Remember when Fox News was bashing the French as "weasels," Homer Simpson dismissed them as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and the Congressional dining room handed Paris the ultimate insult of replacing French fries with Freedom fries on its lunch menu?
Consider the irony of the flip-flop that has just taken place on Syria. Britain, which hurtled headlong into George Bush's Iraq adventure in 2003, will sit this one out following a Parliamentary vote against military intervention against Syria. France's Socialist President François Hollande, meanwhile, announced that despite Britain's defection, France would stand by the U.S. in a still undefined punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retaliate for his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own rebellious population.
"The chemical massacre by Damascus cannot and shall not remain unpunished," Hollande told Le Monde on Thursday. "Otherwise, we would risk seeing an escalation that would normalize the use of these weapons and threaten other countries." Quite a change from the dramatic speech of former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin who eloquently defended his "old, proud nation" in its refusal to join the U.S. and Britain in their ill-considered attack on Iraq.
What's going on here? French public opinion, like that in Britain, is heavily weighted against taking any direct military action in Syria. But France's presidential government, unlike Britain's parliamentary system, does not require the chief executive to seek parliamentary approval for foreign military interventions. With a freer hand, Hollande is able to take whatever steps he deems to be in the French interest—and his own political interest. But what is his motivation?
Though the Obama administration is doubtless pleased to see the French lining up alongside the U.S. on this issue, Hollande's main consideration was not to ingratiate himself with Washington. Beyond his stated determination to punish what France considers a moral and legal atrocity, he seeks to reinforce his country's role as a major player on the international scene. France's recent incursion in Mali, like its earlier support for the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya and its calls for direct support of the Syrian rebels, is in line with an interventionist reflex that has been evident for decades. The era of Gaullist neutrality is long over.
Another apparent motivation for Hollande is a desperate need to shore up his public image at home, where he has become a highly unpopular leader with a reputation for feckless leadership in the face of an entrenched economic crisis. Even though French public opinion opposes action in Syria, it may be in Hollande's interest to demonstrate toughness and decisiveness in the international arena.
The real question about the threatened U.S.-French action is what good it might do. Hollande saysthe aim is not to provoke the fall of Assad regime, but to encourage him to negotiate with the rebels. This is a total delusion. Anyone who knows anything about Bashar al-Assad, or his late father Hafez al-Assad, or any mideast dictator for that matter, should realize that they would never consider negotiations whose only outcome would be to weaken or strip away their own power. Whatever action the West might take in this instance or in the future, Assad will most probably fight on until he is defeated, captured, or killed.
As for the possible negative fallout of an intervention, the scenarios are chilling: Syrian retaliation against U.S. allies Israel, Turkey and Joradn, terrorist strikes against Western targets, a defiant re-use of chemical weapons, or an escalation that leads to a boots-on-the-ground action by the U.S. The ultimate danger is that of a broader proxy war involving Iran (in support of the Assad's Alawite regime), Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (in support of the Sunni rebels), and Russia (Assad's main international ally and arms supplier). Given that most military experts and diplomats doubt the effectiveness of a slap-on-the-wrist action in changing the course of the Syrian conflict, the risks appear by far to outweigh any possible gains in terms of soothing our consciences and preserving our "red line" credibility.