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.
The Obama administration’s “lead from behind” foreign policy is having the same impact in Syria this year as in Libya last year: It is providing an opening for France to usurp the traditional American role as the leading outside power in the Middle East. While the bodies pile up in Syria, President Obama limits his support to the Syrian opposition to the rhetorical realm–backed up by the dispatch of a couple dozen computers.
Meanwhile French President Francois Hollande calls for the Syrian opposition to form a government as soon as possible and vows to recognize it as soon as it is created. He also speaks of creating buffer zones in Syrian territory and enforcing at least a partial no-fly zone–something that the Free Syrian Army has now called for. All of this is desperately needed to stop Bashar Assad’s ruthless killing machine, which is being aided by a substantial contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
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.
Much of the analysis of the victory of Francois Hollande and the Socialists in the French presidential election will focus on the impact of the change in power on the European economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably miss Nicolas Sarkozy more than many of his compatriots as she attempts to hold the line for a fiscal policy that will try to save Europe and the euro from being dragged down by spendthrift nations like Greece. But President Obama may wind up missing him just as much if not more.
While some American liberals may assume that President Obama’s affection for the spirit of European social democracy will put him in natural sympathy with Hollande, there is no telling whether the chemistry between them will turn out to be positive. More important than that is the fact that Sarkozy’s leadership on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat allowed Obama, as he said of his stance on Libya, to “lead from behind.” Without Sarkozy pushing the European Union toward tough sanctions on Tehran, the West would not have gone as far as it already has toward pressuring the Iranians. With Sarkozy gone that will put more pressure on Obama to assume a leadership role as the P5+1 talks proceed this summer that he would probably prefer not to take.
The head of the CRIF, the head of the umbrella group representing French Jewry, is coming under criticism for saying a victory for Socialist Party presidential candidate Francois Hollande is a potential disaster for Israel. Richard Prasquier stated in an opinion column published last week in Haaretz that anti-Israel elements within the Socialist Party will be able to exert disproportionate influence in a Hollande administration.
While Prasquier said Hollande had expressed friendship for Israel, he left little doubt that the strong ties between the Jewish community and incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy left some Jews worried about the consequences if the polls are right and the Socialist wins on Sunday. Of special concern was the fact that while Sarkozy has been the most ardent European opponent of a nuclear Iran, Hollande is untested on the issue and will govern with the support of leftist foes of Israel who will play a large role in his government.
For Americans, picking favorites in French elections is a difficult task. The political combat between the inheritors of Charles De Gaulle’s centrist faction, the socialists and their more marginal foes on both the right and the left generally leaves Americans cold in a way that the equally remote battles of Conservatives and Laborites in Britain does not. Though Americans may have viewed Nicolas Sarkozy with more affection than his predecessor Jacques Chirac — whose opposition to American foreign policy inspired intense hostility on these shores — it isn’t likely that his departure from the Elysee Palace would generate much grief here. But the French election will have a not insignificant influence on a number of issues that are important to Americans. As Seth noted, Sarkozy’s defeat would be a blow to the joint effort he undertook with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to promote an austerity-first fiscal approach that would save the Eurozone. But the triumph of Francois Hollande and the Socialists might have an even bigger impact on the ability of the West to present a united front to Iran.
Sarkozy may share President Obama’s antipathy for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is also true that France’s stance on Middle East peace under his administration has been no more helpful than it might be under the Socialists. However, Sarkozy has been a stalwart opponent of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, often getting far ahead of the United States on the issue and helping to buttress the shaky determination of the European Union to take a firm stand. As Tony Karon points out in Time Magazine, it is almost a certainty that Hollande would not be interested in staking out such a tough position or using his influence to keep the EU in line on the matter.
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.