Paris Lights: Sarkozy Charts A New Foreign Policy Course

In the traditional opening address to the French diplomatic corps, Nicolas Sarkozy presented a precise, coherent, logical outline of his foreign policy positions. One need not agree with all or any of Sarkozy's ideas to appreciate the contrast with the vainglorious platitudes of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. The carryover of certain hallmark themes of French diplomacy might blur the rupture with previous methods that have tarnished France's international reputation and influence. A brief reminder of past incidents of what I call French "duplomacy" will shed light on today's promise of something more straightforward and, as far as the United States is concerned, decidedly more friendly.

Let's review the history:

August 1991: First Gulf War. Socialist president François Mitterand leads France into the broad coalition organized with UN blessings to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. At the eleventh hour, when the coalition has delivered its ultimatum-immediate, unconditional, total retreat--Mitterand sends emissaries to titillate Saddam with promises of indulgence: if he will just make a statement of intention, a whisper of a promise to eventually, under certain circumstances, on condition of certain concessions, begin to think about pulling out of Kuwait, the military action will be called off. Meanwhile, the French media are predicting a military disaster...for the coalition...faced with the formidable Iraqi war machine. And commentators are explaining that Israel should withdraw from "Palestine" before Iraq is asked to abandon semi-legitimate claims to Kuwait. Yasser Arafat, who has pledged allegiance to Saddam, is received in Paris with open arms by then-Foreign Minister Roland Dumas.

September 30, 2000: Palestinian jihad-intifada against Israel is triggered by the Mohamed al Dura blood libel, produced in conjunction with state-owned France 2 TV. Yasser Arafat, Madeleine Albright, and Ehud Barak meet in Paris, convoked by wannabe peacemaker Jacques Chirac, who berates the Israeli prime minister for child-killing. France is inflamed with anti-Semitic violence. Government and media take sides with the Palestinian "résistants" fighting the "illegal Israeli occupation."

9/11 2001: After a brief moment of emotion, French media turn on the United States with a vengeance, and public opinion follows the piper; the U.S. is placed next to Israel in the shooting gallery. France's nominal participation in military operations in Afghanistan is kept out of the public eye, while anti-war sentiment is nourished and flattered. Government and media are on the warpath...against UN sanctions on Iraq. Enormous pressure to terminate the search for WMDs and welcome an all-is-forgiven Iraq into the international community. The oil-for-food scam is chugging away behind the scenes, and many of the grubby hands are French.

March 2003: Dominique de Villepin carries the battle against the United States to the heart of the UN. France threatens to use its veto to stigmatize the inevitable American intervention in Iraq. Massive weekly anti-war demonstrations--with big pro-Saddam, pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist contingents--whip up public opinion to a fury of white hot pacifism, culminating in violent attacks against Jews and Iraqi opponents of the dictator.

July 12, 2006: Hizbullah launches an unprovoked cross-border attack against Israel from its bases in Lebanon. Eight soldiers are killed, two are kidnapped (and still held to this day), dozens of missiles are fired into Israel. Two days later, Jacques Chirac solemnly declares that "someone" intends to destroy Lebanon. The Hizbullah war is packaged for domestic consumption as a Lebanese humanitarian crisis; French media play to the hilt the theme of civilian victims and miserable refugees; the French government repeatedly calls for an immediate humanitarian cease fire. MFA Douste-Blazy makes an official visit to Iran, praises this "great civilization...a stabilizing force in the region."


In this context, Sarkozy's recent speech implicitly announces a rupture with 40 years of "politique arabe" and the world view on which it was based. His foreign policy is formulated in the context of a clearly defined threat: the "confrontation" -or clash--between Islam and the West. And he places a nuclear Iran first and foremost among the dangers that must be faced. Some commentators have quoted him as saying that military action against Iran would be catastrophic. In fact, he says that unless we find a way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons we will be faced with the catastrophic choice between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran. But he has already stated, with no ambiguity, that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The choice is clear.

Close attention to the president's language and phrasing reveals varying degrees of rupture expressed diplomatically in a speech addressed to ambassadors. The Quai d'Orsay, like Foggy Bottom, has its ways and means. In fact, a little-noticed sentence at the end of the speech promises "a new stage in [the] modernization" of the Ministry, based on a White Paper drafted under the direction of former socialist MFA Hubert Védrine. (We may be forgiven for wondering what Védrine, an adept of that infamous politique arabe, will come up with and how it will jibe with president Sarkozy's aims and values.)

George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy shared something more meaty than hot dogs & hamburgers at their midsummer luncheon in Kennebunkport. The first tangible sign would be the visit of MFA Kouchner to Iraq, where he announced the end of the Franco-American rift opened in 2003. This new attitude is elaborated in the address to Messieurs les Ambassadeurs. Above and beyond a frank declaration of friendship with the United States-and despite the mandatory slap on the war-in-Iraq knuckles--the president reserves a sharp tap on the wrist of international institutions; " international crises such as Iraq, unilateral action leads to failure: but multilateral institutions--whether universal like the UN or regional like NATO--have not proved their effectiveness, from Darfur to Afghanistan." Though "history" confirms that France was right in opposing the war it does not justify indifference to the consequences. Sarkozy outlines the political solution, essentially reconciliation between all parties upon which the Iraqis will take affairs into their own hands, and concludes: "...this also implies the definition of a clear horizon concerning the withdrawal of foreign troops."

Take note --a "clear horizon" is not a timetable. Sarkozy is not voting with the Democrats! He is of course subscribing to the widely-held view that the military operation in Iraq is a disaster that never should have occurred but, instead of turning his back on the Americans and gloating over their "defeat," he offers to pick up a share of responsibility for the long term results. At the same time he plans to increase French troop strength (and not, as some English-language media reported, "aid") in Afghanistan. Two members of an obscure French NGO were kidnapped by the Taliban during the presidential campaign. The kidnappers demanded the usual -- release of dozens of prisoners and the immediate withdrawal of French troops. And it looks like what they're getting is more French boots on the ground. A fitting reply that the South Koreans would be wise to follow, now that their hostages have been released.

As indicated at a defense conference during the presidential campaign, Sarkozy is pressing European Union member states to increase their participation in the defense effort. A strong EU, capable of defending itself and acting in concert with--not in competition against--NATO, is in the interest of all. This is the Europe he is committed to, the strong Europe that will shoulder its share of the burden. And, we must observe, has miles to go before it wakes from its sleep.

Repeatedly referring to the imminent danger of a clash between Islam and the West, President Sarkozy confirms his "...reputation as a friend of Israel; and it is true. I will never compromise Israel's security." But, he continues, Mahmud Abbas and many other Arab leaders who have visited Paris since his election trust in his respect and friendship for their populations. One might expect him to go on from there with the usual demand for Israeli concessions to soothe Palestinian humiliation, suffering, and frustration, and remove the thorn from the side of the Middle East... He doesn't. Though reaffirming his belief in the two-state solution via the Road Map, he shifts the focus from vague peace wishes to a dire warning: If the international community accepts the fait accompli of a Hamastan in Gaza, it will be the first step in an Islamist takeover of the Palestinian territories. Sarkozy, like other Western leaders, calls for the reconstruction of the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Abbas.

Likewise, he promises that France will promote dialogue between all parties in Lebanon and encourage them to participate peacefully and fairly in the forthcoming presidential election. He invites Syria to work in favor of that peaceful solution, in which case a Franco-Syrian dialogue would become possible. All of this might sound like wishful thinking, vain hopes or, at the worst, a sanctimonious European cop out. The world is ablaze with life-threatening conflicts and Europeans keep talking about bringing all parties together for harmonious negotiation. The fact is that France has made zero progress in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority shows precious little authority, and Syria is not promoting harmonious relations anywhere. But Nicolas Sarkozy wants to be judged on his results in both foreign and domestic policies which, he insists, are inseparable. Absolutely. Especially since each of these particular situations is framed by a resounding warning of impending conflict between Islam and the West.

Did Sarkozy soften his stand on Turkey? I don't think so. Out of respect for his European partners, Sarkozy acknowledged that discussions with Turkey might or more certainly will continue. Reiterating his personal opposition to Turkey's admission into the EU, he advised that the pursuit of discussions should not preclude an ultimate refusal. This is a clear response to the Turkish "not if but when" claim that the EU, having gone this far, cannot turn back. Sarkozy responds that Turkey would more appropriately find its place in a Mediterranean Union that could also include Libya, "now that the affair of the medical personnel is settled." As envisaged by Sarkozy, this Union, built on the foundations of the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, would actively confront major problems such as global warming, pandemics, and exhaustion of fossil fuels. But, in a departure from the goals and purposes of the ongoing project, the Union would work vigorously to counter the retrograde and often violent refusal of modernity. In a globalized world, says Sarkozy, where the dangers and the opportunities are multiplied, and respect no frontiers, "...notions of Third World and non-alignment have no meaning." Turning his back on the discourse of solidarity with "les misérables" -and criminal indulgence for their misdeeds-Sarkozy invites Europe's southern (primarily Muslim) neighbors to embrace the challenge of globalization and stave off the catastrophic clash between Islam and the West.

Regretting that the new multipolar relations are marked by conflict when they should permit harmonious action between the great powers, Sarkozy scolds the United States, which is "unable able to resist the temptation of unilateral recourse to force" and unwilling to show capacity for leadership in environmental protection. This is followed by raps on the knuckles of Russia, for unbecoming brutality with its neighbors (using the gas spigot as a weapon) and China for gluttonous consumption of raw materials. This irritating, typically French snippetiness is, nevertheless, an improvement over the Chirac & Villepin strategy of cuddling up to Russia and China to entice their swing votes in the UN Security Council.

Reaffirming his confidence in Europe's role in promoting harmonious multilateralism based on mutual respect and fair play, Sarkozy proposes expansion of the UN Security Council to include Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, and an African representative, with a parallel, gradual expansion of the G8 to a G 13. He is confident in the prospects for reform of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the direction of France's candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Africa needs help to develop its potential, but it is not "the sick man of the world...does not need our charity." Aid should be maintained but managed more intelligently. Economic prospects will not be optimized without improved security and resolution of armed conflicts. The French president sees hope for a political solution in Darfur with the intervention of a hybrid UN-African Union force. He will personally preside at a meeting of the Security Council in New York on September 25th.

The discourse concluded with a tribute to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and a flourishing declaration of the president's ambitions for France.

Riding high on 71% approval ratings, Nicolas Sarkozy is true to his promise that foreign policy would be forthright, open, and subject to debate from both Parliament and citizens. While assuming ultimate responsibility for decisions, the president willingly exposes himself to judgment and criticism. Publication of the military cooperation document signed in Libya after the liberation of the hostages is not an embarrassment. Discussions with (ugh) Hugo Chavez in the hopes of liberating the Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt from the FARC - the Communist revolutionary army in Colombia - were announced today.

Fruitful debate on these issues should focus on the billion Euro question: when do you stop talking and start shooting? That is The Question! Somewhere between the awareness of a looming clash between Islam and the West and sincere hopes of avoiding it by intelligent strategy and well-meaning dialogue, the French president will have to make painful choices.