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French Hawkishness In The Middle East

George W. Bush allegedly once pointed out that there is no word for ‘entrepreneur’ in French; there is, however, a word for hawk.  It is faucon, and there seem to be plenty of them in Paris these days.

In the midst of the greatest European crisis since the 1940s, and at a time when France stands on the brink of a bank panic and the loss of its AAA credit rating, France has been taking a high profile leadership role against Iran and its allies in the Middle East.  Earlier this week it stunned the world by being the first major power to call for humanitarian safe havens in Syria; now it has followed this up with a call for a European embargo on Iranian oil exports.

France has interests in both Syria and Lebanon going back more than 150 years and France ruled both countries under a League of Nations mandate after 1918.  Beyond that, the humanitarian concerns of many French people and of intellectuals should not be dismissed.  With a large immigrant population from North Africa, France has a deep stake in the peaceful development of that region: there are many good reasons why France is taking a strong stand.

But something else is involved: the anti-Iranian bandwagon is a good place to be.  There is no one the Saudis hate and fear more than the ‘heretical’ mullahs of Iran.  The oil rich Arab sheikhdoms up and down the Gulf worry about Iran’s regional power as well.  Attacking the increasingly isolated and unpopular Syrian regime pleases Arabs in France and rich Arab investors in the Gulf.  The combination is a powerful one; the Arab Lobby in parts of Europe is very strong.

At the same time, France fears the consequences if western failure to act on Iran leaves the Israelis feeling they have no choice but to attack.  (Keeping Europe worried that Israel might do precisely that is an important goal of Israeli policy; when parsing statements by Israeli leaders about Iran it is wise to keep this in mind.  If Europeans were to conclude that the Israelis won’t pull the trigger, European support for sanctions against Iran might weaken.)  If Israel attacks Iran and Iran retaliates by closing the Persian Gulf to oil traffic, France’s goose is cooked.  An oil spike to $300 per barrel would not help the eurozone cohere or stabilize France’s economy.

French hawkishness on Syria and Iran makes sense at several levels.  It strikes many people as a very moral approach.  It can be played as an effort to short circuit more dangerous and more radical steps from the US and Israel.  It wins public support at home, raises France’s profile abroad, and may well lead to expanded sales (Airbus, arms) to grateful oil sheiks.  It also commits France to very little; we are not hearing about deadlines or threats of imminent war.  The hawkish noises also distract world attention from the irrelevance of France when it comes to events in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

This is what well crafted foreign policy looks like.  It builds on national strengths, advances more than one goal at a time, combines values and interests, synthesizes economic and political concerns, and conceals or mitigates weakness.  The French remain among the most quick thinking and talented diplomats on earth and they are very good at what they do.  It is not clear that all this skill will bring the French much in the way of lasting benefits, but professionally speaking, it is worth admiring the construct they have made.

It is harder for America with its cumbersome and open decision making process and its divided political authority to make foreign policy this sleek and efficient; American policy makers and students should watch and learn.  Fortunately the US has its own model of foreign policy formation that works pretty well for us, but to the extent we can incorporate some of the qualities of the French school without losing our own strengths, we will get more done with less cost.

Technique aside, the substance of the French hawkishness (and the backing they are getting from David Cameron’s government in the UK) suggests that the US will not walk the last mile of the road toward Iran on its own.  That is very good news, especially because the bigger and more imposing that coalition is, the more we can hope that the Iranians will decide not to push this confrontation all the way to war.

Effective diplomacy makes war less likely even as it makes victory in war, should it come, more likely at a lower cost.  The confluence of forces pushing France and other European countries toward a tougher stance against Assad and A-jad gives the Obama administration important advantages in the Middle East.  Sometimes you have to flip Clausewitz and note that policy is the continuation of war by other means; the pressure on Iran to drop its ill advised and unnecessary nuclear program continues to grow.

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  • Raymond R

    Les mots pour entrepreneur en Francais son entrepreneur, initiateur, promoteur

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Your admiration for French foreign policy is silly. What has it done for them? No one trusts them, and expects them to stick a knife in their back the moment they look away. Even in the Gulf war they were sent off into the deep desert where no one would have to fight with them, or have them at their back. Popular culture recognizes them as the “cheese eating surrender monkeys” for a reason. If they have anything to teach us at all, it is more in the nature of what not to do, than what to do.
    I for one think that French mucking about in the middle-east isn’t good for anyone, and especially not for America or our Israeli allies.

  • J R Yankovic

    Speaking of surrender monkeys:

    Can anyone explain to me why those vile French should have so abjectly capitulated to the Nazis in 1940 (apart from certain inherent character defects so capably delineated by our popular media)? The way I figure it, they’d have had every chance of whipping the tar out of those cowardly, demoralized Germans had they but chosen to show even an ounce of spirit.

    Personally I can think of no explanation for their actions other than the most craven casualty-shyness. Good grief, you’d think they had suffered losses of upwards of a million men in some conflict of recent memory. I mean, the least they could have done was to furnish a few token acts of resistance, just to prove they still had a bit of spunk left in them. Surely they must have known that an overwhelming American majority supported entry into the war in 1940: All the French had to do was prove their battle-worthiness, and we Yanks would had their backs in a matter of days. After all, who knows better than we do what it is to suffer repeated land invasions/occupations? (Why, think of all our many invaders: Indians, Mexicans, Filipinos – to name just a few.) Whereas the French – honestly, how many times have they suffered foreign troops on their soil in the past 175 years?

    No doubt about it – some SERIOUSLY bad foreign policy decisions by those clueless French, and esp. in 1940. And all the more since here was a mess they’d gotten themselves into (needlessly provoking those peaceful, cowardly Germans, etc). And us, on the other side of the Atlantic, just waiting – as always – to bail them out. All they had to do was whistle.

  • Eliyahu

    Raymond, I think that Walter Meade is aware that entrepreneur is a French word. He was retelling a joke at George Bush’s expense [that is, the Bush didn’t know that].

    Meade is right that the Sunni Muslim rulers in the Persian Gulf are afraid of Teheran and its nuke program. Somehow Obama and others in Washington pretended to themselves or to the American people that it was only Israel that feared and opposed Iran’s nuke project. But wikileaks gave the lie to that pretense. I wonder if Washington will ever really understand that an Iranian nuke is a threat to world peace. By the way, France and Italy [also worried about the Iranian nuke] are a lot closer to the range of the new Iranian missiles than the US is.

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