Commentary Magazine


Topic: France

Iraq’s Lessons for France in Mali

The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

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The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

Unfortunately, Iraqi elation at being liberated soon turned to anger because the U.S. did not do enough to secure the country, allowing the creation of chaotic conditions in which insurgents and criminals ran rampant. That is a lesson France must keep in mind today even as French politicians constantly affirm their desire to evacuate Mali as soon as possible–a hope that echoes the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks during the initial invasion of Iraq.

The French desire to leave Mali is understandable–as was the American desire to leave Iraq. But if the Iraq War taught us anything it should be that an invading force cannot responsibly head for the exits until it has made some provision to maintain stability and security.

In the case of Mali this will be a formidable and long-term challenge. The Malian army is feeble, better at staging coups than fighting hardened Islamist rebels. The peacekeeping force contributed by neighboring West African states is not much better–it is badly armed, ill-trained, and lacking in the most basic equipment. In any case a few thousand troops, even if they were trained and equipped to a much higher standard, would find it challenging to secure an area the size of Texas.

The French troops are currently in the “clear” phase of their counterinsurgency campaign, but unless they stick around for follow-on “clear and hold” operations, their initial gains are likely to prove fleeting. The Islamist guerrillas are retreating so they can fight another day. Stopping them from coming back is going to prove, at least for the short term, beyond the capabilities of the African military forces on the ground. Either France stays and helps to do the job itself or the cheers its troops are now hearing will soon turn to jeers.

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In Mali, Stand with the French

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

The administration has finally agreed to airlift a French battalion into the fight but is still holding off on a French request for aerial refueling. The reason for the administration’s reluctance is truly bizarre: According to the New York Times, “A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning American tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the United States appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.”

If accurate, this would suggest that “some officials in Washington” are worried that by fighting terrorists we ourselves will become a target for terrorism. Earth to Washington: the jihadists already hate us and are already doing everything possible to do us harm.

Americans, after all, were just killed along with the citizens of other countries in the hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria. It seems a little far-fetched at this late date to imagine that we might propitiate the extremists by not fighting them too hard. Actually, if we abstain from the fight, the most likely result is that the Islamists will be able to consolidate their gains in Mali and then turn Mali into a base for terrorism against Western interests—including American interests.

The French may not always stand with us, but in the present instance we must stand with the French and not imagine that we can somehow get out of the line of fire.

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Conflict in Mali Just Getting Started

Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

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Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

While waiting for the enemy–in this case the French–to tire, the insurgents are striking out in other directions against easier targets. Thus they ventured into Algeria to kidnap foreign oil workers, including American, British and French citizens. While this kidnapping operation has already made a media splash, it is a miscalculation on the insurgents’ part.

For a start, it only reinforces the general perception throughout Africa and the West that the rebel fighters are savages who must be resisted, while doing little to undermine the French will to stay on the offensive. More significantly, this criminal act risks widening the number of enemies the rebels must face. By violating Algerian sovereignty, the Malian Islamists risk drawing into the conflict against them the Algerian armed forces, which repressed an Islamist uprising on their own soil in the 1990s with considerable brutality and effectiveness. And by kidnapping Americans, they could well lead to the deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to rescue the hostages and assist the French. Thus the rebels have actually handed a gift to their enemies.

That does not mean, however, that the campaign will finish anytime soon. It is one thing for the French to take a few towns out of rebel hands. Altogether more difficult will be securing the countryside and preventing the rebels from regaining control of the urban areas as soon as the French troops leave. As I note in my new book Invisible Armies, the average insurgency since 1945 has lasted nearly 10 years. The conflict in Mali, whatever the outcome of the battles currently being waged, has a long way yet to run.

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France Takes the Lead in Mali

Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

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Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

There are, however, sharp limits to French capabilities, which is why France is not intervening in Syria, much as it would like to: Bashar Assad’s regime is still powerful enough that it would require an American lead to take on its air defenses. France also lacks surveillance, airlift, and aerial refueling capabilities, all of which are being provided in Mali by the U.S., UK, and other European states.

Important as the French intervention is to block further advances by Malian extremists, France will find it harder to exit than to enter this conflict. Air strikes and the like can temporarily stymie a powerful army of guerrilla fighters but cannot defeat it. That requires boots on the ground for a prolonged period of time to reestablish control.

In Mali, the French hope that force will be provided by Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which is moving up plans to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers. However, given the woeful historic performance of African peacekeeping forces in countries such as Somalia, it is clear that Ecowas, to be effective, will require considerable buttressing from France and other Western states for some time to come. France will also have to work with the U.S. and other states to train up and arm the ineffective armed forces of Mali itself–and to somehow avoid the fiasco of the last training program, run by the U.S., which resulted in units defecting to the Islamists and others overthrowing Mali’s elected leader.

That is undeniably a burden, and one that France would understandably prefer to avoid. But given the alternative–allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to gain control of a major African country–a long-term commitment would appear to be the lesser evil here.

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Have Patience with the Arab Spring

Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

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Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

France, after all, transitioned from absolute monarchy by way of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. This was followed by numerous further upheavals that Berman does not mention, including the Bourbon restoration from 1815 to 1830, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1851, the creation of the Third Republic in 1870, the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and, finally, in 1958 the overthrow of the Fourth Republic and the birth of the Fifth Republic which has lasted to this day.

Germany, for its part, was forcibly created by Bismarck out of numerous smaller states in the decades leading up to 1871 and democracy did not emerge until after World War I—only to be snuffed out starting in 1933 by Adolf Hitler. Out of the post-war rubble emerged a West Germany that was democratic and an East Germany that was not. A unified, democratic Germany was not created until 1990.

As for Italy, it, too, did not emerge as a unified state until relatively late (1870). And it, too, saw its nascent democracy usurped by a fascist (Benito Mussolini), and it did not become a true liberal democracy until after World War II.

Nor was the process of democratization painless in the United States: It took two outright wars (the War of Independence and the Civil War) to establish self-government and another period of violent upheaval (the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-60s) to realize the potential of the Constitution.

Considering the tribulations suffered by the U.S. and Europe on the road to democracy, it is hardly surprising that the process of political reform is proving painful in the Middle East. As Berman reminds us: “Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries.”

She is right. Anyone who reads her article, “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” should gain a measure of patience and understanding for what it is currently happening in the Middle East. We cannot expect overnight miracles, but that does not mean that it is possible to cling to the rule of discredited strongmen—any more than Europe today could possibly return to the rule of absolute monarchs.

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Drop the Emotional Baggage of Israel’s “Best Friends in Europe”

Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

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Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

Now contrast this with the response of dozens of non-European countries that also supported the UN bid and oppose settlement construction. Has anyone heard any sanctions threats coming from China or India, for instance? Of course not. And that’s precisely because Israel’s bilateral relations with those countries are based on interest, not an imagined friendship. The mutual interests (mainly economic) are extensive, and both sides are eager to pursue them. But it’s strictly a business relationship; neither side expects anything of the other beyond that. Israel knows China and India will vote against it in every possible forum; China and India know Israel won’t take their views into account when determining its foreign and defense policies. And since neither side expects anything more, they don’t get upset over it.

But the term “friendship” immediately creates expectations. You expect your friends to take your wishes and interests into account, and you feel upset and betrayed when they don’t. And precisely because Israel and its supporters have been referring to Britain, Germany, France and co. for so long as “Israel’s best friends in Europe,” they get upset when they feel Israel isn’t treating them that way, and Israel gets upset when they don’t act that way.

So it’s time to eliminate the emotional baggage. Britain, France and Germany are much better than, say, Ireland and Norway, but they aren’t friends. Like China and India, they’re countries with whom Israel has many mutual interests worth pursuing, but both sides need to accept that they will often disagree–and they need to start doing it like adults.

And if anyone feels an emotional need for a “best friend in Europe,” Israel actually has a real one, with a consistent, decades-old record: the sole European country to vote with Israel at the UN last week, which was also the sole country to buck a worldwide arms embargo 64 years ago and supply Israel with desperately needed planes during its War of Independence. So could we please stop insulting the Czech Republic by lumping it in the same semantic category as Germany, France and Britain?

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Will French Recognition of Syrian Rebels Convince U.S. to Act?

It is easy to lose sight of it amid the breathless, National Enquirer-style reporting on David Petraeus, John Allen, and their communications with various women, but there are other important things happening in the world. Among those events is France’s decision to recognize the new Syrian opposition council, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the country’s rightful government. This is an important step marking the first time that another state has extended official recognition to the Syrian rebels who have just organized, under much external prodding, this new coalition led by Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the widely respected former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. France has also said it would consider providing arms to the rebel forces.

Once again, as in Libya last year, this places France—this time under President Francois Hollande, rather than Nicolas Sarkozy—at the forefront of important events in the Middle East. President Obama and the U.S. continue to lag behind in trying to influence events in another important country, in spite of the major role played by American diplomats in helping to organize the Syrian National Coalition. That is a major problem, because there is only so much France—or other states such as Qatar and Turkey, which are eager to topple Bashar Assad—can do.

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It is easy to lose sight of it amid the breathless, National Enquirer-style reporting on David Petraeus, John Allen, and their communications with various women, but there are other important things happening in the world. Among those events is France’s decision to recognize the new Syrian opposition council, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the country’s rightful government. This is an important step marking the first time that another state has extended official recognition to the Syrian rebels who have just organized, under much external prodding, this new coalition led by Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the widely respected former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. France has also said it would consider providing arms to the rebel forces.

Once again, as in Libya last year, this places France—this time under President Francois Hollande, rather than Nicolas Sarkozy—at the forefront of important events in the Middle East. President Obama and the U.S. continue to lag behind in trying to influence events in another important country, in spite of the major role played by American diplomats in helping to organize the Syrian National Coalition. That is a major problem, because there is only so much France—or other states such as Qatar and Turkey, which are eager to topple Bashar Assad—can do.

Only the U.S. can organize a coalition to impose a no-fly zone and thus hasten the end of the barbarous Assad regime. If we fail to act, the humanitarian and strategic costs of the war will continue to grow—as witness recent incidents of Syrian forces directing fire near to, and sometimes over, the borders with Israel and Turkey.

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Hollande’s No Homework Pledge No Joke

My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

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My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

Hollande wants to expand the school week in France from four to four and a half days in order to make the idea work. That will win him no friends even with those children that despise homework.

Most kids and their parents — who are invariably drafted to help them with it — do think of homework as a burden. Some schools may overdo the load of homework but it is a vital method for reinforcing what is learned in the classroom. It also teaches students to work on their own rather than only in groups while under the thumb of their teachers.

It is true that this puts kids without parents or a proper learning environment at home at a disadvantage. But the answer to this problem is not to create a false equality by trying to dumb down students who can manage to complete their homework but by measures intended to aid those who can’t.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an incisive editorial on the subject, Hollande’s ideas about schools molding the “citizens of the future,” tells us a lot about what kind of citizens he wants France to have.

Fortunately, most French educators and parents are opposed to this scheme, as they understand not only the benefits of homework but also the dangers of relying too heavily on state institutions to monopolize the lives of the young. While many fashions that start in Paris find their way to our shores, this is one that should be nipped in the bud in France.

Though Hollande’s proposal has set off a wave of jokes about him gaining support among those too young to vote, like my daughter, his agenda is a dangerous one. Modern social democratic parties such as his may have, at least for the moment, stepped back from an agenda of toppling capitalism but the anti-individualism aspect of his plan needs to be seen as a peril not only to education but to freedom.

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Obama’s Policies in Sync with Incoming Socialist, so Proclaims the Times

In a sentence that probably reveals more than the New York Times intended, reporter Annie Lowry writes, “With the victory of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, in the French presidential election, the White House has lost one of its closest allies on the Continent, but perhaps gained one with economic policy beliefs more closely aligned with its own.”

If a writer for COMMENTARY, National Review, or The Weekly Standard made this claim, Obama’s supporters would be enraged. This would be evidence of taking the “low road,” a calumny, a slur rarely seen in the history of presidential politics. We can all envision the head of Chris Matthews about to explode. But of course it’s not entirely clear why that should be the case. Because as the Times story makes clear, President Obama’s views are fairly closely aligned with the newly elected Socialist president of France.

Barack Obama knows it. So does the New York Times. And so should the American electorate.

 

In a sentence that probably reveals more than the New York Times intended, reporter Annie Lowry writes, “With the victory of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, in the French presidential election, the White House has lost one of its closest allies on the Continent, but perhaps gained one with economic policy beliefs more closely aligned with its own.”

If a writer for COMMENTARY, National Review, or The Weekly Standard made this claim, Obama’s supporters would be enraged. This would be evidence of taking the “low road,” a calumny, a slur rarely seen in the history of presidential politics. We can all envision the head of Chris Matthews about to explode. But of course it’s not entirely clear why that should be the case. Because as the Times story makes clear, President Obama’s views are fairly closely aligned with the newly elected Socialist president of France.

Barack Obama knows it. So does the New York Times. And so should the American electorate.

 

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Bonne Chance, M. le President

The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

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The French have a genius for many things: food, art, couture, wine, décor among them. There is no city on earth—except my native New York—that I enjoy being in more than Paris. But not even the greatest admirers of la belle France would say the French have a genius for politics. Ever since a revolution based on liberté, égalité , fraternité produced only—in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase—“a pile of corpses and a tyrant,” French politics has been, more often than not, a mess. Three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics have yet to produce long-term democratic stability of the sort the English-speaking peoples have taken for granted for generations.

Yesterday, the French electorate gave Nicolas Sarkozy the boot from the Élysée Palace and voted in François Hollande, a socialist who admits that he “doesn’t like rich people.” Sarkozy’s loss is not altogether surprising, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this morning, because he failed to keep nearly all his election promises from five years ago.

But Hollande wants to raise taxes on those earning more than 1,000,000 euros to 75 percent, and repeal one of Sarkozy’s few accomplishments, increasing the retirement age for young people from 60 to 62. With the French government already controlling 56 percent of the country’s GDP, Hollande wants to increase the size of France’s notorious civil service to stimulate the economy. (It’s not a coincidence that English borrowed the word bureaucrat from the French.)

Even Barack Obama, the most profligate, statist, and stimulus-mad president in American history, has urged Hollande not to abandon austerity, although White House motives might not be wholly selfless here.

It will be interesting to see if Hollande has any real choice. When François Mitterrand tried to implement a traditional socialist agenda after winning the French presidency in 1981, the currency markets tanked the French franc and forced him to back off. Thirty years on, Hollande faces many more problems than Mitterrand did: still stronger markets; the fact that France is now part of the euro system, limiting its ability to play currency games; Angela Merkel (how would you like to bring a bad report card home to her?); and the fact that France does not tax its citizens living abroad. The French expatriate community in Britain is large and will, undoubtedly, get still larger and quickly, if Hollande passes confiscatory taxes on the rich.

With the European crisis by no means at an end, the new président de la République has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly.

 

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French-German Rift Puts Voters and Markets On Edge

The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

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The dominoes continue to fall. The deepening of the Eurozone economic crisis claimed the sitting governments of Greece and then of Italy, and the biggest domino yet–French President Nicolas Sarkozy–trailed French socialist Francois Hollande after the first round of voting during the weekend. As the French political class began preparing this morning for the upcoming runoff between Hollande and Sarkozy, they were greeted with the expected news of the collapse of the Dutch government.

This latest is the most significant for France, if only because the Netherlands was generally supportive of the austerity-first budget strategy promoted by Germany and backed by Sarkozy. But the political currents began pulling the French president as well, who was sufficiently spooked by the events of the past week, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Following the weekend political developments in France and the Netherlands, the German-inspired fiscal pact, agreed by Eurozone leaders in Brussels in December, could also be delayed or thrown into question.

In a U-turn from his earlier stance, Mr. Sarkozy has used recent campaign rallies to call for changing the course of Eurozone policies to ensure they are also designed to stimulate growth.

The blame game has commenced, with predictable parameters. The Journal’s editorial notes that because Sarkozy’s chances for success in the runoff election hinge on his ability to woo right-wing voters who supported neither Hollande nor Sarkozy in the first round, his “appeal will probably include a combination of anti-immigration riffs and more attacks on the European Central Bank (which has become the modern French substitute for running against the Germans).” The feeling is mutual, writes Mathieu von Rohr for Der Spiegel:

This election is a referendum on Sarkozy’s presidency…. His first-round result is poor, as was expected — Sarkozy is the first incumbent in the Fifth Republic who didn’t win the first round. It is an expression of the almost physical revulsion that many people feel for him.

If there’s any immediate relevance for President Obama’s reelection campaign, it’s that he probably cannot afford a Eurozone collapse or another serious financial crisis in Europe. A big question will be how the markets react and how nervous they get. In February, global markets rose on just the expectations that a Greek deal was imminent. In the near-term, this week’s events won’t calm anyone’s nerves, and the markets today predictably signaled their discontent. Long-term, a French-German split would likely be a headache for everyone on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Verdict on Toulouse: French Incompetence

Mohammad Merah, the self-confessed murderer of Jewish schoolchildren and French soldiers, died while jumping from his bathroom window in a torrent of police gunfire around 11:30 this morning in Toulouse. “This man doesn’t interest me,” Nicole Yardeni, the president of the regional Council of Jews, scoffed after the 32-hour siege had finally ended. “He is only an instrument of death.” But the French press seemed plenty interested. “Itinerary of a killer,” Le Parisien headlined its story over a front-page photo of a smirking Merah. “End of the road for a killer,” L’Humanite trumpeted. “Trajectory of hatred,” Libération blared.

Perhaps it was well that the French had become interested in Merah at last. Although he was on a Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur “watch list” since 2008, no one was apparently watching him.

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Mohammad Merah, the self-confessed murderer of Jewish schoolchildren and French soldiers, died while jumping from his bathroom window in a torrent of police gunfire around 11:30 this morning in Toulouse. “This man doesn’t interest me,” Nicole Yardeni, the president of the regional Council of Jews, scoffed after the 32-hour siege had finally ended. “He is only an instrument of death.” But the French press seemed plenty interested. “Itinerary of a killer,” Le Parisien headlined its story over a front-page photo of a smirking Merah. “End of the road for a killer,” L’Humanite trumpeted. “Trajectory of hatred,” Libération blared.

Perhaps it was well that the French had become interested in Merah at last. Although he was on a Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur “watch list” since 2008, no one was apparently watching him.

Claude Guéant, the interior minister, defended the French intelligence agency’s failure by saying it follows “a lot of people engaged in radical Islamism. Expressing ideas and manifesting Salafist opinions is not grounds enough for prosecution,” he explained.

Maybe not, but Merah did more than merely express Salafist opinions. A neighbor in Toulouse filed two police complaints after Merah had tried to recruit her son to jihad by showing him Al Qaeda videos of murders and beheadings, Haaretz reported earlier today. A petty criminal who was known to police for his violent streak from childhood, Merah was radicalized in prison, traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to receive terrorist training at the hands of Al Qaeda, and returned to France determined to kill.

Even when they had Merah cornered, the French authorities did not appear to know what to do with him. After two gunshots were heard from Merah’s apartment shortly before 1:00 in the morning, Guéant wondered aloud if Merah had killed himself. French commandos waited another ten hours, with no communication from Merah, before assaulting his apartment. A special camera was inserted into the apartment, but Merah could not be found. Finally he fired upon them from the balcony and retreated to his bathroom to await them. When the commandos burst in, Merah emerged from the bathroom, firing ferociously, wounding one officer in the foot. Then he dashed back to the bathroom and flung himself from the window.

A columnist for the Telegraph described Merah as a Nike or “Just Do It” terrorist. “[I]ntelligence experts believe al-Qaeda no longer has the organisational capacity to conduct [spectacular] attacks [like 9/11],” Con Coughlin wrote. “Instead they are focusing their energy on softer targets.” Merah may be among the first of a new wave of “lone wolf” terrorists, experts fear.

That’s one fear. My fear is that French powerlessness — the French inability to stop Merah before he murdered Jews and soldiers, the French incompetence at preventing him from writing the last chapter of his own story, going out in a blaze of gunfire, refusing to be taken alive — will only encourage more Islamist terrorists. Whether France has shown that it cannot protect its Jews remains an open question. What France has abundantly demonstrated, however, is that it cannot prevent known Islamists from carrying out terrorist attacks on French soil, nor capture them alive once they have done so.

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The Toulouse Shooting and the Jewish State

The murderer who gunned down children and teachers on their way to school at Ozar Hatorah in the French city of Toulouse this morning was acting from “no clear motive,” according to the New York Times. Gil Taieb, a vice president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, was only one of many who knew a lie when he heard one. “For someone to locate this school in a place like Toulouse means he knew what he was doing,” Taieb told the Jerusalem Post. “He went there to kill Jews.”

So far four have died in the attack: Yonathan Sandler, a 30-year-old teacher at the school who had recently emigrated from Jerusalem, along with his two children, six-year-old Aryeh and three-year-old Gavriel, and Miriam Monstango, the eight-year-old daughter of Ozar Hatorah’s principal. “At some point, the shooter entered the school and began firing inside,” a witness told Haaretz. A 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded, and is said to be hovering between life and death. After the attack, the gunman hopped on a motorbike and sped away. French police and anti-terrorism forces have launched an all-out search for the killer, but so far he has not been found.

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The murderer who gunned down children and teachers on their way to school at Ozar Hatorah in the French city of Toulouse this morning was acting from “no clear motive,” according to the New York Times. Gil Taieb, a vice president of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France, was only one of many who knew a lie when he heard one. “For someone to locate this school in a place like Toulouse means he knew what he was doing,” Taieb told the Jerusalem Post. “He went there to kill Jews.”

So far four have died in the attack: Yonathan Sandler, a 30-year-old teacher at the school who had recently emigrated from Jerusalem, along with his two children, six-year-old Aryeh and three-year-old Gavriel, and Miriam Monstango, the eight-year-old daughter of Ozar Hatorah’s principal. “At some point, the shooter entered the school and began firing inside,” a witness told Haaretz. A 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded, and is said to be hovering between life and death. After the attack, the gunman hopped on a motorbike and sped away. French police and anti-terrorism forces have launched an all-out search for the killer, but so far he has not been found.

Nor have his ethnicity and affiliations (if any) been established. That did not stop commentators on the Washington Post’s story from issuing the standard “Israelis kill innocent children too” equivalencies. This much can be said for certain, however: the shooting at a Jewish religious school had nothing to do with Israel, except in as far as all Jews are identified with Israel, for better or worse. The gunman could not have singled out Rabbi Sandler and his two children, since according to witnesses, he “shot at everything he could see.” As Jonathan said, he simply wanted to kill as many Jews as possible.

But the fact that commentators were quick to draw a connection to Israel — Arab commentators on the Jerusalem Post story did the same — reveals an undeniable truth: Anti-Zionism is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, precisely because all Jews are identified with Israel, for better or worse.

And there is another connection between this morning’s shooting and the Jewish state as well. If the innocent dead and wounded at Ozar Hatorah were targeted only because they are Jews, there is one place on earth where they will be protected, only because they are Jews. Perhaps there is no better justification than that for the state of Israel.

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Specter of Euro Anti-Semitism Hangs over Toulouse Terror Attack

Today’s terror attack in Toulouse has shocked France as well as the rest of the civilized world. Since the perpetrator escaped the scene of the crime, his identity — or that of any group to which he might belong — remains still unknown. Nevertheless, his purpose was quite clear: to kill as many Jews as possible. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has often spoken out against anti-Semitism, has acted responsibly and we can expect appropriate statements from other world leaders in the wake of the cold-blooded murder of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school.

But it must be understood that such an attack cannot be understood outside of the context of a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. This wave of Jew-hatred has been fueled by an unreasoning anger at Israel and a campaign to delegitimize the state as well as its right to self-defense. But while some — including President Obama’s ambassador to Belgium — have attempted to rationalize this trend and to distinguish it from “traditional” anti-Semitism, that is a delusion. There is a very thin line between the efforts of those who seek to brand Israel as a pariah and those who simply wish (as do the Palestinian terrorists European intellectuals honor) to kill Jews. And as the world has just witnessed in Toulouse, that line is getting thinner all the time.

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Today’s terror attack in Toulouse has shocked France as well as the rest of the civilized world. Since the perpetrator escaped the scene of the crime, his identity — or that of any group to which he might belong — remains still unknown. Nevertheless, his purpose was quite clear: to kill as many Jews as possible. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has often spoken out against anti-Semitism, has acted responsibly and we can expect appropriate statements from other world leaders in the wake of the cold-blooded murder of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school.

But it must be understood that such an attack cannot be understood outside of the context of a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. This wave of Jew-hatred has been fueled by an unreasoning anger at Israel and a campaign to delegitimize the state as well as its right to self-defense. But while some — including President Obama’s ambassador to Belgium — have attempted to rationalize this trend and to distinguish it from “traditional” anti-Semitism, that is a delusion. There is a very thin line between the efforts of those who seek to brand Israel as a pariah and those who simply wish (as do the Palestinian terrorists European intellectuals honor) to kill Jews. And as the world has just witnessed in Toulouse, that line is getting thinner all the time.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted this morning in reaction to the French killings, it is no accident that such an event would happen the day before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva was scheduled to receive a representative of the Hamas terrorist organization. The Israel haters of the UN and throughout Western Europe have concentrated their efforts in recent years on singling out Israel and Jewish institutions for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. They have tried to ban Israeli books and scholars, to make it impossible for Israeli products to be sold and to make its public officials fear arrest when visiting European capitals. They have imported the raw anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab and Muslim world and allowed it to find a home in countries where, before the Holocaust, such hate speech was common. And they have made such inroads among intellectuals who are always ready to believe any slander of Israel that anti-Semitic insinuations have found their way into the mainstream media of Europe.

The question that must be asked today is whether so much hatred for Jews can become commonplace in Europe without it eventually spilling over into violence? The answer is obviously not. The people of Israel understand that Palestinian terrorists are going to take every possible opportunity to fire missiles or attempt other sorts of attacks on Jewish targets. But those who treat the suffering of Israelis living under terrorist fire as unimportant when compared to the plight of Gazans who cheer such attacks must understand that once the genie of Jew-hatred is unleashed there is no way it can be quarantined in just one country.

The Toulouse attack is just one more reminder that the war against Israel isn’t one about borders or settlements but about the spirit of Jew hatred that has made it impossible for Palestinians to embrace peace offers. Anti-Zionism is just a thinly veiled version of the old recognizable anti-Semitism whose familiar calling card has been left in Toulouse. While we trust that the French authorities will eventually find the killer, let us not be deceived into thinking this is an incident that can be isolated from the atmosphere of Jew-hatred that hangs over Europe.

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American Jewry’s Waning Exceptionalism

An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

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An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

If you try to figure out what makes French Jews different, the answer seems to be similar to those generally given for the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Similar to their proportion in the Jewish state, roughly half of France’s Jews come most immediately from majority Arab regions like North Africa. As in Israel, these Jews seem both more willing to consider the breadth of their political options and to be concerned about Muslim and Arab intentions towards Jews than their Ashkenazi counterparts. So as their political enfranchisement has risen, so have Jewish politics become more balanced.

Far from outliers of course, Israel and France represent the largest and third largest Jewish populations in the world.

American Jews might also be different in that, accustomed as they have become to robust bipartisan support for the Jewish state, they largely don’t feel the issue of Israel is fundamentally at stake in this country. Whatever discomfort they may feel with the policies of a particular administration, here, as opposed to abroad, they may feel certain – rightly or wrongly -  there are certain lines that simply won’t be crossed.

There are other ways American Jews stand out. Few Jewish communities abroad have non-Orthodox religious establishments of any numerical significance. Most have also – like Israel – long-adopted voluntary and stringent security measures that still would look out of place in most American Jewish establishments.

Perhaps the one thing that most accounts for American Jewish exceptionalism is the preponderance of Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, who are probably a larger percentage of the population and continue to hold a largely unchallenged sway over internal and external Jewish politics here to a greater extent than just about anywhere else.

Some changes, though, are afoot. Already in 2001 (the last year that a significant Jewish population study was undertaken), Orthodox Jews made up a steadily increasing 15 percent of the population aged 18-24, with a clear rise also for those who see themselves as “just Jewish” and declining proportions for Reform and Conservative Jews. An American Jewry that is both more Orthodox and more unaffiliated would be more in line with global Jewish norms.

As it has elsewhere, demographics may continue to wage its own irresistible changes. In many ways though many American Jews probably already find themselves outside the global Jewish consensus looking in. If American Jewry ultimately becomes more elastic in its political preferences, it will likely find not only its relations with Jews abroad easier, but the political system at home may become even more responsive to its concerns.

 

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Is It 1848 in the Arab World?

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

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Irrelevance Is a Choice

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

The Obama administration is making policy with its effective silence on the events in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt. As Rick and Max both pointed out, Obama last night said nothing that mattered about these portentous developments. Hillary Clinton’s State Department has been notable only for its meaningless bromides. Clinton herself crowned a week of ineffectual gestures by expressing the “hope” today “that it will be the people of Lebanon themselves, not outside forces, that will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon.”

We’ve been watching the Hezbollah train wreck unfold for nearly two weeks now, and the U.S. government is doing nothing. It doesn’t even matter if there are minor things being done in secret somewhere: the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the kinds of events that cry out for public statements of U.S. policy, interests, and intention. The most important thing our president can do is frame the issues of freedom, consensual government, and national self-determination as strategic interests of the United States and the community of nations.

These are not abstractions we are dealing with. It’s not as if the locations in question are distant from global tradeways. They are hardly irrelevant to the security of our allies or the worldwide threat of Islamist terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aspirants to regional leadership with the potential of countering Iran’s influence, have stepped back from Lebanon to regroup. Their prospects have, until now, always depended on a reliably dominant and interested posture from the United States — but that condition is absent today. Their abandonment of the unity-government process in Lebanon is an even more significant development than Hezbollah’s outmaneuvering of France and the last-minute, Sarkozy-sponsored “contact group.”

I’m not sure the Obama administration understands what many in the blogosphere have already seen: that a geopolitical transformation is underway — one more fundamental than any we have seen since 1945. There was always a likelihood that modern Arab peoples would rise up against their despotic leaders. And we have known for years what Hezbollah was up to in Lebanon. But it was not and is not inevitable that their dramas would play out without intervention from or reference to the United States. That aspect of the events is our president’s choice.

“Smart power” — diplomacy, rhetoric, engagement, aid, the forming of coalitions, the leveraging of the UN, the dispatching of singular individuals as envoys and inspirational leaders — these measures are exactly what is called for in the current circumstances. U.S. leadership in the Lebanese crisis — which would have benefited from common goals with France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — could have signaled Hezbollah that the time was not ripe for a summary action. A similar principle applies to Tunisia and Egypt; engagement and the guarding of our interests could be quite effective without having a military character.

But instead of smart power, there is simply a void. The nature of democratic leadership is to act visibly, openly, and persuasively; if there are no visible actions being taken, there is no leadership. The cost of this feckless inaction will be very high, but there has been nothing dictating our posture of disengagement. Each step of the way, it has been a choice.

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Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

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Le Pen’s National Front and the Anti-Zionist Party

Marine Le Pen took over the party leadership of the xenophobic, far-right National Front Party this week. The Wall Street Journal noted that “Ms. Le Pen on Sunday became the party’s second leader since it was formed 38 years ago by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, and immediately promised to oppose immigration and globalization, as well as seize back powers from the European Union.”

The National Front has been, without question, a political force to be reckoned with during election cycles in France. In 2002, it defeated the French Socialists and forced a run-off election with former president Jacques Chirac. French analysts chalked up the dramatic National Front election results to a kind of infantile protest vote against the mainstream parties. In short, a post-adolescent French outburst of political disaffection but not a real flirting with French Vichy-style neo- fascism. Chirac went on to soundly prevail over the National Front.

According to a recent French poll, however, the National Front has secured 12 percent of the electorate’s support. Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for his statements that contain elements of Holocaust denial and crudely playing down the severity of the Holocaust, terming it a mere “detail” of history.

One “detail” that the mainstream media did not report on this week is the alliance between the National Front and those Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who loathe Israel and want to abolish the Jewish state. During the 2009 European Union parliamentary elections, the French entertainer and comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala formed the Anti-Zionist Party. He was deadly serious about his party’s aims and  has over the years been engulfed in anti-Semitic scandals.

Dieudonne’s political bedfellow at the time was the National Front. (Le Pen is purportedly the godfather of Dieudonne ‘s daughter.) What unifies Le Pen and Dieudonne, himself the son an immigrant from Cameroon, and figures from the left, such as ex-Communist Alain Soral and former Green Party member Ginette Skandrani, is hatred of Israel. It should also be noted that Yahia Gouasmi, head of the Zahra Center in Paris, which is affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, was a candidate on the Anti-Zionist party.

(Not unrelated: Hezbollah enjoys wide organizational latitude in France. Germany also recognizes Hezbollah as a legal political entity, and there are 900 active members in the Federal Republic.)

In 2009, the Anti-Zionist Party platform called for an end to “Zionist interference in the nation’s public affairs,” as well as a rebuke of “politicians who apologize for Zionism.” The radical anti-Israeli party demands that France “free our state, our government, our institutions from the possession and pressure of Zionist organizations; eradicate all forms of Zionism in the nation” and “prevent enterprises and institutions from contributing to the war efforts of a foreign nation, which does not respect International Law.”

With French President Nicholas Sarkozy faltering in the polls and his Socialist opposition still seen as floundering, a repeat of the National Front’s coup of making it to the second round of the next presidential election is not out of the question. This formal alliance with the Anti-Zionist Party makes such a development even more ominous.

Marine Le Pen took over the party leadership of the xenophobic, far-right National Front Party this week. The Wall Street Journal noted that “Ms. Le Pen on Sunday became the party’s second leader since it was formed 38 years ago by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, and immediately promised to oppose immigration and globalization, as well as seize back powers from the European Union.”

The National Front has been, without question, a political force to be reckoned with during election cycles in France. In 2002, it defeated the French Socialists and forced a run-off election with former president Jacques Chirac. French analysts chalked up the dramatic National Front election results to a kind of infantile protest vote against the mainstream parties. In short, a post-adolescent French outburst of political disaffection but not a real flirting with French Vichy-style neo- fascism. Chirac went on to soundly prevail over the National Front.

According to a recent French poll, however, the National Front has secured 12 percent of the electorate’s support. Jean-Marie Le Pen is notorious for his statements that contain elements of Holocaust denial and crudely playing down the severity of the Holocaust, terming it a mere “detail” of history.

One “detail” that the mainstream media did not report on this week is the alliance between the National Front and those Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who loathe Israel and want to abolish the Jewish state. During the 2009 European Union parliamentary elections, the French entertainer and comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala formed the Anti-Zionist Party. He was deadly serious about his party’s aims and  has over the years been engulfed in anti-Semitic scandals.

Dieudonne’s political bedfellow at the time was the National Front. (Le Pen is purportedly the godfather of Dieudonne ‘s daughter.) What unifies Le Pen and Dieudonne, himself the son an immigrant from Cameroon, and figures from the left, such as ex-Communist Alain Soral and former Green Party member Ginette Skandrani, is hatred of Israel. It should also be noted that Yahia Gouasmi, head of the Zahra Center in Paris, which is affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, was a candidate on the Anti-Zionist party.

(Not unrelated: Hezbollah enjoys wide organizational latitude in France. Germany also recognizes Hezbollah as a legal political entity, and there are 900 active members in the Federal Republic.)

In 2009, the Anti-Zionist Party platform called for an end to “Zionist interference in the nation’s public affairs,” as well as a rebuke of “politicians who apologize for Zionism.” The radical anti-Israeli party demands that France “free our state, our government, our institutions from the possession and pressure of Zionist organizations; eradicate all forms of Zionism in the nation” and “prevent enterprises and institutions from contributing to the war efforts of a foreign nation, which does not respect International Law.”

With French President Nicholas Sarkozy faltering in the polls and his Socialist opposition still seen as floundering, a repeat of the National Front’s coup of making it to the second round of the next presidential election is not out of the question. This formal alliance with the Anti-Zionist Party makes such a development even more ominous.

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Tunisia’s Anti-Israel Eliza Doolittle

Christian Ortner, a commentator for the Austrian dailies Wiener Zeitung and Die Presse, picked up a golden journalistic nugget about Leila Trabelsi, the wife of Tunisia’s former authoritarian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Ortner cites a 2002 French radio interview with Trabelsi in which she discussed the economic malaise of Tunisia and her revolutionary austerity program to help the Palestinians.

“She acknowledged certain difficulties,” Ortner writes (and I translate), “but attributed them not to the corruption, patronage and monumental kleptocracy of her husband’s regime, but to the ‘necessary sacrifices ‘ that had to be made for the Palestinian cause. That is — the Jews are responsible for Tunisia’s misery. Who would imagine …”

With his bitter irony, Ortner captures the fundamental madness of turning Israel into a punching bag and thereby cleverly sidetracking critical examinations about the real causes of dysfunctional regimes in the Muslim world.

The former hair stylist Trabelsi — who appears to have had a kind of Eliza Doolittle rise to the top echelon of Tunisian society — reportedly fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia with 1.5 tons of gold. Perhaps she will convert her gold bars into hard currency and fund some of the anti-Israeli and excessively pro-Palestinian NGOs like Human Rights Watch, notorious for its fundraising in Saudi Arabia. Given her avarice, however, one should not hold one’s breath.

All this means is that Tunisian civil society showed the same utter bankruptcy of the explanatory model employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab world, namely, that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict is the be-all and end-all of Arab and Muslim economic and political misery. It should be added that the EU endorses a water-downed version of this very model with its bizarre fixation on apartment-complex construction in East Jerusalem and the disputed territories at the expense of confronting the Iranian nuclear-weapons threat.

As Amir Taheri highlighted in yesterday’s New York Post, Tunisia “has cast aside tired ideologies such as pan-Arabism, Islamism and Baathism. Instead, it is calling for democracy, human rights and economic development. ” In short, the protesters reorganized politics by turning inward, rejecting the external nonsense that despots invoke to solidify their regimes.

While I believe Taheri is excessively optimistic about the rock-bottom nature of change in the Tunisian social order, his line of reasoning shows that Leila Trabelsi’s “necessary sacrifices ” for the PLO is a perverse adaptation of Pygmalion that hoodwinked many EU countries, particularly France.

Christian Ortner, a commentator for the Austrian dailies Wiener Zeitung and Die Presse, picked up a golden journalistic nugget about Leila Trabelsi, the wife of Tunisia’s former authoritarian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Ortner cites a 2002 French radio interview with Trabelsi in which she discussed the economic malaise of Tunisia and her revolutionary austerity program to help the Palestinians.

“She acknowledged certain difficulties,” Ortner writes (and I translate), “but attributed them not to the corruption, patronage and monumental kleptocracy of her husband’s regime, but to the ‘necessary sacrifices ‘ that had to be made for the Palestinian cause. That is — the Jews are responsible for Tunisia’s misery. Who would imagine …”

With his bitter irony, Ortner captures the fundamental madness of turning Israel into a punching bag and thereby cleverly sidetracking critical examinations about the real causes of dysfunctional regimes in the Muslim world.

The former hair stylist Trabelsi — who appears to have had a kind of Eliza Doolittle rise to the top echelon of Tunisian society — reportedly fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia with 1.5 tons of gold. Perhaps she will convert her gold bars into hard currency and fund some of the anti-Israeli and excessively pro-Palestinian NGOs like Human Rights Watch, notorious for its fundraising in Saudi Arabia. Given her avarice, however, one should not hold one’s breath.

All this means is that Tunisian civil society showed the same utter bankruptcy of the explanatory model employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab world, namely, that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict is the be-all and end-all of Arab and Muslim economic and political misery. It should be added that the EU endorses a water-downed version of this very model with its bizarre fixation on apartment-complex construction in East Jerusalem and the disputed territories at the expense of confronting the Iranian nuclear-weapons threat.

As Amir Taheri highlighted in yesterday’s New York Post, Tunisia “has cast aside tired ideologies such as pan-Arabism, Islamism and Baathism. Instead, it is calling for democracy, human rights and economic development. ” In short, the protesters reorganized politics by turning inward, rejecting the external nonsense that despots invoke to solidify their regimes.

While I believe Taheri is excessively optimistic about the rock-bottom nature of change in the Tunisian social order, his line of reasoning shows that Leila Trabelsi’s “necessary sacrifices ” for the PLO is a perverse adaptation of Pygmalion that hoodwinked many EU countries, particularly France.

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