Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Let’s start with Chirac and go down the list…

Writing in today’s edition of le Figaro, French academic Alain Besançon, argues that France, among all the European countries, seems to have no idea where its real interests lie. Besançon’s argument is fairly straightforward. As far as he can see, the current outright threat on France’s part to veto a new UN resolution calling for force against Iraq is absolutely pointless. But as he notes, this is an unfortunately common role for France: it ignores its interests and just tries to be stylish. Chirac, it seems, just wants to be loved.

On an historical note – and few people know French history like Besançon – the article refers to the debacle of 1870 when then Emperor Napoleon III decided to launch a war against Bismarck’s still-consolidating Germany. The reasons for the war included Napoleon’s own desire to match up to his uncle’s greatness, along with the possibility that young Germany might itself threaten France as it had done four years earlier by beating the Austrians at Sadowa. But the reasons were all weak, Napoleon decided to parade like a peacock, and France went down to an overwhelming defeat.

And this brings us to the second editorial appearing in today’s le Figaro, this one from François de Closets. De Closets picks up where Besançon leaves off, with the notions of grandeur that spin in Jacques Chirac’s head. Many are the commentators comparing Chirac to de Gaulle who also forcefully challenged the US. But in de Closets’ view, the comparison to de Gaulle is a dangerous trap, and the reason is simple: de Gaulle was a great man, while Chirac is, well, just another politician. De Gaulle could back up his own stance and that of France with more than obstructionist rhetoric. De Gaulle was a real military hero while Chirac was just a lieutenant in the Algerian War.

More to the point, de Closets notes that when de Gaulle became president he inherited a financial house badly needing some order. By contrast, today’s France now has a deficit of approximately 3.4% of its GDP. This figure might not mean much except that it exceeds the 3% limit imposed by the European Union. Now, I’m not a great fan of the EU, but there is more here than just throwing mud in Brussels’ face. As de Closets points out, the French would have had to react to their financial and deficit problems sooner if the Euro currency were not in place. As it is, France has been able to avoid dealing with its deficit and monetary problems because it was able to ride on the back of an EU supported by the rest of Europe. And, as I’ve noted before, France is the only EU country that has exceeded the limit without apology, saying it will do nothing to correct the problem. Both Portugal and Germany ran into the same deficit troubles but they undertook austerity measures to come back into line with EU regulations. Not so France.

The point to both articles is that Jacques Chirac is putting on a show, one that ignores France’s real interests (which in this case would be to express moderate displeasure with a US invasion but to abstain during a vote at the UN Security Council) while sweeping its financial problems under a convenient rug provided by the rest of Europe’s nations. I suspect it is a game France will come to regret.


And heading down to Rome…

A Foxnews story tells us that the Vatican is increasing its anti-war efforts. I have to say, as one who has generally respected the current Pontiff, I am completely disgusted by what I hear coming from Rome. The Vatican seems to be opposing the war for various reasons, but two seem relevant to me.

The first is a general aversion to war, though, according to the Fox piece, Vatican representatives pointed out that the Pope isn’t a pacifist as he supported military action to disarm aggressors in Bosnia and East Timor. On the other hand, the Papacy opposed the first Gulf War which was a clear case of a brutal aggressor invading and occupying a sovereign country. Once again, according to Vatican representatives, the Pope’s current stand on peace is part of his evolving views on just war. In this regard, he certainly does seem to have some evolving views, especially since one of the main tenants of just war theory is that the decision regarding the war ultimately resides with the prudence of the earthly authority waging it. Now, this doesn’t mean said authority should ignore the principles of just war. A Christian ruler should follow these principles in making his or her decision, but the decision rests with the ruler, not the Church. The reason for this is that the secular ruler has a better grasp of the immediate political implications than does the Church.

This brings me to the second reason as to why the Church is opposing the war. Once again, looking at the article, we see that, according to the Vatican, the Pope is taking this position because he’s concerned about the future of Christian-Muslim relations and the possibility for freedom of religion in the twenty-first century. Though these are legitimate concerns in their own right, they’re certainly not part of the just war theory. Endearing the Catholic Church to the Muslim world is hardly a grave consideration in matters of war. Moreover, it runs contrary to the universalist message of Christianity. It may be important for the Vatican that Christianity sport a good reputation among Muslims, but why should George Bush consider this a more pressing concern than the defense of the US? This Pope stood on high moral ground when he spoke on behalf of human rights in Poland, but now it seems the Church is more interested in selling its image than such paltry issues as the human rights of Iraqis.

This brings me to another point that I find rather problematic. By taking its current stand, the Vatican appears to be siding with European public opinion. However, if the Vatican is so concerned about its image, wouldn’t you expect it to side with the US, which has a much more active Catholic population than Europe? Indeed, why is the Vatican not siding with the former Soviet bloc nations it once so vigorously defended against communism, nations that today acknowledge their debt to the US by providing both diplomatic and military support? I personally know numerous American Catholics, people who once supported John Kennedy, and who since have become Republicans, supporting Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. And if you’re sitting down to make up a list of the US’s most influential public intellectuals in matters religious, Michael Novak, a devout Catholic and great supporter of the current Pontiff, would be near, if not at the top. In short, the US is, despite recent sex scandals, fertile ground for the Catholic Church, far more so than France, Italy, Spain or Germany.

And this leads me to suspect that there is, in the heart of the Vatican itself, a festering anti-Americanism, left over from those many years when the US was seen as nothing more than the home of rampant liberalism, capitalism and Protestantism. This is a view most often associated with the French clergy who themselves were bitter enemies of the French Revolution and all things liberal. Old habits die hard, but as with France, the Vatican may well come to rue the day it sided with a dictator.


And back up to Strasbourg

Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Relations, has warned that EU funds for reconstruction in Iraq could be hard to come by if military action isn’t approved by the UN. He also has raised some questions about how the US will handle the Israeli-Palestinian issue following a war in Iraq.

And this leads me to ask one simple question of the Commissioner: Did the European Commission have permission from the UN in the summer of 2000, when it provided funds to the International Committee of the Red Cross to purchase six ambulances for transfer to the Palestinian Red Crescent which were subsequently used to transport weapons for attacking Israelis?

What am I talking about? I’m talking about my former period of employment with the fundraising division of the International Red Cross in Geneva. I was responsible for writing ICRC funding requests for financial assistance provided by ECHO, the European Commission Humanitarian Office. ECHO provides funds for emergency situations around the world. In 2000, I prepared a funding request for the purchase of six ambulances for delivery to the Palestinian Red Crescent. The funding was approved and the ambulances transported to the field.

One year later, it was my job to write the follow-up report on the ambulances. At the time, questions were raised regarding suspicions that the Palestinians were using the ambulances to transport weapons and fighters. And in their defense the EU did raise this point with my department, though not in an official way. In any case, I was aware that the EU had mentioned the problem. When I consulted my supervisor on how to respond to the EU query, I was told not to mention it. The official line from the ICRC was that they had no evidence of these activities. The whole issue was then forgotten by both the ICRC and ECHO until March 2002 when proof was found in the form of a belt used to strap bombs to the body of a suicide bomber. The belt was found in a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance underneath a stretcher. Nothing was made of the incident, and I can’t confirm if the ambulance in question was one provided directly by the ICRC with ECHO money. On the other hand, it did demonstrate that the rumors were true and that the ambulances were probably being used for such activities even while I was writing my final report for ECHO. Maybe if the Americans started blowing themselves up in a crowd of Iraqi civilians the EU would then consider loosening up its purse strings.

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