The Washington Times

Some of my fellow American panelists at a conference here, sponsored by the French Center on the United States, were expecting to get an earful from French panelists and members of the audience on the subject of the prime-contractor restrictions against France, Germany and Russia for Iraq reconstruction. I was, too. Wrong. The subject was barely touched upon.

Why was that? Well, I think the simplest explanation is that on this subject, the French by and large think we are right. They had no great expectations about being invited to reap the profits of reconstruction when they opposed the war in the first place.

True, President Bush could have magnanimously invited the three most important naysayers to join more fully in the reconstruction effort, in the interest of improving strained relations. But it would have been precisely a gesture of magnanimity, and the French would have seen it as such. They are accordingly not especially bothered that the gesture was not forthcoming.

The hardcore anti-U.S. crowd in Paris would not have wanted French President Jacques Chirac to be in a position of accepting a magnanimous gesture from the American president anyway. They prefer continued confrontation in anticipation of the 2004 defeat of Mr. Bush – the prerequisite, in their view, for any improvement in French-U.S. relations.

Some of them perhaps harbor the delusional view that ongoing bad relations with France will contribute to Mr. Bush’s defeat. And indeed, Mr. Bush can expect an attack from the Democratic nominee on grounds of his excessive unilateralism and insufficient multilateralism. They will blame him for losing support for the United States. But this attack will be mitigated, not assisted, by conspicuous anti-U.S. sentiment from Paris.

In fact, at bottom, the hardcore’s is a rather primitive position by the standard of sophisticated French opinion itself, which is fully cognizant of the fact that Mr. Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, are full partners in the breakdown in relations. [I would venture that the only people in Paris who are certain the conduct of Messrs. Chirac and Villepin was above reproach are Mr. Chirac and Mr. Villepin.]

Now, mind you, this more nuanced view would insist as well on blaming Mr. Bush and other officials of his administration for their part in the breakdown, and that is more than some Bush partisans will concede. And the party line in Paris is still that something happened in relation to U.S. intentions toward Iraq last January to which French policy was obliged to respond with opposition to war, as opposed to what I think is the far more accurate interpretation that Mr. Chirac and Mr. Villepin abruptly reversed the French position by themselves, throwing even their own government off balance.

This is further complicated by the fact that many of the officials in question, while willing to go along with the United States at the end before Messrs. Chirac and Villepin drove French policy off the cliff, nevertheless thought that toppling Saddam was a bad idea because of uncertainty about what would follow. This opposition is different from an opposition premised on the idea that France and others should try to balance overweening American power by opposing the United States. Instead, it is premised on a deep pessimism about the limits of the possible in trying to order the world to suit your wishes; the implicitly triumphalist Bush doctrine of promotion of freedom and democracy around the world runs exactly counter to it.

But the question for Americans comes down to this: Do you want to deal with France on the proposition that “France” refers essentially to Messrs. Chirac and Villepin and the overheated salons of the Parisian left? Or do you want to deal with France on the proposition that “France” also includes some serious people who think we are all in this together [whatever “this” is] and want better, not worse, trans-Atlantic relations, even when Paris and Washington find themselves in disagreement?

Without much optimism of my own that the second option is going to be going anywhere in Washington anytime soon, that’s my choice. Note that so choosing does not entail any necessary change in position. I think the French opposition on Iraq was wrong on strategic and moral grounds, and that French pessimism, while it styles itself as realistic, is actually far too indifferent to real possibilities present in the world.

But if we’re right, which remains a distinct possibility, then we can afford to be magnanimous, if not now in the case of reconstruction contracts, then perhaps sometime later. It’s unclear how the current French government would respond. But it’s for the sake of trans-Atlantic relations that include all of Europe, and it would send an important signal.

And if it should turn out that we are catastrophically wrong about what’s possible, then the gleeful glint of vindication in the eyes of Messrs. Chirac and Villepin will be the least of our problems.