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.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images