France’s Mideast Play–Let Them Eat Sand!


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The hand-wringing continues after American President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the consternation over the decision has been most strongly expressed by America’s nominal European allies–particularly from places like Germany and France (go figure). Oddly enough, countries like Russia–reputed “great rivals” to the United States and its allies have explicitly backed the Trump Administration’s decision, thereby undermining their own regional alliances with Iran and Turkey. The Sunni Arab states, those countries in the Mideast with the longest history of rivalry with Israel, have given ambivalent responses to the Trump Administration’s decision, confounding purported regional experts, who expected the old American Arab allies to abandon the Trump Administration after the announcement.

For their part, the French have stepped up to take a more proactive role in the Middle East. Oddly enough, the American press and several analysts in Washington, D.C. seem troubled by this turn of events. However, this is precisely what is needed. Fact is, the United States lost the Middle East the moment the former George W. Bush Administration opted to invade Iraq in 2003. From that point onward, the United States was no longer the master of its destiny in the region. Whereas following the Second World War, the Mideast had effectively become an American-dominated zone–particularly after decolonization–after the Iraq War, the entire region was up for grabs. The Obama Administration seemed content to divest the United States from the region, choosing instead to “nation-build at home.” But, given the geostrategic importance of the region–and the fact that bad blood is never really wiped away–the United States could never truly simply leave the region without severe ramifications. Still, though, the United States could not continue on as it had before.

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The rise of alternative centers of power in the Middle East is precisely what the United States needs going forward. There is real strength in numbers when confronting the problems of the Middle East today. When the United States goes it alone in the region, terrible results ensue. But crafting a real coalition–however loose–of fellow states to help create a new, more stable balance-of-power in the region is precisely what is needed to prevent the region from falling into the radicals’ hands. In order to achieve this, the United States must be allowed to rely on its allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and France, to step in and create a manageable balance.

When Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s president, no one could have ever imagined that he would take a real leadership role in foreign affairs. At first, he appeared to be tweaking President Trump, with his calls for American innovators to move to France and set up shop there (since Europe in particular assumed that Trump would yet again turn the United States into “Fortress America,” and isolate away from the world). However, by the time that Trump and Macron met at the NATO summit–and the following G-20 summit–they appeared to be fast friends. In fact, Macron had very kind things to say about his meeting with Trump.

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Of course, the real question is: what’s below the surface? We’ve seen a deterioration of the long, historical Franco-American relationship. At times, France and the United States are inseparable. At other times, unfortunately, they are worlds apart. However, one thing has remained consistent: the French have always minded their own national interests. While it has rankled previous American administrations, right now, President Macron views France’s interests as having an active role in the Middle East. One of the biggest detractors of American foreign policy in the Middle East has been France. One could go as far as saying that it was France’s opposition to former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the collapse of the American diplomatic position, not only in the Mideast, but the entire world. We are still working to mend that troublesome, yet important alliance.

The fact that France wants a greater role in Mideast affairs is not surprising, either, to anyone who understands the history of France. A historically great power–one of the world’s premiere imperial powers for centuries–France has traditionally had an outsized role in the Mideast. Following the First World War, the Sykes-Picot Agreement made between the victorious French and British Empires effectively created the chaotic borders of the modern Middle East. France took Lebanon; it also had vital holdings in other parts of the Muslim world, such as Algeria, and various holdings throughout Africa. Previously, under Napoleon, the French took Egypt from the British and held it for some period of time.

In fact, much of the problems that the French are going through vís-a-vís immigration from the Muslim world emanates from France’s colonial history. You see, following the Second World War, the French were forced to begin shedding their colonial holdings. Even after they lost Algeria and several other colonies in the Muslim world, the French were suffering a massive labor shortage, and doubled-down on their plans to import as many former French colonial subjects into France as they could. This policy has continued unabated since the 1950s. The makeup and disposition of France has fundamentally changed because the French government could not–or would not–effectively manage the immigration flows into their country. The open borders of the European Union only exacerbated these problems in the present.

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French soldiers fighting in the brutal Algerian War.
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Fast friends: France’s Jacques Chirac and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 1975.
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Saddam Hussein visits a French nuclear reactor. French nuclear know-how would become the basis of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

From the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1970s, the French also had deep connections with the Baathist tyrant. French oil companies enjoyed a special relationship with the oil producers of Iraq; French arms traders also sold massive amounts of their deadly products to the Iraqi military. In fact, the French sold Iraq nuclear reactor technology. The French were also an important part of the U.S. coalition that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in Desert Storm. At the same time, the French have sought greater business ties with Iran and a retinue of other countries in the region–even when those ties complicated American foreign policy.

Again, these actions were in keeping with traditional French foreign policy. As I’ve argued at my lecture series at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., the French have always practiced realpolitik, rarely getting sentimental about alliances–especially after those alliances have outlived their usefulness. Under the Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), France was united as never before and became a dominant power in foreign affairs. This was done explicitly because Richelieu practiced an cold-hearted, clear-eyed balance-of-power realism that only future foreign policy leaders, such as Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, and Dr. Henry Kissinger (and several others) could ever understand.

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Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), one of the first practitioners of realpolitik.

In more recent times, the French developed their own nuclear arsenal and pulled out of NATO during the Cold War because they did not want to have their national interests subordinated to anyone–not to a supranational Europe or to the United States. France built its own arsenal of 300 nuclear weapons, in part, to ensure its independence from both Europe and the United States. Yet, France continues to enjoy a close relationship with the United States. But, French leaders–from de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac to Nikolas Sarkozy to Françoise Hollande to Emmanuel Macron–refuse to allow their country to become what they view as mere vassal state to the United States. This is a commendable position, if you are a Frenchman. It is incredibly obnoxious from an American perspective. But, the world we are living in today requires the United States to embrace a higher level of diplomatic tact and understanding for other countries than we have been willing to practice. This will be the United States’ greatest challenge to date.

So, the French moves into the Mideast (and don’t forget how France hit jihadist insurgents in the former French colony of Mali after Gaddafi was overthrown in neighboring Libya in 2011) are historically consistent with overall French foreign policy. Besides, France has always viewed parts of the Mideast and North Africa as falling within their sphere of influence–even after decolonization happened. The two questions that arise in my mind are: how serious is France’s diplomatic foray into the Mideast and how truly independent from American action are they?

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French soldiers fighting Islamic insurgents in Mali.

The reason that I inquire is because, despite our problems over the years, France has never fully disassociated from the United States. While Germany truly appears to be moving in its own direction away from the transatlantic alliance (and however nominally into the waiting arms of Vladimir Putin), France is unlikely to fully embrace a new political order that empowers both Germany and Russia in Europe. At the same time, neither Macron nor any other French leader will take the lead in pushing back too hard against either Russia or Germany. Instead, the French will appear as the middle man, trying to find an amicable deal in a tense situation. This has been the traditional French role. I suspect this is what the French seek to do in the Mideast, especially with so much money on the line regarding the Trump Administration’s desire to end the Obama Administration’s executive agreement with Iran over their nuclear program.

Aside from French action against Islamic militants in Mali, the French have taken several steps aimed at stabilizing the region. Yes, the French recently went bananas over the Trump Administration decision to recognize Jerusalem, but Macron’s government has also intervened in the ongoing Lebanon imbroglio, ensuring that the recent resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri was a legitimate decision and not due to unlawful Saudi Arabian influence (which fears growing Iranian influence in Lebanon). However, despite intervening diplomatically, the French have not moved against Saudi Arabia (many assume that Saudi Arabia was, in fact, behind Hariri’s resignation). Thus, however nominal their role has been, the French have seriously complicated Iranian geopolitical moves in the region, and ostensibly stunted Russian influence there also. The net benefits of recent French actions were conferred onto the American-led Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance in the region, which scores a victory every time Iranian influence is either rolled back or stunted.

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France’s Macron (right) meets embattled Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Macron was instrumental in preserving the Saudi position in Lebanon recently, as the Iranians have been trying to undermine Saudi influence there.

What we are witnessing is not the collapse of America’s position in the world. Instead, we are experiencing what scholar Robert Kagan rightly dubbed as the, “Return of History and the End of Dreams.” The American “unipolar moment” is over. A new, more complex multipolar world is upon us. The French are merely taking their position in that new-old world. The United States has existed in multipolar environments before. Remember, the United States was birthed at a time when multiple, great European empires ran the international order. In fact, the bulk of Ameirca’s history was defined by its existence in a multipolar world order. The key difference between that time and now is that the United States remains the most powerful state in the world.

The neoconservative, or as I prefer to call them, the “democratic globalists,” are offended by recent French moves in the Mideast because they believe it undermines the American-led “Liberal International Order.” I contend that such an order no longer exists–certainly not in the Mideast. That order died in the sands of Iraq and in the economic killing fields of the 2008 Great Recession. The United States cannot return to its purported “splendid isolation,” but it also cannot sail across the world and dictate to countries with the sort of impunity it previously enjoyed; financial and military power has simply become too diffuse globally to allow for the United States to practice that sort of foreign policy. Plus, it tends to overextend the United States, needlessly draining the treasury and getting many of our fine young men and women in uniform killed.

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Courtesy of Credit Suisse.

What’s needed in the world–particularly the Mideast–is a durable balance-of-power. That means more than one actor influencing events there. The Russians have stepped in and are doing their part. The French, for all of their limitations, appear interested in performing their role of stabilizing the region. American leaders, rather than lamenting the loss of our hegemony, should recognize that this alleviates the United States of having to waste any more time, resources, or lives in the Mideast. The powers that are seeking to fill the vacuum created by errant American policy over the last 17 years all share things in common with American foreign policy goals for the region: resisting jihadist terror, upholding Israel’s basic right to exist as a nation-state, we are committed to the Two-State Solution, and we want to prevent Iran from knocking off the Sunni Arab states. While we all may disagree on how severe we want to be with Iran, it remains clear that neither France nor Russia truly wants Iran to become the hegemon in the region.

Besides, the United States historically operates better as an offshore balancer. We prefer to remain wistfully aloof of the goings-on in a region as dangerous as the Mideast, deferring instead to regional actors who do our bidding, keeping our forces just over-the-horizon. Then, if and when things get too intense for those local actors to effectively serve our interests, the United States will intervene. The Iraq War of 2003 broke that trend. Actually, if you want to take the great Angelo Codevilla’s line, you could make the argument that the George H.W. Bush Administration’s decision to liberate Kuwait in 1991 was the event that broke the American-led Mideast order. But, that is a rhetorical bridge too far for the purposes of this article.

There is a path forward in the Mideast, and the French must play a serious and important role in forging ahead on that new path. The United States should seek to impose upon the region a balance-of-power that nominally favors its Israeli and Sunni Arab allies against the Iranians (and potentially the Turks as well). However, the idea that we should never again desire to see American GI’s patrolling a Mideast city’s streets, as we saw in Iraq, is apt. Therefore, diplomacy and an actual geopolitical strategy for dealing with the troublesome region will be the only thing that protects American interests going forward.

If Macron wants France to take a more active role in the region, we should encourage him. After all, misery loves company. We’ve already got the Russians joining us in this miserable party, let’s get the ultimate party-goers–the French–to bring their resources to the table as well!

Let them eat sand, I say.

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