Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Schadenfreude and Realpolitik: France and Iraqi Violence

The French media is, of course, responding enthusiastically to the recent uptick of violence in Iraq. Thus yesterday’s Le Monde (dated 17 May 2005) offers a full page under the cheerful title “Iraq, Afghanistan: American disillusionment and worries”. The subtitle of the main article [link in French] reads: “the American authorities seem surprised by the clear intensification...of combat and attacks”. Just why the American authorities should be “surprised” by an intensification of combat they have themselves ordained, namely in launching Operation Matador, is a puzzle that the reader will have to figure out for him- or herself. As for the rest, the coverage in Le Monde provides no evidence of any American “disillusionment” or “worries” or indeed of any “surprise”. The not-so-subliminal message of the headlines is in fact not related to the actual content of the articles, but rather to the moral lesson that the Le Monde editors clearly believe should be derived from the latter: namely, that “the Americans” should be “disillusioned” and should be “worried”. As for the reference to the Americans “seeming to be surprised”, it is Le Monde’s archly roundabout way of saying: “we are not surprised” – or, in other words: “We told you so!”

The continual expressions of Schadenfreude in the French media and among the French political establishment about every real or imagined reversal of what are perceived as “American fortunes” in Iraq – the violence suffered by Iraqis and the obstacles placed in the way of Iraqi democracy are secondary matters, mere alibis – masks another story: namely, the real effects of France’s own policy and, more generally, Franco-German obstructionism on the security situation in Iraq. In his reflections on the Franco-German “Great Game” on the American Future blog, Ulrich Speck notes that: “the Paris-Berlin alliance shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if its power is purely negative – anti-US – it can still do a lot of damage.... European resistance to American policies can raise the costs to a very high level, as in Iraq.” This is an important point that does not receive sufficient attention. If the situation in Iraq is difficult by comparison, say, to other recent examples of “international” intervention – notably, in Bosnia and Kosovo (whose ease and “success”, by the way, have been greatly exaggerated) – French and German policy choices are obviously themselves a major variable – arguably, the major variable – explaining this difference.

France was a significant contributor to so-called “peace-keeping” (sometimes “peace-making”) forces in Bosnia from 1992 onwards and many French soldiers lost their lives during the Bosnian conflict from 1992-1995 and in the “stabilization” missions that followed it. In this 2002 interview with the Bosnian newspaper Oslobodjenje [link in French], then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin acknowledges a figure of some 80 French dead in Bosnia. Contrary to popular misconceptions fed by self-aggrandizing American politicians like Richard Holbrooke, it was in fact Germany that pushed for foreign intervention in Bosnia to halt what was almost universally depicted in the European and American media as “Serb aggression”. French diplomatic and especially military circles were well known to have sympathies with the Bosnian Serb or, in other – political, rather than ethnic – terms, “Yugoslav-loyalist” forces. Nonetheless, France – more or less – went along with the program. Germany itself, due to constitutional constraints that would subsequently be eliminated by a landmark Constitutional Court ruling during the Kosovo conflict, sent no troops. A well-known joke that circulated in Germany at the time held that Germany was determined to fight in Bosnia “to the last Frenchman”.

France and Germany chose not to contribute to the stabilization of the situation in Iraq. Indeed, by adopting an attitude that is so openly hostile to the coalition presence in Iraq and hence implicitly to the political project of Iraqi reconstruction with which the latter is linked, they have clearly discouraged other countries from contributing as well.

There is, moreover, another respect in which French policy may well have positively - and not only by omission - contributed to the revival of what the French media has baptized the Iraqi “resistance”. The last several months has seen a disturbing pattern emerge, according to which overtly anti-American, “pro-resistance” journalists and aide workers are taken hostage and then, following secret negotiations with their home governments, set free: the “two Simonas”, Giuliana Sgrena, and the two French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. A journalist from the French lefty paper, Libération, Florence Aubenas – who, oddly, disappeared just days after Chesnot and Malbrunot were set free – is still being held hostage. When Chesnot and Malbrunot were set free and repatriated to France in December, French authorities denied having paid any ransom, but admitted to having conducted negotiations – euphemistically described as a “political dialogue” by current French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier – with the hostage takers. On what points exactly did the French negotiators satisfy the demands of the latter? We do not know. Given the large affinity between France's Iraq policy and the objectives of the Jihadi/Baathist alliance in Iraq, there was indeed virtually nothing in the way of political concessions that France could have offered, and on the one point on which France could have made a concession to the Islamists - namely, on the issue of the headscarf ban - it did not do so.

What we do know is that the terror attacks in Iraq would not be possible without financial resources.