Thursday, May 01, 2003

France, Shocked and Awed

The end of the war in Iraq has left both France and the United States in an interesting position. There is talk of America punishing France and there is Jacques Chirac’s recent summit with the German, Belgian and Luxembourgian leaders to create a new European defense force that, despite claims to the contrary, would no doubt rival NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance. There is ongoing wrangling at the UN over lifting sanctions on Iraq and there is the row between Chirac and Blair. I plan to address these issues in upcoming posts, but for now I’d like to take a brief look at how France has reacted to the coalition victory against the forces of Saddam Hussein.

Throughout the events leading up to the war the French media was largely unanimous in its opposition to military action and in support of Chirac’s willingness to use France’s veto at the UN. During the campaign this same media was full of dire warning and forebodings at every step. The specters of Vietnam and Somalia were raised and each day seemed to provide the assurance of a military quagmire just around the corner. The French reveled in the failure of “shock and awe” and affirmed with superior wisdom that the countless deaths of civilians in Baghdad would produce a bitterly hostile population. Defeat and disaster awaited this coalition of hubris.

Then a funny thing happened: within four weeks from its outset, the war was more or less finished. Suddenly there was shock and awe, but this shock and awe occurred worked its magic on a cynical French media left dazed by the sudden fall of cities like Baghdad and Tikrit. This isn’t to suggest that the French have admitted they were wrong in their assessments of how the war would progress – they have not. But something else has settled in among the French commentators, something very unusual for the French: silence. On the whole, the French media is now saying very little about the war, about the lack of resistance in Baghdad, about non-existent terrorist attacks against western targets, about the failure of the Arab Street to rise up and topple their governments. But what is most interesting is that the French media is now saying relatively little about the reconstruction of Iraq, including recent violence in Shiite communities. I use the term “relative” because there are some attempts to chide the Americans on their recent “failings” in Iraq, but on the whole, these are not nearly as vociferous as during the war itself.

The only reason for this lack of chatter appears to be precisely, shock and awe. I have the impression that the French commentators, so wrong about the actual war itself, are now too stunned to say much about the reconstruction. In one sense this is rather surprising since a reasonable assessment of the situation should have led an objective observer, especially one with any familiarity with the US and the Bush administration, to the conclusion that military actions would be well-organized, precise and withering. By contrast, the reconstruction will likely be considerably slower, more tedious and complex. But cowed by their failure to predict the military outcome, the French seem to be simply turning away from the difficult issue of reconstruction in order to hide their embarrassment. It must also be said that they are now more absorbed by domestic French concerns, such as pension and retirement reforms.

But this isn’t all there is to the story. Over the past week, I’ve seen a number of more thoughtful French intellectuals appearing on television to discuss events in Iraq and in the Arab world in general. In fact, I’ve been a bit shocked and awed myself to see two French specialists on the Middle East argue that recent difficulties for the Americans with Iraqi Shiites backed by Iran will likely not turn into major obstacles when it comes to rebuilding an Iraqi government. Just a few days ago, well-known French author Bernard-Henri Lévy appeared on television to discuss his new book on the murder of journalist Danial Pearl. Lévy has made a career out of opposing the great totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including terrorism. During his interview he spoke of the need to support the US reconstruction efforts and for France to do all it can to ensure the success of American efforts to prevent an Islamicist theocracy from taking over Iraq. More importantly, Lévy spoke about the problem of French anti-Americanism which he characterized as a deep, abiding and dangerous ideology in the French soul. By contrast, he argued that current American francophobia was not connected to any form of ideology in the US. In fact, he said that Americans are virtually immune to the sort of totalitarian ideologies that have ravaged Europe over the last one hundred years. This is a rather provocative statement for a French intellectual, especially one as prominent as Lévy (also known affectionately as BHL).

BHL, however, is not alone. There are still some French public intellectuals, people like Alain Finkielkraut, Jean-François Revel and André Glucksman, who have continually argued against the scourge of anti-Americanism that pervades so much of the French intellectual, political and journalistic elite. But this still raises the question as to why the French were so incorrect about the war in Iraq. Much of the reason I think lies with the French media and with the status of the majority of its public intellectuals. And the best way to highlight this problem is to compare French and American public intellectuals. Of course we run into something of a problem here since America doesn’t really have an intellectual class, at least not in the sense that France does. Still, we can identify a number of influential and well-educated people in the US who might be said to fill this role. Conveniently enough, many of them have recently appeared on European, or at least British television, over the last month. Among the interviews I’ve seen while watching the BBC include those with Bill Kristol, Donald Kagan and David Frum. What struck me about all three interviews was how well-informed each man was, how forthcoming, calm and articulate each was under difficult questioning and how persistent they were in overturning the shabby clichés so often repeated in the European press. I couldn’t help but compare this with the numerous French public intellectuals and “media experts” I’ve seen paraded across the television during the last few months. Apart from people like Lévy, Finkielkraut and Glucksman, the French intellectuals were largely bumbling incompetents who relied on their ability to express mundane but popular myths through the medium of well-worn philosophic concepts. But in reality they had little of interest to offer and certainly had no facility for deep reflection as regards the issues on which they held forth.

As Jan Marejko noted in his article posted on this site, what many French fail to see is that people like Kristol and Frum - the neo-conservatives - are among the best educated political commentators in the US or Europe. Moreover, they reflect on issues such as war and peace, diplomacy and national sovereignty, in ways Europeans largely no longer do – a point made by Alain Finkielkraut in a recent debate. Indeed, I just finished reading Max Boot’s recent book on small wars. This is the sort of book that would simply not be written in France. But then it is also the sort of book that would have had little hearing in the US in the years after the Vietnam War. Today Europe and France waste their energies fiddling with the distraction of the European Union when they should be thinking more politically and more humanly. There are some in France, in its schools and in its media, who are trying to think intelligently. I would hope the shock and awe of America’s success in Iraq would assist them, though I have my doubts it will. Still, in the meantime, it seems to have silenced the chattering intellectuals of France. It may be temporary, but I’ll take it for as long as it lasts.

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