Shadow Government

Why French Fries Really Are Freedom Fries

An American president tries to pursue an ambitious gambit to deal with a Middle Eastern country's suspected WMD program, only to be stymied in a multilateral forum by French intransigence. Does this describe the George W. Bush administration's feud with Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin over Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Yes, but this is also what happened over the weekend to the Obama administration's effort to cut a deal in Geneva with Iran over its nuclear program, until blocked by Francois Hollande's French government. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius derided the provisional agreement with Iran as a "fool's game" because it reportedly conceded too much to Tehran, particularly allowing construction to continue of the Arak plutonium reprocessing plant, and permitting Iran to keep its current stocks of enriched uranium and even continue some enrichment efforts up to 3.5 percent.

American surprise at France's posture towards Iran is probably colored by lingering memories of former president Jacques Chirac's vocal opposition to the Bush administration's Middle East policies. The tragi-comic nadir of U.S.-France relations during those years came when the Congressional cafeteria renamed “French Fries” as “Freedom Fries.” But diplo-culinary spats notwithstanding, Chirac was an aberration. As a former senior British national security official (and otherwise critic of the Bush administration) recently commented to me, Chirac was probably the most anti-American French leader since the days of Vichy.

It is not just Hollande who is a hawkish internationalist; his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was as well. Nor is this just a 21st century phenomenon. Shortly after becoming president, Ronald Reagan was famously surprised to discover that the socialist French President Francois Mitterand was also a fierce anticommunist. While Reagan had initially adopted a common stereotype of French socialists as timorous and unreliable in international politics, he soon realized that France under Mitterand would be a bold and valued American ally in the conflict with the Soviet Union.

So perhaps Americans today should not be surprised that another French socialist, the current president Hollande, has also embraced an assertive foreign policy. This provides the backdrop for France's role this past weekend in holding the line against what appears to have been an effort by the US to push a dubious deal with Iran.

The Obama administration's actions this past week also helped clarify a lingering question hanging over the negotiations: which side holds the strongest leverage? Was Tehran motivated to come to the bargaining table by the acute pain it is suffering from economic sanctions and a genuine willingness to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program? Or was Tehran motivated instead by its perception that the Obama administration is irresolute and desperate for a deal in the wake of its embarrassing volte-face on Syria? Judging by the terms of the failed deal, where the US would trade concrete sanctions relief in exchange for abstract Iranian promises, it was unfortunately the latter.

Meanwhile, France has quietly emerged as the leading member of the transatlantic community and the most assertive in responding to - and shaping -- the many dislocations of the Arab Awakening. It began with Libya, where France under Sarkozy catalyzed (and even jumped the starter gun) the NATO intervention. Then France took the lead on sending forces to restore order in Mali as it fractured amidst a military coup and Islamist takeover of the north. On Syria, France has consistently advocated more support for the moderate rebel elements and more pressure on the Assad regime. And now France is the leading voice against a nuclear Iran.

At first glance these policies may seem a far cry from a traditional raison d'etat foreign policy, but in France's case they seem to result from a combination of values and interests, the latter including France's commercial interests with nations like Saudi Arabia. Yet overall France has assessed, properly, that Western powers should not be neutral on the several fault lines dividing the broader Middle East, and that principled diplomacy and targeted interventions can help support moderates and reformers while tilting the balance against extremists enamored of terrorism, WMD, and other destabilizing factors.

One of the several unfortunate consequences of the Obama administration's failed Middle East policy thus far is how it has alienated many American allies and partners. This list of frustration includes Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, United Kingdom, and France. Recalibrating America's policies and standing in the region begins with being more attentive to the concerns of our allies; Paris would be a good place to start.

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Shadow Government

Maybe President Obama Should Spend Some Time Defending his National Security Policies

Back in June when the controversy over the operations of the NSA started to crescendo, President Obama went on Charlie Rose to join the conversation. He gave the distinct impression that he was inviting the public to join in him a thorough soul-searching dialogue concerning the thorny trade-offs between civil liberty and national security, much as he had invited the public to debate drones a month earlier.

Since then there has been a very lively debate, of a sort. Barely a day goes by without another purportedly damning revelation in the media. The voices of the critics have been heard, loud and clear.

The voices on the other side? Not so much. Yes, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has mounted a vigorous defense. Secretary of Defense Hagel has spoken up for the NSA. And there have been a few balanced debates in the public. My own organization, Duke's Program in American Grand Strategy is co-hosting one of those this Monday: a conversation between Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman and former NSA head Michael Hayden.

But you would look in vain to find many examples of President Obama joining in the conversation he himself seemed to be calling for a few months ago. It is almost as if the NSA is supposed to be viewed as some sort of independent agency, only distantly connected to the Obama administration, rather than a vital part of Obama's own national security team.

A debate of all against the NSA (and a few former NSA employees) is never going to be a balanced conversation. President Obama must engage personally.

I understand that the president has had his hands full with the Obamacare fiasco. While most of the media attention has focused on the mismanagement that led to the poorly designed website, the part that has surprised me the most are reports that President Obama repeatedly told the American public untruths about the reform -- untruths that he knew were untrue and that his policy advisors had even recommended against saying because they were untrue, only to be over-ruled by political advisors who insisted that the president keep misleading the public because it helped him politically in the short run. The President's tepid half-apology -- he expressed regret that people are losing their health insurance and tried to spin away the central issue of purposively misleading the American public with "we weren't as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place" -- probably won't resolve the scandal. Even a president as well-protected by the media as this one would have a problem given the facts of this case, and so this scandal will continue to siphon off White House attention and rhetorical resources.

I also understand that President Obama has had an unprecedented reluctance to use his bully pulpit to mobilize public support for his controversial war policies. I do not think in modern American history there has ever been a war leader who spent less effort explaining the importance of the wars he has ordered men and women to fight on the country's behalf.

In view of how much damage the Obamacare troubles is causing the administration and how little Obama likes to defend his war policies, perhaps it seems naive to encourage the president to engage rhetorically on national security.

However, I think it would actually help him politically. Presidents have the rhetorical advantage when it comes to national security, and surely it is more advantageous for him to be talking about the steps his administration is taking to track down terrorists or to put Afghanistan on a stable trajectory than it is to be talking about the load times for the healthcare.gov website.

And it is the right thing to do as a matter of policy. President Obama inherited a national security toolkit more capable than his predecessor inherited, but if he does not act, Obama could end up bequeathing to his successor a far less capable toolkit. Although there is room for reforms, unless President Obama engages meaningfully in the debate, there is a real risk that even the well-meaning reformers will throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. President Obama can help prevent that from happening, but only if he will engage.

Yet it appears he will only engage if he personally can be tagged with the issue. He is speaking about Obamacare. Maybe he could be induced to speak about Obamaintel.

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