An Alliance In Ruins


What's Really Behind

the War Between

France and the U.S.

By Jean-Marie Colombani and Walter Wells

Melville House -- 163 pp -- $16.95


By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Crown Forum -- 309pp -- $25

Early last year, when the Iraq crisis looked to be wrenching apart old alliances, Secretary of State Colin Powell took a step back to talk about strained relations between the U.S. and France. The two countries, he said in a speech in late January, 2003, "have been in marriage counseling for 225 years. Guess what? The marriage is there. And it will be there." It's true that Washington and Paris have long been uneasy allies: Perceived slights on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt fed Free French leader Charles de Gaulle's prickly independence. That reached full expression when, as the President of France, de Gaulle summarily pulled his country out of NATO's integrated military command in 1966. Over the years, American and French officials have quarreled over trade, the Middle East, relations with the then-Soviet Union, and other issues. Yet there was never any doubt that the two countries were on the same side.

However, in the space of a few weeks in early 2003, things changed drastically. In a move that shocked the White House -- and even surprised much of the French political Establishment -- French President Jacques Chirac and his flamboyant then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin moved to derail the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council and in NATO. The unprecedented change of tactic resembled the kind of behavior that "you have when the marriage is irreparably over. There's nothing to preserve, and you want to win at all costs, because losing will cost dearly," in the words of Walter Wells, executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

In Dangerous De-Liaisons: What's Really Behind the War Between France and the U.S., Wells engages in a sophisticated back-and-forth dialogue with Jean-Marie Colombani, editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Wells is an urbane American who has lived in the French capital for more than two decades, and Colombani is a paragon of the Parisian intellectual elite. Their slender book contains many insights into the nature of American-French ties, although the two men too often agree -- it might have been more stimulating to pit Colombani against a real Washington Francophobe. The book also takes a hard look at the miscalculations made on both sides of the Atlantic as the U.S. became increasingly intent on military action in Iraq.

In the unrelenting and sensationally titled The French Betrayal of America by conservative investigative journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman, Iraq is the main focus. A specialist in military and strategic matters, Timmerman chronicles the extremely close, three-decades-long association between Saddam Hussein and his main booster in the West, Chirac. Books examining the fraught Franco-American relationship are already a growing cottage industry in France. These two are among the first to appear in the U.S., and while neither provides the definitive word on the subject, both are well worth reading.

It is not surprising that Iraq would eventually become such an apple of discord. The Gallic fascination with Saddam Hussein was already evident in 1975, when Chirac, then the youthful Prime Minister, went in person to Orly Airport to greet the Iraqi leader, who had just begun a bloodthirsty rise to power. Here was a chance for France to have its own special relationship with a major oil power, a tie that could serve as a counterweight to the long American embrace of Saudi Arabia. France in general and Chirac in particular would stop at nothing to please Saddam, whether selling Baghdad some of the most sophisticated weaponry in France's arsenal or supplying a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor, later destroyed by Israeli jets in a daring 1981 raid.

In the next decade and a half, Baghdad would spend a good $20 billion on French arms, becoming by far the largest single customer apart from the French military itself. "Nearly one thousand French defense contractors cashed in, from the giants -- Dassault, Aerospatiale, Thomson-CSF, Matra, and Giat -- on down to manufacturers of electronic circuit boards, fiberglass boats, parachutes, and camouflage nets," writes Timmerman. "The real question was not who belonged to the pro-Iraq lobby, but who would dare oppose it."

That multibillion-dollar arms bazaar also meant a rich stream of commissions and kickbacks, not only to Arab middlemen but to French officials. Timmerman suggests -- without quite providing a smoking gun -- that Iraqi money oiled and may have propped up Chirac's own political machine, the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR). True, the RPR was far from being squeaky-clean, but sensational allegations that lots of cold Iraqi cash flowed into its coffers remain just that: allegations. Moreover, at times, Timmerman's use of biased sources leads him to level absurd charges, such as the notion that Saddam drained the vast marshes of southern Iraq to make the terrain easier going for French oil companies, as a Kurdish leader maintains. Instead, the Iraqi dictator took the action in order to deny cover to southern rebels.

It may well be that France and the U.S. would have collided, even without the convenient excuse of Iraq. Over the past 20 years, economic policies have been increasingly diverging, as have the two countries' approaches to key social questions such as capital punishment. Moreover, Bush's ascent in January, 2001, heralded a new generation of U.S. politicians for whom Europe and the Atlantic Alliance seemed no longer to be a central focus.

For Colombani, the differences are even more profound, dating from the very origins of the two republics. He observes how Napoleon Bonaparte structured France as a centralized republic run by an elite. And Napoleon steadily concentrated more power in his person, as First Consul and then as self-proclaimed Emperor. In contrast, American founding father George Washington renounced such concentrated power, favoring a decentralized republic characterized by institutional checks and balances.

Chirac, it seems, may be the heir to that Napoleonic tradition. This can be seen in everything from his imperious and condescending attitude toward Eastern and Central European nations that sided with Washington last year to a basic misunderstanding of the post-September 11 temperament of the U.S. and his miscalculation of President Bush's determination to go to war. As the head of a center-right coalition, Chirac had originally been judged to be somehow more instinctively pro-American than the outgoing Socialist government or his Socialist predecessor at the Elysée Palace, François Mitterrand. Nothing is further from the truth: Chirac effortlessly tapped into the deep vein of anti-Americanism that exists as much on the nationalist French right as on the left.

Will an eventual change of leadership in Paris and Washington, then, put things back on an even keel? Perhaps not. The crisis in Franco-American relations may reflect a deeper rift between America and Europe as a whole -- making it hard for the countries to work together on such matters as peace in the Middle East and free trade. Some, like Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior associate Robert Kagan, suggest that the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War removed the one principle that kept the democratic West bound together. It is far from clear whether the "war against terrorism" can have a similar unifying effect. The recent Franco-American rift is not a good omen.

By John Rossant

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