Sunday, February 09, 2003


French Dressing-Down

Everybody in the U.S. is piling on the French these days. Tom Friedman is exasperated with their changing stances on Iraq. He wants to kick them out of their permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and replace them with India, the world's largest democracy. And there are lots of great jokes making fun of the French right now, (which I am ashamed to admit I am enjoying immensely, having spent altogether too much time studying French philosophy in my misspent youth). Numerous explanations abound for their intransigence, including their national character, their irresponsibility, their flightiness, their ingratitude, and a whole host of other flaws.

But the French are also the country that gave us Descartes, Voltaire and the Enlightenment (ok, forget about Derrida). They are the masters of sang froid, brute realism, ironic detachment, and cold unsentimentality. Are they really all that crazy? Does their intransigence make any sense at all?

It all depends on what you think the purposes of the military buildup and the U.N. inspection regime are. If the point is to get all of the countries of the world together through the auspices of the U.N. to scare and threaten Saddam Hussein into submission, then it would make sense for France to jump on board and present Hussein with a unified threat by the international community: disarm or be deposed. That is, if what this is about is a game of chicken, then the French should not be intransigent. They should immediately help the U.S. present a unified front, which may have the salutary effect of strengthening the United Nations as an international peacekeeper in future conflicts against rogue states. That's something many Europeans would like, because it would draw the U.S. ever further into a multilateral way of conducting its foreign policy, and it would strengthen international institutions in which the French and other Europeans believe they will have greater influence in the long run.

The problem is that the French fear that they don't have any control over what the United States will do once they sign on. The French want to see how far they can push Hussein without going to war; but they may fear (and rightly so) that Bush isn't playing that game. They fear that he is determined to go to war regardless of what Hussein does. If that's so, then France's preferred strategy-- what Tom Friedman earlier called Chicken a'L'Iraq-- isn't available. You can't threaten Hussein to get him to back down, because the U.S. won't pull back at the brink, it's going to war whatever Hussein does, and so Hussein has no incentive to do anything but wait and prepare for war.

Thus, joining the U.S. doesn't get France its preferred strategy. The question is whether holding back approval is more likely to do so. But that's also a dangerous game, because if the U.S. gets tired of waiting for the French to join in, it may go ahead and attack with its "coallition of the willing" sometime near the beginning to middle of March. That would be a worse result: No clear U.N. approval, no precedent for international cooperation against rogue states.

However, the French may be reasoning as follows: The longer we hold out, the more the U.S. may be willing to offer us a war and post-war strategy more to our liking. The U.S. is going to war no matter what we do, so we can't get our first best strategy. But we might be able to get our second best strategy-- both during the course of the war and in the occupation thereafter-- by being a royal pain in the butt until the U.S. listens to us.

This seems to me the best explanation of what is going on right now. If all of the other countries in Europe thought the same way the French did, the U.S. would have a real problem on its hands. But most of the other countries in Europe see no particular advantage in holding out. They figure that they are in better shape signing on early than signing on late. The French, however, think that signing on late will given them additional concessions. That's why they are holding out even though everyone else is rushing to sign on, and why the jokes are flying. But nobody knows yet who will be laughing five years from now.


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