The French Press Responds to Bush

Here we go! (Lost the thread? See the beginning of my previous post, i.e. of “Mon Sep 08, 2003,” as the peculiar pMachine software formatting puts it.) Plenty, plenty of commentary on Bush’s Sunday speech in the French press – let me try to cover as much as I can, in the time I’ve allotted myself (and it’s a generous slice, you can be sure, dear reader!) to write this.

Why not start with Le Figaro? My reflexive instinct is rather to start with Le Monde (“France’s New York Times,” and all that), but Tuesday’s print edition of Le Figaro irresistibly draws me with its big front-page, above-the-fold headline above the standard picture of Bush addressing the nation in the Oval Office: Qui veut aider Bush? – “Who Wants to Help Bush?”

(As a couple of other on-line papers do – oh, like Poland’s Rzeczpospolita and the Czech Republic’s Mlada Fronta Dnes, Le Figaro includes on its site a mini-image of the day’s front page, which you can click on to call forth a full PDF version, so that’s how I know what Tuesday’s print edition looked like on the newsstand.)

The accompanying article, by Washington correspondent Philippe Gélie, casts a close, critical eye on the President’s Sunday speech, and the reaction to it. At several points he invokes editorials written in response to that address in the New York Times and Washington Post as a sort of answering (and controverting) Greek chorus. Gélie finds that Bush delivered the speech “in a tone less emphatic than on other occasions, almost coldly and mechanically,” “without admitting either reverse or disappointment.” He promised “nothing but blood and tears” – but, significantly, offered no significant political concessions. Instead, his public was treated to a strained attempt to equate the billions he was asking for Iraq and Afghanistan to the Marshall Plan monies of after World War II – “but commentators judged the parallel as improper” (“abusif“), and his estimate of the financial cost to be borne as under-estimated.

Gélie was also listening to the things Bush didn’t say, the things he didn’t see fit to mention (“les non-dits“) but which Gélie does, like the as-yet-undiscovered weapons of mass destruction, or the as-yet-uncaptured Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Cue to the New York Times: (translating back from the French) “His [Bush’s] tendency to designate all [his adversaries] as terrorists seems intended to create confusion among the public, and not for clarifying his objectives.” And, at the end, Gélie can’t help but raise the spectre and possible parallel of Vietnam: a war that was unnecessary but, once in it, inescapable.

Things are no more cheery in the same issue with Luc de Barochez’s piece, as we can also tell right away from its headline: Le silence répond au président américain (“Silence Answers the American President”). The article begins “The more chaos develops in Iraq, the less candidates fall over themselves to help the Americans re-establish order” – except for the British, de Barochez admits, who have already sent reinforcements to their troops on occupation in Iraq. Well, don’t forget, M. de Barochez, that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called meeting of representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (in fact, it will be their foreign ministers/Secretary of State Powell there) to come up with a compromise on a new Security Council resolution to give the Americans what they claim to need and satisfy everyone else. That seems to me to be a tangible response to the President’s speech.

After this, in a clear-cut manner that recalls yesterday’s report from L’Express on the German Marshall Fund poll about European attitudes towards the US, de Barochez turns to a question-and-answer format:

Who could send forces to Iraq? Mainly India, Pakistan, and Turkey. But India, like France and Germany, insists on a UN Security Council resolution first. Turkey would want to dispatch its troops so they could go up north in Iraq and send a message to the Kurds; naturally, the Americans are not enthusiastic about this prospect. And Pakistan has to struggle between its need to propitiate its protector, America, and appease its very population, which was largely enraged by the Coalition attack into Iraq in the first place.

Could European nations intervene? Well, they’re already there, in the form of a British division and a “Polish” division of Poles plus Spaniards, Ukrainians, and a host of other contingents from all sorts of countries. There are two ways these “European” forces could be reinforced: By involving NATO in the Iraqi occupation (it’s already involved outside Europe after all, in Afghanistan) or by sending German and/or French troops – the latter highly unlikely!

Why are Washington’s allies so reluctant to help out? (The actual French is Pourquoi les alliés de Washington sont-ils embarrassés?, but be advised that that does not mean “embarrassed.”) Many of them were against the intervention in Iraq in the first place, considering it illegitimate. Politically, why take the risk of getting to share in a strategic failure? Why suffer the inevitable casualties – keep in mind the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

Is it possible to win the peace in Iraq? (Ah – now there’s the nub!) De Barochez evades the question: he speaks instead of the two main strategies envisioned to win that peace – an American one and a French one, of course! The American strategy: Wear down the resistance, improve the Iraqi economy, install a pro-American government, and then get out, all the while sharing the troop and financial burdens with the rest of the international community.

The French strategy (as apparently recently enunciated by foreign minister Dominique de Villepin): Give back to the Iraqis as fast as possible their national sovereignty – and get out! Any remaining troops would remain because the new Iraqi national authority would explicitly want them there.

What will the UN do? America’s decision to turn back to the the Security Council for help puts France and Germany back in the game. C’est un succès tactique [that’s right, a “tactical success”] pour Paris et Berlin. The first step is the meeting in Geneva this weekend called by Kofi Annan – which I already mentioned above. But, in de Barochez’s estimation, things will only start happening when the General Assembly meets in the week of 22 September. The big boys will be on hand in New York for that – Bush, Chirac, Schröder, Putin.

Is a franco-american compromise possible?Paris et Washington sont aux antipodes” – that is, they’re currently very far apart. Washington needs help in Iraq; France battles with achieving three objectives: 1) NOT being drawn into any participation in any occupation force (well, at least that’s being frank!), while 2) Avoiding a renewed deterioration in its relations with the world’s superpower, and 3) Avoiding things going to hell in a handbasket (my own free translation, of course) in a region of strategic importance to it, the MidEast/Persian Gulf. Dominique de Villepin says that Paris will approach things “in a constructive and open spirit,” but De Barochez still fears that the positions of Paris and Washington are still too far apart for there to be any hope of a meeting of the minds.

Finally in Le Figaro there is the commentary piece by Alexandre Adler: Bush: une vision infantile du monde?, or “Bush: An Infantile Vision of the World?” (Just to clue you in, his answer is “yes.”) Things are falling apart in the MidEast generally, Adler observes: in Iraq, in Palestine, and there’s a sense that, “like a cloth stretched to its breaking point,” something really serious is about to give way into crisis there. One sign of this is the “total about-face in the discourse of President Bush,” who is now appealing “almost pathetically” to his European allies to bail him out of the trouble he’s gotten himself in.

Let’s see how we got here, Adler says, and thereupon conducts his own review of the history of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. At first, though it may have the label “foreign,” this policy was directed by domestic politics. The US labored to separate Russia from China, so as to make the former a firm, oil-producing ally, while Secretary of State Colin Powell advocated “intelligent sanctions” against Iraq, to tone down the state of hostility between the two nations. And, back then, the less said or done about relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the better.

Then came September 11, which turned this regime upside-down and thrust external considerations into the driver’s seat of US foreign policy, namely warding off the terrorist threat. The neo-conservatives grouped mainly around Donald Rumsfeld at the Defense Department seized the opportunity to grab control of US strategy, and put Iraq in their gunsights. But they found that the “benign neglect” policy towards the Palestinians was no longer tenable, if they wanted to retain any hope of keeping the Arab world on their side just while they were going after one of its oldest and most important states. So they enunciated a grand strategic vision of democracy in Iraq, independent statehood for the Palestinians, and even reform of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Now that vision, as Adler puts it, is exploding before our very eyes. In explaining why, he takes his inspiration from Clausewitz: Just as Napoleon did when invading Russia, the US has now reached the point of over-extension when it is ripe for counter-attack. (In a witty aside, he notes that, just like Napoleon, the Americans have on their side the “bravery that is a little too automatic and not-thought-out” (“la bravoure un peu irréfléchie“) of the Poles.)

The only solution can be retrenchment, retreat – “renouncing an infantile vision of the world.” Just as Great Britain did at the beginning of the last century, the US, too, must recognize the dangers of over-extension and drastically scale down its ambitions for remaking the world.

As long as we’re dealing with, shall we say, unfriendly commentators, let’s take a look at how they view things at the newspaper of the French Communist Party, L’Humanité. The article there has the rather jumbled-together title Etats-Unis-Irak Bush sur la défensive, or “US-Iraq Bush on the Defensive.” And it’s going to be a quick look – there’s not much there. Strangely, writer Camille Bauer relies heavily on our old friends, the New York Times and Washington Post, to provide the counter-arguments to what Bush said in his Sunday speech. (If this keeps up, I’m out of business – all we will all have to do is read those two papers on-line every morning.)

Bauer at least points out some contradictions in Bush’s address. He maintained that Iraq is now the central front in the war against terror, and so that its occupation “is key for our security,” failing to mention that that occupation is attracting would-be terrorists from all over the world, determined to undermine that security. And he spoke about the UN resolution that the US would submit, which would give “our allies the opportunity and the responsibility to assume a larger role,” but failed to mention that that resolution in the form it was submitted was unacceptable to those allies since it made no concessions of control to the UN. And she, too, could hear what Bush chose not to talk about: the WMD, of course, but she also puts into this category the (at that time) imminent resignation of Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, which threatens to gut the “road map” approach to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Even while a confession of weakness,” Bauer writes, “Sunday evening’s speech was also designed to show a president sure that he is in the right and steady on his course.” As the situation in Iraq worsens, Bush nonetheless largely still retains the support of the American people – 70% of which also continue to believe in a connection between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks.

Finally, we get to Le Monde and Dominque Dhombres’ commentary: Télévision: Les suspects habituels (“Television: The Usual Suspects”). Things are not too friendly here, either, in fact they’re rather less so: “It’s always a trial to await the middle of the night to hear a speech from the American president,” Dhombres starts his article. “But this time it was even worse. George W. Bush had his Texan accent more nasal and a much more monotone delivery than usual.”

OK, M. Dhombres, but what about the substance of what Bush said? Rather thin, in his opinion: Basically, that the Americans will carry on. And that there will be neither (American) additions to or subtractions from the force of 130,000 soldiers that is there.

What Bush didn’t discuss, Dhombres maintains, is the main surprise of the past few months, which is the crumbling away of any civil administration in the country. This alone should show that comparisons that are made with the post-World War II occupations of Germany and Japan are off the mark. The President instead was content to read from a letter of a US Army captain in-country about the desire for freedom he saw every day in the eyes of “hundreds of Iraqis”; that cuts no mustard (Dijon, or otherwise) with M. Dhombres.

To Bush, the Iraqi problem currently boils down to financing the occupation. He needs more money from the Congress, and from America’s allies. Dhombres gets his article’s title from CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour’s remarks in the wake of Bush’s speech about the “usual suspects” to go to when you need financial help to do something in the world, like occurred with the 1991 Gulf War. But this time passing around the tin cup is likely to be a rather more difficult exercise.

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