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No More Free Riding: France Does Diplomacy in the Middle East

Beltway pundits are constantly warning that President Trump, uneducated in Middle Eastern history as he is, is “abandoning” the U.S. “leadership” role in the region, thereby creating a strategic “vacuum.” This is providing an opportunity for other powers—France, for example—to pursue more activist diplomacy in the Levant and the Persian Gulf.

Quelle horreur!

“Macron Embraces Mideast Role as U.S. Diplomacy Retreats,” screamed a recent headline in the New York Times. [1] Its story reported that French President Emmanuel Macron has been “troubled” by Trump’s decision to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Macron apparently helped facilitate a political deal in Lebanon, is positioning France to help shape the postwar policy in Syria, and may even be considering playing a role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

One can appreciate why members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment are so worried about Russian military intervention in the Middle East, since, after all, the Soviet Union and communism are threatening core U.S. interests. Except that the Cold War ended in 1989, and today’s Russians were actually helping us fight the Islamic State in Syria. Whoops.

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But isn’t France America’s oldest ally? The first foreign partner of the new United States, France provided military support during the American Revolutionary War. We fought on the same side during the Great War and helped liberate Paris during World War II. The U.S. has been France’s military and diplomatic ally since the Nazis fell, through the Cold War, and now into the recent campaign against terrorism.

And in a way, there’s nothing new about France’s involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, where after World War II it received a mandate to administer Syria, Lebanon, and Algeria, and ruled Algeria as a colony from 1839 to 1962. Indeed, if you look at the map, you would have to conclude that the Middle East is the “strategic backyard” of France in the same way that Mexico and Central America are ours.

The French economy, unlike the American one, is dependent on oil imports from the Middle East, and what happens in that region of the world affects directly its interests and those of its European neighbors.

The collapse of Iraq and Syria and the ensuing rise of Islamist radicalization has affected the Arab migrant populations in France and other European nations—and ignited acts of terrorism there. It’s also helped create a new flood of Muslim immigrants into France and the rest of Europe, resulting in a backlash of powerful anti-immigration forces that are transforming politics across the continent.

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So instead of getting anxious over France’s efforts to help stabilize the Middle East, foreign policy elites should be asking why Paris and other European capitals haven’t taken more diplomatic and military actions to secure their interests in the region. After all, working to stabilize Iraq and Syria might be the most effective way to thwart the stream of immigration into Europe.

And if France wants to secure its access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf, it might consider leading the governments of the European Union in mobilizing their combined military power to ensure that radical forces do not threaten the Arab oil-producing nations there.

So why aren’t the French doing more to protect their interests in the region? Why do they expect the U.S. to do the job for them? America wouldn’t have expected France to dispatch troops to help stabilize Mexico or secure French access to the oil resources in Venezuela.

We all know the answer to those and similar questions, and it has to do with the policies advanced by the foreign policy establishment since the end of the Cold War. Despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, U.S. presidents—George Bush the elder, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have operated under the assumption that when considering interests and values, it is the obligation of the United States to secure the balance of power in the Middle East—and that America should maintain its hegemonic position in the region while simultaneously minimizing the role of the Europeans.

So instead of providing incentives to Europe to start shouldering military and economic costs, Washington continued to ensure that France and other European countries would free-ride on American power in the Middle East: we would bring order to the region, promote political and economic reform, prevent the occasional crisis from turning into a full-blown war, and keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace process alive.

We were in the driver’s seat. All the Europeans had to do was change the oil and check the tires.

But since the end of the Cold War, such an approach has not only harmed U.S. interests and destabilized the Middle East; it’s proven incompatible with French and European interests as well. This is what Macron may be recognizing now.

The French president is hardly suggesting that France or the EU replace the U.S. as the leading power in the Middle East. Instead, worried about the devastating effects that could be had by an explosive military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has made a few diplomatic moves to help bring stability to Lebanon and Syria, a traditional arena of French influence.

Still, the Europeans have yet to offer to put boots on the ground to help secure a diplomatic solution in Syria or Israel/Palestine. And despite the work they’ve done on the Iran deal, they’ve failed to come up with a coherent plan to deal with long-term concerns over Tehran’s nuclear military program.

The danger of this approach—continuing to rely on U.S. military power—was demonstrated when the Obama administration agreed to back a French-British plan to oust Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi without any guarantee that the Europeans would send troops to establish order in Libya after regime change. The result has been chaos across Libya.

The French are at least trying to supplement American diplomacy in the region—and this should be regarded as a good start. Now let them work to restrain Iranian influence in the Levant or try to handle a few rounds of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Indeed, until recently, the Europeans could free-ride on American diplomacy and then criticize Washington if, say, the Arab-Israeli talks collapsed or yet another crisis erupted in the Middle East. Now Washington has an opportunity to turn the tables, to let the French give diplomacy a try and weather the criticism if it fails. Or perhaps they may actually succeed. Quelle horreur indeed.

Leon Hadar is a foreign policy analyst, author, and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He holds a Ph.D. from American University, and is the author of the books Quagmire: America in the Middle East and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. He is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, a former Cato Institute research fellow, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the National Interest.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "No More Free Riding: France Does Diplomacy in the Middle East"

#1 Comment By Rated XY On December 18, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

France and Germany should be taking over from the US in the Middle East. We have no useful role to play there any more. As for the Israelis and Palestinians, the typical American doesn’t care whether they make peace or kill each other off.

#2 Comment By LouisM On December 19, 2017 @ 2:40 am

This is so ludicrous as to make me laugh. France! The objective diplomatic arbiter of the middle east. France, the backseat heckler that the US doesn’t understand the history and complexity of the middle east (or is it better said that the US doesn’t understand the modern day ramifications of European colonialism and how Britain and France partitioned the nations of the middle east such that each nation was forever embattled by the warring of tribal factions).

France who lost both Algeria and Vietnam.

France who cannot control its borders or its African and Muslim migrants.

France has no power nor does Britain so who will France be speaking for? Is France going to be the proxy for a Germany that doesn’t want to take center stage or the EU which is dominated by Germany (same thing). Whether its the EU or Germany, they have nothing to back it up with, little to offer and all of western Europe is destabilized by millions of Islamic and African migrants whose IQ (70-80) is so low that they would be classified as mentally handicapped.

No one in the EU has enough global influence and credibility to manage diplomacy in the middle east. This leads me to believe that France and by proxy Germany/EU are just looking for more business in weapons sales and other goods/services.

Trump has created a very interesting conundrum. The US is very unlikely to follow France’s lead or Germanys or the EU. Infact, from the glowing compliments to Poland and Hungary…while undiplomatic truth telling (critical) of Britain, Sweden, France, Belgium and Germany. Id almost say Trump is contemptuous of western Europe. However, with true Gaulist ego, France and the rest of western Europe are less likely to follow the US and Trump. It wont be impossible to find common ground but it will be difficult (atleast until western Europe collapses from having 2-5% of its population bankrupting its social welfare system, 99% of whom are migrants).

This is a very interesting dynamic…its also an excellent time to scale down our military investment in western Europe.

PS: Ive said this before but its worth saying again. The US has been in constant perpetual war in the middle east for decades. At a certain point, your allies and your enemies know your playbook. Its hard to be an objective arbiter and exert influence when your audience has had decades looking at your cards and able to predict what hand you are likely to play next. Its why Russia is gaining influence. Its why France/EU may gain influence. Thing is…the US and Russia can back it up if they so choose. France/EU cannot and are much more likely to collapse of internal squabbles and conflicts than project power and influence. In true French fashion, a French role is a farce.

#3 Comment By LouisM On December 19, 2017 @ 7:28 am

I’m amused France has decided to take a lead in foreign diplomacy. Amused because France cannot even control its borders from migrants or its secular culture from Islam.

In recent history, France lost Algeria and Vietnam. The high minded French considered Algerians French citizens and let loyalists flee to France but most Algerians in France never considered themselves French. They wave the Algerian Flag, they are loyal to Algeria and to Islam. Many terrorists in France are 2nd and 3rd generation muslims who have no intention of assimilating to French secular values, Christian religious or its traditions, respect for women, etc.

Todays Mideast borders were purposely setup with internal tribal conflicts to make them easier to rule by France and Britain. In that sense, yes France would understand those borders and those Mideast countries still fighting internal tribal conflicts.

But France has nothing to offer unlike the US and Russia. France has no military worth projecting power anywhere other than 3rd world Africa. France has little money for foreign aid.

There are 3 options worth noting:
1) Macron representing France maybe the proxy face for Germany and/or the EU. There are many that fear an assertive German military engaged in foreign relations. Macron could negotiate commitments under the guise of France but allow the EU or Germany a backdoor to take their support and walk away without the entire EU losing credibility.

2) Diplomatic overtures by Macron may be nothing more than a marketing opportunity to sell weapons, goods and services…particularly since Trump managed a very high profile trip to Saudi Arabia and got a multi-billion (hundreds of billions) dollar weapons deal.

3) Are things so bad in the EU that Brussels is trying to use foreign policy to deflect from domestic policy troubles?

It will be very interesting to see how all this plays out and what motives/agendas get revealed.

#4 Comment By David Smith On December 19, 2017 @ 9:34 am

Where is the evidence that the United States has any ability at all to control events in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter? The key word here is control, which should be the ultimate criterion for intervention. How long has the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” been going on? How much closer to peace are we now than when it all started? The reality is that other countries will do what they want to do, not what we want them to do. To believe otherwise is self-delusion.

#5 Comment By collin On December 19, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

Beltway pundits are constantly warning that President Trump, uneducated in Middle Eastern history as he is, is “abandoning” the U.S. “leadership” role in the region, thereby creating a strategic “vacuum.”

TBH, where has Trump is abandoning US leadership role in the region? He quick calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel does not show much “Leadesrhip” (Frankly I wish he said it is one single nation forever.) He appears to be backing Saudia Arabia and Egypt more than Obama while making all kinds of war noises about Iran. Additionally the number of troops in North Africa is vastly increasing.

So I don’t see a withdrawal of Leadership here.

#6 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 19, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

Until very recently, the US obstructed and sabotaged all attempts at building an independent European defence capability. The US paid for European defence, so the US controlled it. When Obama failed to stand up firmly to Putin in Ukraine, he discredited the US as a reliable ally for Europe. Trump has made matters worse with his comments on Putin and NATO. Thus, the EU Member States, both individually and collectively, are starting to build their own defence structures, of which post-Putin Russia will, almost by definition, be part. Germany’s main concern has to be Putin. It would be in the front line until Putin is out of office. France is one step back from the front line and has a lot of influence in the Middle East and North Africa, so it’s logical that it would concentrate its efforts there.

#7 Comment By Viriato On December 19, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

@Michael Kenny: “Thus, the EU Member States, both individually and collectively, are starting to build their own defence structures, of which post-Putin Russia will, almost by definition, be part.”

That is as it should be.

#8 Comment By Dakarian On December 19, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

“collin says:
December 19, 2017 at 12:15 pm
Beltway pundits are constantly warning that President Trump, uneducated in Middle Eastern history as he is, is “abandoning” the U.S. “leadership” role in the region, thereby creating a strategic “vacuum.”

TBH, where has Trump is abandoning US leadership role in the region? He quick calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel does not show much “Leadesrhip” (Frankly I wish he said it is one single nation forever.) He appears to be backing Saudia Arabia and Egypt more than Obama while making all kinds of war noises about Iran. Additionally the number of troops in North Africa is vastly increasing.

So I don’t see a withdrawal of Leadership here.”

There isn’t. It’s like getting a person to sneak into a store and steal something by calling them a coward. They want Trump to be more aggressive and more pro-war so they push the ‘weak/leadership’ line.

If anything they are bothered that Trump hasn’t sent missiles against North Korea and Iran and declared all of Palestine as an illegal settlement that should be evacuated in the name of Israel.

#9 Comment By Janek On December 19, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

@LouisM

You are right, but they hope with what they do (the French and EU)is that it will buy them some time into the future. I think all will be quite clear quite soon when push will come to shove and the French will have to switch to reverse gear, they are good at that.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 19, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

I am not sure that these comments take into the long history that Europe has in this region. Their big failure was not colonialism. Their big failure was not ensuring that actually invested in the populations they claimed to have adopted.

Their failure to educate, employ, empower the general populations undermined their messages of “being a full member” as citizens of whatever state was in command. fail to deliver on a promise long enough — the receivers may object and do so with vigor.

#11 Comment By Sunset Grill On December 19, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

As long as we ourselves get the hell out of the ME, I couldn’t care less who takes our place – or if nobody does.

Russia, China, the EU, who cares?

We’ve got terrible problems here at home, which is why we tried to elect an “America First” president. Too bad he isn’t.

#12 Comment By Saldin On December 20, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

LouisM says:

You say the following;

“Islamic and African migrants whose IQ (70-80) is so low that they would be classified as mentally handicapped.”

And;

“This leads me to believe that France and by proxy Germany/EU are just looking for more business in weapons sales…”

Weapon sales? You thus betray the evil of the presumed geniuses on your side.

The question is, which I better, being “mentally handicapped” innocents, or evil geniuses?