Wishful thinking has destroyed French foreign policy
Barcelona - When the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia met in Vienna in October in a tentative first diplomatic step to find an end to the bloodbath in Syria, France was not invited. As negotiations between major actors in the Syrian conflict have sped up recently, France and the United Kingdom have been sidelined.
The United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia pay little heed to the views of the trio who represent European foreign policy — Donald Tusk, Jean Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini. The European Union does not have a Middle East policy to speak of — it exploded in 2003 when its members split on the question of whether to back the US-led invasion of Iraq.
That French diplomacy should have been reduced to a walk-on part on Syria’s future deserves some explanation. France governed Syria for a quarter of a century after World War I under a mandate of the League of Nations. French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Syrian President Bashar Assad to the founding of the Union for the Mediterranean in Paris in 2008, but in February 2012 he decided to close the French embassy in Damascus.
Sarkozy’s minister of Foreign Affairs, Alain Juppé, predicted Assad would fall. In 2014, his successor, Laurent Fabius, called the man a “murderer who must leave” adding that “he does not deserve to be in this world”.
France chose, in concert with Britain and the United States, to back the “moderate” Syrian opposition, some elements of which turned out to enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, countries that can hardly be described as “moderate”.
The secularist opposition turned out to be more visible in Western hotel lounges than on the ground fighting Assad. The main opposition came from the Islamic State (ISIS).
But Fabius in his wisdom constructed a policy that excluded the Syrian head of state, Iran, Russia and ISIS. This was the French position through the attempts of the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to get the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table in 2012-14.
France’s foreign policymakers, which, under president Jacques Chirac, had opposed what was essentially an American neocon attempt to impose democracy through brute force of arms on Iraq, had forgotten Charles de Gaulle’s famous dictum that “we must take things as they are” and be careful to know who one’s principal enemy was.
However brutal Assad was, he had never threatened France. It was only in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015 that French President François Hollande acknowledged what should have been evident from the onset. He no longer wanted to bomb Assad’s forces but ISIS. He flew to Moscow to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man his foreign minister had openly expressed contempt for since 2012.
Today, Russia is on the front stage of diplomacy, France and Britain have written themselves out of the script and US President Barack Obama pursues what he feels are the United States’ interests in his policy towards Iran, Russia and Syria. As his interview in the Atlantic suggests, he is a long-term player. France in the Middle East is not a long-term player; it is simply not a player.
France forgot one cardinal rule of foreign policy, that keeping lines of communication — and embassies — open with one’s enemies, even if they appear disreputable to the Western public, is essential. Did its leaders think that Abdel Fattah al- Sisi in Egypt and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are all that much more reputable than Assad?
Franco-American relations are deeply flawed. No French leader would dream of lecturing the United States on economic affairs in view of the incapacity France displays in reforming its own economy, creating jobs and encouraging young entrepreneurs.
The country spends one-quarter of what it did in the 1960s as a percentage of gross domestic product on its military. The situation is akin to Britain, which has trimmed its military expenditures to the bone.
France took the lead in toppling Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 but then proved quite incapable not only of ensuring stability in Libya but in preventing weapons and fighters washing across the Sahel where they continue to destabilise one former French client state after another.
France has also gone neocon vis-à-vis Israel. It refused to recognise the Hamas victory in elections in Gaza in 2006. Its diplomats are banned from the territory and cannot aspire to a useful mediating role. It helped get Hamas designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.
Half a century earlier it had provided Israel with nuclear know-how and always said it would guarantee the security of Israel. That did not stop de Gaulle from criticising Israel. Since Sarkozy, French governments are ever more aligned on Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. French leaders will have to give up wishful thinking if they want their country to play a role in the Middle East. They could learn a lot from rereading de Gaulle. The deeper problem with Sarkozy, Hollande and his two successive foreign ministers, Fabius and Jean- Marc Ayrault, is that they usually fail to find the right words needed to express what is, admittedly, a very confused foreign policy.
“Men will forgive a man anything except bad prose,” said Winston Churchill. But his foreign policy was built on a lucid analysis of his country’s interests and like the leader of Free France, he was never short of eloquent words to convince his peers and countrymen.