Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some of his Pentagon
associates appear to be waging a private vendetta against France. Given how much
France's military and intelligence services help the United States globally, this
type of petty retaliation amounts to cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. It should stop.
The Pentagon has not denied, and may even have planted, false rumors that
France helped some members of Saddam Hussein's government escape Iraq. More recently, Rumsfeld has canceled France's normal participation in the "Red Flag" air combat training exercises, downgraded the two countries' joint
appearances in air shows, and, according to some reports, even threatened to cancel France's invitation to maritime sanctions enforcement operations in the Arabian Sea. And the idea of any French participation in stabilization efforts inside
Iraq has been anathema to the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld's approach is the diplomatic equivalent of carpet bombing when what America needs is a precision strike. France's Ministry of Defense was not the
problem in recent months — in fact, it can often be a check on the more Gaullist tendencies of other parts of the French government. Why would America want
to weaken or embitter it?
Although Rumsfeld himself contributed greatly to the chasm in U.S.-Europe
relations, he and other Bush administration officials have a fair complaint about
President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. They did not just take a principled stand different from America's on Iraq. They have
made containment of U.S. power a central organizing objective of their foreign policy. That led them to ignore their own commitment to see Saddam disarmed.
France proposed no serious alternative strategy to that chosen by the Bush
administration in the months leading up to war, and did everything in its power to weaken the international political and legal basis by which America
ultimately overthrew Saddam.
These were unfriendly actions, unworthy of an ally and inconsistent with the values of a country that emphasizes the need for justice and human rights in
the international order. They also justify a certain amount of U.S. diplomatic pique. President George W. Bush's decision not to meet privately with Chirac during the G-8 summit meeting that starts Sunday in Evian, France, is entirely understandable, as is the strong U.S.-British preference for running postwar Iraq on their own, rather than turning the job over to a United Nations in which France retains veto power.
But even as Bush and Powell send a strong message to Paris, they realize the continued importance of the alliance. They just worked hard to pass a new UN Security Council resolution authorizing nation-building efforts in Iraq. French officials have cooperated, even if they still cannot resist giving lectures about their new mission civilisatrice to contain American power. Meanwhile,
however, Rumsfeld's payback campaign seems to be just warming up.
Those who think that France is just a minor player in global security affairs, and that America can easily do without its help, need to consult the facts. France is the only European country besides Britain capable of projecting substantial military force abroad. About 10 percent of its 300,000 troops are posted abroad, including 2,500 in Bosnia, nearly 4,000 in Kosovo, several hundred in Afghanistan, 3,000 in Ivory Coast and thousands more in other parts of Africa.
In addition to these ongoing commitments, France is now trying to organize and lead an emergency military operation to stop a looming massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bush's government, which emphasized the
humanitarian benefit of eliminating Saddam's regime, should be more grateful that one
U.S. ally is trying to address an even larger human catastrophe in central Africa.
Finally, France's military assistance will probably still be needed in Iraq. Rumsfeld has stubbornly refused to recognize the challenges associated with
stabilizing Iraq. He left U.S. troops unprepared to stop postwar looting and crime; he also continues to entertain the illusion that America can quickly reduce its military presence there. Someday soon, he will probably realize that America needs much more allied help to conduct a long and large operation in Iraq. At that point, America will again need France.
It is time for Rumsfeld to cool down and to place lasting U.S. interests ahead of personal pique.