics stopped at the waters edge. Today we have a party out of power that invariably will oppose America’s interests, (calling them the Right Wing’s agenda doesn’t change the truth), and who will side with any enemy – be he Euro-elitist or Islamo-facist- for political advantage. And then they have the nerve to call it patriotic.