PARIS - On the July day that American troops killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Qusai and Odai, a senior NBC News producer called his usual intelligence and military sources trying to learn more about the Mosul raid where Saddam's progeny met their doom.
As his best CIA source gushed about the American victory, the producer says he noticed a news bulletin on the television behind him: the Eiffel Tower, that great symbol of French grandeur and artistic prowess, had caught fire.
“So I asked him," says the producer, "‘Hey, do you guys know the Eiffel Tower’s on fire’?”
There was silence on the other end of the line as the CIA source flipped through television channels. Then, the producer says, the CIA man asked with mischievous glee: “Could this day get any better?”
A joke, or not?
The fire turned out to be minor and not related to terrorism, and the producer involved feels to this day the CIA man had been joking. Joke or not, it speaks volumes about the chasm that has opened between the U.S. and its oldest European ally – a nation whose intervention on the side of the American colonists saved them from defeat in the American Revolution, and whose intelligence networks in the Middle East continue to play a vital role to this day in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
Nearly a year has passed since France and America faced-off in the U.N. Security Council. Paris spoke for nations who felt American evidence of Saddam’s WMD programs was insufficient to justify war. Washington insisted Saddam posed “a grave threat to peace,” in President Bush’s words.
In the end, the impasse caused the U.S. to abandon efforts to win U.N. blessing for the war. It also brought France and America to such a low ebb that Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of The New York Times, could write this with a straight face: “It’s time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.”
‘Conflicts’ and ‘lies’
Is France becoming the enemy of America? Neo-conservatives, a powerful faction within the Bush administration, believe the Rubicon has already been crossed.
Consider the view of Richard Perle, an influential Pentagon advisor: “If I am right that the French policy is a deliberate one of diminishing the influence of the United States in the world and, in particular, in Europe, then you have, at least for the foreseeable future, a pretty direct conflict of interests,” he told the International Herald-Tribune last April.
Jean-David Levitte, France’s ambassador to the United States, says events since the fall of Baghdad and, in particular, the capture of Saddam, show such statements to be nonsense.
“We had a disagreement, a strong one, on one issue and one issue only: Was this war necessary or not?” he says. “Now, we’re confronted with new situation, how to make Iraq a success story. We all want this, not only because it is in the interest of the Iraqi people, but because it is important to relations between Europeans and the Muslim world. Remember, the Middle East is our backyard.”
A healing trend?
In the past several months, both France and the U.S. have taken steps to patch things up. It began with an Oct. 15 Security Council vote giving a U.N. nod to the American-led occupation of Iraq. The French warned even then (rightly, as it turns out) that the two-year transition to Iraqi sovereignty envisioned by the Bush administration was not going to fly. Before the month was out, and after several very large attacks by Iraqi insurgents, the U.S. had come to agree. Iraqi sovereignty by July is now the plan, though how to get there remains subject to fierce debate.
Ties were set back when the Pentagon announced, apparently without White House permission, that French and German firms (among many) would not be allowed to bid on contracts for Iraq’s reconstruction. In spite of this, France and Germany both pledged to President Bush’s envoy, James Baker, that they would forgive a significant portion of the debt Iraq owes them from Saddam Hussein’s decades in power.
If some progress has been made with regard to Iraq, however, analysts fear this is more a result of both countries facings reality than any deep commitment to bridging what divides them.
“The Germans like to say, ‘facts create policies’,” says John Kornblum, an assistant secretary of state for Europe during the Clinton administration. “Saddam is finished and so it is time to move on. But the basic disagreement will linger.”
The global view
Increasingly, this comes down to two rather abstract words: international law.
For France, and for other major but not super-powers, chaos and war is regarded as the inevitable result any move by America to treat international law as an optional commitment. France still feels keenly the failures of League of Nations in the 1930s to prevent World War II and the humiliating collapse and occupation that followed.
“America is not the world,” says Bertille Favre, a 24 year-old public relations executive in Paris, expressing a typical view here. “It must talk with other countries about the world, especially on the big issues. I think there is a sense now that America does what it wants when it wants, and when the reasons it gives turn out to be false – like Saddam’s weapons – they just make up another reason.”
Last week, Michele Alliot-Marie, France’s Defense Minister, said much the same thing in more diplomatic terms. Speaking during a Washington visit that generated almost no coverage, which is viewed as a good thing these days in Franco-American relations, the defense minister concede it had been a difficult year and that enormous challenges had to be overcome to right what had gone wrong with the bilateral relationship.
“Our actions must generate the broadest possible consensus in the international community and in public opinion,” she told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “For this they must be based on international law, and it is in our interest to involve the U.N. as much as possible.”
In whose interest?
It is here where the longer-term “strategic” view of France and the United States diverge, particularly in the view of the administration currently in power in the U.S. For many senior officials, American interests cannot be defined by an international consensus.
“It’s like Gulliver’s Travels,” says a senior defense official. “You can be overwhelmingly powerful and even smarter than all the rest. But if you fall asleep or let your national interests be put to a vote among people who don’t share the same values, you’ll find yourself tied hand and foot.”
Ironically, this precise fear – “the Gulliver effect” – has haunted French and German policymakers trying to navigate their way through a new, expanded European Union.
As a result of resistance to such ideas as building a common foreign policy and defense institution in Europe, France recently suggested that Germany and other like minded nations go ahead separately – in effect, with a coalition of the willing.
At the far right of the Bush administration, and among its most fervent supporters outside of government, this French desire to create a European military force is cited as the most egregious evidence that the two long-time partners are well into a separation period and heading for a bitter divorce. Yet the EU’s plans to date – the creation of a 60,000-strong “rapid reaction force” – hardly qualifies as a counterbalance to American might. Even this modest force is proving a stretch – it was due to be operational this month, but is a year, at least, behind schedule.
“What France and the U.K. can wield even together with other European partners is insignificant relative to the U.S.,” says Dr Stephen Blackwell, a European security expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. “It is a nonsense to talk of a counter-balance to American power. What Europe should do – and what it is doing, I believe – is building a force that can augment American power and bring specialties to bear like intelligence and special forces.”
A French naval crewman who served on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in 2002 was even more frank on the topic.
“The Charles de Gaulle is the most powerful ship in Europe, and it was like a bathtub toy when we sailed with the American fleet,” he says. “No one has any illusions of matching America in such things. But I think the French – the Europeans – want you to stop treating us like we owe you something. It is time to let us move out of the house.”