A couple months after we invaded Iraq I was in a cafe in Paris talking politics. Guy I was talking to was a very pro-American French lawyer. He considered the US his second home. He got off a funny, self-deprecating line about the irrelevance of French reaction. “What difference does it make? We are a small, arrogant, intellectual country, what difference does it make if we support you?”
But the thing that struck me at the time was that he said, in a shrill, worried tone, “It’s going to be a disaster.”
My response was basically, “Look, can I defend the way we’re handling the occupation? I don’t think anyone can defend it. But we just got there. Give us time. Then we’ll see.”
And he answered, “Yes, we’ll see, and it’s going to be a disaster.”
Score one for the French. The French were right about Iraq. They were right about Vietnam before that. (And why shouldn’t they be, they set the table for that fiasco.) But we Americans don’t give any points to people for being right. The fact that the French and most other Europeans were dead right about Iraq, and we were dead wrong, does not compute.
They said, “disaster,” we said, “cakewalk.” Then, inexplicably, we acted as though we believed our own propaganda. We treated Iraq like a cakewalk and we got a disaster. The French were right. We were wrong. Didn’t have to come out that way, maybe, but it did.
If we’d listened to the French, Saddam would presumably still be in power, the French government and the UN would still be playing footsie with him, the sanctions regime would undoubtedly be badly frayed by now, might in fact have collapsed entirely. Saddam would still be murdering and torturing and perhaps — but only perhaps — be looking for yellowcake and centrifuges. There’s no way to know, of course. Alternate history is shaky even as a literary genre, and it isn’t much use in the real world.
Beneath my French friend’s worried pessimism lay deep skepticism about the use of military force. The French are skeptical for some good reasons, and some bad reasons. I’m not defending their every conclusion.
Beneath my worried optimism was confidence in American power. At that point it was only still dawning on me that we had fools in charge. I cling to the fact — yes, it’s fact — that Donald Rumsfeld and his bosses were incompetent because I don’t want to go all the way to French on this. I want to believe we can still, under some circumstances, do useful work with bombs.
But it occurs to me that we might in the future want to listen a little more carefully to the French. We have in this country a parodic view of the French as military failures. This is derived almost entirely from the well-known collapse of French forces before the Nazis. But that attitude — always simplistic given Bonaparte and the tenacious French performance in World War I — is a relic of a bygone era. We have our own military failures now. In Korea we fought to a draw. In Vietnam we lost. In Gulf War I we started well and booted the follow-through. In Afghanistan we are losing. In Iraq we are losing.
It’s not 1945 anymore, and we’re more French than we like to admit.
(cross-posted from Sideways Mencken.)