The Real Reason Americans Bash the French

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First, a confession. Last winter, during the interminable debates at the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq, I thought — and wrote — that if the U.S. and Britain went to war against Saddam Hussein, France would join them. That was a triumph of cynicism over judgment — a cynicism shared, though this is no excuse, by top officials in the U.S. State Department — and it was, obviously, dead wrong. France stayed out of the war. For a few months this seemed like a catastrophic error on France's part, as Saddam was toppled and the Bush Administration puffed out its chest like a rooster that had just enjoyed half the henhouse. But now the U.S. needs help in Iraq, and France — in the eyes of Washington — is being awkward again. That has acted as a cue for a new burst of Francophobia in the commentariat, with suggestions even that France is becoming an enemy of the U.S.

This is nonsense on stilts. You can make any argument you like about whether France's policy on Iraq makes sense, but it is hard to claim that France has been either inconsistent or motivated by a desire to see the U.S. fail. In a long interview with TIME in February, President Jacques Chirac laid out his policy with admirable clarity. France, he said, had no difference with the U.S. "over the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." The point of distinction was simply that Chirac thought that war — which he believed would outrage Arab and Islamic public opinion and "create a large number of little bin Ladens"--should be a last resort.

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His prediction was better than mine. France's view on the current situation — that the Islamic world will more easily accept the new reality in Iraq if political authority is vested in the U.N. and then rapidly handed over to Iraqis — is entirely in line with France's long-held principles. That position may be mistaken, for conventional wisdom holds that nation building can't be hurried, but it is not self-evidently absurd or anti-American. So why the new round of Paris bashing?

Three reasons. First, there is something about Dominique de Villepin, the oleaginous French Foreign Minister — with his dashing good looks, his volumes of poetry, his love of the word logic — that just gets under American skins.

Second, there is continuing resentment in Washington that six months ago France did not just agree to disagree but actively lobbied other members of the U.N. Security Council against the American position on Iraq. That may have been unwise. But there is no evidence to support the most serious charge that some Administration supporters leveled against Paris back then — that France tried to persuade members of Turkey's Parliament to vote against allowing U.S. troops to transit Turkey on their way to Iraq.

But it is reason No. 3 that is the most interesting. The Administration and its supporters think — and this is going to shock you — that France is pursuing an independent Iraq policy out of naked self-interest. Chirac, in this view, is seeking to curry favor with the Islamic world and using France's disagreement with the U.S. to re-establish its political leadership in the European Union and become a rival to U.S. power.

Yet given the amount of oil in the Middle East, a Western government that does not want to be in the good books of regimes there is either energy-rich or brain-deficient. France is neither. And France's attempt to shape the European project in its own image is at least 50 years old. Given the continuing unwillingness of Europeans to pool their sovereignty in a true political union, France is no more likely to succeed in this effort now than it has been in the past.

There's more. It's a bit much for the U.S. to criticize a nation for pursuing policies that enhance its own interests, since — you'll be shocked to hear this too — that is precisely what Washington does. In a famous Foreign Affairs article in 2000, Condoleezza Rice, who later became George W. Bush's National Security Adviser, established the pursuit of national interests as the bedrock of U.S. policy. You may think, as I do, that most Administration decisions in the past few years have benefited the world as a whole, but there is no point in imagining that those decisions were taken for any reason other than that they suited Washington. Rice put the position perfectly: "There is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity, but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect."

France, in other words, is behaving just like the U.S., which makes me think the real reason for the latest outburst of Francophobia is embarrassment over the fact that the reconstruction of Iraq has been handled so poorly that the U.S. needs international assistance. It is American incompetence, not French venality, that has got Paris back in the big game. Admitting that is something the Administration finds hard to do.