Monday, November 16, 2015

Lafayette, vous êtes ici

by Michael Dorf

As I recounted on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, very shortly after the attack I received a sympathetic and encouraging email from a French colleague with whom I had become friendly when she was a visiting faculty member at Columbia. Having just sent her a similar note, I am struck by the shared outpouring of affection for and solidarity with the French people currently being expressed by many Americans. I share that sense of affection and solidarity, and so I don't want this post to be read as sounding a sour note. And yet . . .

In his initial public statement after the attacks, President Obama noted that "France is our oldest ally," which, while true, does not quite capture the complexity of the relationship. Yes, there is a special bond between France and the United States--two republics forged in late-18th century liberal revolutions. Yet French support for the American side in our Revolutionary War came under the ancien régime. True, Americans initially supported the French Revolution, but following the Jay Treaty and the XYZ Affair, the U.S. tilted towards England, at least for a time. The 19th century was not all wine and roses either. France did not ultimately accede to diplomatic overtures to support the Confederacy during the Civil War, but it is fair to say that despite its formal neutrality, France sympathized with the Rebels.

Accordingly, when, upon the arrival in Europe of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, an aide to General Pershing (or in some tellings of the story, General Pershing himself), quipped "Lafayette, nous sommes ici," he was glossing over some of the antagonism between France and the U.S. during the intervening 13+ decades. Likewise now, American patriots waving Le Tricolore at football games and elsewhere seem to have forgotten that less than 13 years ago, the House of Representatives re-labeled French fries and French toast "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" to register American pique at France's objections to the U.S. rush to war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. In the UN, France took the position that weapons inspectors ought to be given more time to do their work. As we now know, if they had been, they would have found that, contrary to the claims of the Bush Administration, Saddam did not have WMDs.

Had we listened to France in 2003, we would not have destabilized Iraq; thus, there would have not been an opportunity for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to form what was then known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq; and thus that organization would not have become what it is today--ISIS. We owe France our support, but any fair recounting of recent history says we also owe France an apology.

To say that our military adventures in the Middle East have frequently produced blowback is not to say that the expenditure of blood and treasure to root out jihadists will always be the wrong policy. ISIS may be a monster of our own creation, but it is surely a monster. Having created it, perhaps we have some obligation to destroy it, even if attempting to do so risks creating yet more monsters.

After the apology that we surely won't issue to France, we might at least offer our own example as a cautionary tale. In the immediate aftermath of the horrors in Paris, President Hollande's language sounds an awful lot like the language that President George W. Bush used after 9/11. Vowing a "pitiless war" against ISIS, Hollande has already expanded French strikes against ISIS his strategy arguably validates the ISIS criminals' claim to lead a sovereign state, much as Bush's use of the language of war rather than crime became a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

To be clear, I am not advocating any particular policy path for France or the U.S. I am only saying that as we quite appropriately share in the grief of our friends in France, we and they should keep in mind that, while the use of overwhelming military force is sometimes a sensible policy, the fact that it is the first thing we think to do in our grief and anger does not mean it is in anyone's ultimate best interest.


Shag from Brookline said...

Mike, while not quarreling with the thrust of your post, it would have been appropriate to have included in your short history of the relationships between France and America the former's gift of the Statue of Liberty in the latter part of the 19th century, that in a sense honored the Civil War's ending of slavery, perhaps a bit of an apology for France's allegedly not supporting the Union during that war. That gift has been been an enduring tribute and influence for many who subsequently came to America's shores, including my parents.

Joe said...

"Having created it, perhaps we have some obligation to destroy it, even if attempting to do so risks creating yet more monsters."


David Ricardo said...

There are at least three things that should not be done in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

1. The tragedy should not be politicized. Of course it is too late to make that statement, given the Republican position that no tragedy should go unexploited. (See e.g. Mitt Romney in today’s WP)

2. No one should place the blame on the Muslim religion. The attacks were carried out by cowardly thugs who are Muslim. Of course Republicans will seize upon the tragedy to promote their intolerance of those who espouse a different religion than they have.

3. No one should change their behavior due to the attacks. The goal of terrorism is to make people act out of fear in a way they otherwise would not act. Only when people refuse to give in to fear will terrorism lose.

Mr. Dorf’s admonition against massive military action may not be appropriate. The primary purpose, indeed the fundamental rationale for a government is protection of its people. In return the citizenry give up some rights and pay taxes. Any government which cannot protect the citizenry loses its legitimacy. No, there should be no ‘war’ against ISIL because ISIL is not a state, but given the Paris attacks there must be unrelenting military assaults against them until they no longer pose a threat. Sadly there is no alternative.

Joe said...

"unrelenting military assaults"

It is unclear to me that this alone is how "they no longer pose a threat" and doing so "unrelenting" will without more lead to someone else to step in. Military action helped start these -- to cite John Oliver -- assholes rise to power as is.

Don Smith said...

Failure to employ military action will only encourage more assholes to terrorize. Assured destruction is still an effective deterrent, and the only effective deterrent within the power of nation states. The group that misnames itself ISIL (it is not a state, and it is not necessarily Islamic) is a cancer on Islam and humanity, and cancer must be excised or otherwise destroyed or it spreads and kills the host. Containment is not an option, because they refuse to be contained. Civilized negotiation is likewise impossible. Survival of civilization as we know it depends on the obliteration of those who are unrelenting in their attempts to destroy it through violence.

Our current administration has been hesitant to take decisive action in this matter, and this past weekend demonstrates that the time for hesitation has long since passed. If the President won't act, Congress should declare war on this pseudo-state, and tell the President that his choices are act appropriately, resign, or be impeached.

David Ricardo said...

While I agree with Joe I would also note my last sentence. And I believe Don overstates the situation. The future of America and Europe is not at stake, what is at stake is the ability of all of us to live fear of personal harm. This is not war, because the terrorists are not capable of conducting war. They can only engage in cowardly murderous attacks on civilians.

Violent conflict between two parties usually exists for a purpose. Palestinians attack Israeli because they want to occupy the land of Israel; Hindus attack Muslims in India because they are intolerant of the Muslim religion; Mexican cartels attack because they want money and power, and so forth and so on.

But in this case of ISIL the attacks in the West seems to exist for no other purpose then to maim and kill other human beings. Yes, this is unfathomable to us, but that does not make it any less real. And because they have no other purpose than to murder for the sake of murder there is really no way to negotiate a settlement. And so military action is justified and required and yes it may take years, it may take decades, it may take centuries. Sadly there is no alternative.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Some of these comments appear to have missed my disclaimer -- issued twice, in the fifth and seventh paragraphs of a seven-paragraph post -- that I am not advocating for or against any particular military or other course of action.

DHMC said...

Looking at the broader issue of Franco-American relations, I have long found it curious that the one major European nation with which we have the most fraught relationship is the one against which we have never fought a war. I have a suspicion that the "historical" antagonism between the US and France is really not of ancient vintage, but blowback from the decision of de Gaulle not to join NATO. I have known many of the neocon ilk who still resent de Gaulle's decision (as well as the decision for France to have a nuclear umbrella independent of the US).

It is heartwarming to see people in the US rallying to the side of the French -- though one cannot but see the irony of the freedom fries crew being part of that chorus. On the other hand, it is disheartening, though not surprising, to see so many in one of our political parties spouting rhetoric in the aftermath of the Paris murders that is identical to that of France's Front National. . .

Greg said...

I think when you recognize the foolishness of the justification and timing of the Iraq war, it's pretty clear that objections to the Iraq war should not be used as justification of a more broad reluctance to use military action.

The U.S. attacked party A (Iraq) because party B (Al-Qaeda) attacked the U.S., with the support of party C (The Taliban, the government of Afghanistan.) This is of course completely absurd. The attacks on 9/11 would justify retaliatory military action towards Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but not against Iraq. Yet, the bulk of our military might was directed towards this innocent (of this particular crime) third party.

That isn't the case here. IS appears to be responsible for the attacks, thus retaliatory strikes on them are appropriate.

I'm not convinced by the "Islamic State isn't really a state" argument. They hold territory, provide government services, and otherwise fill the role of a traditional government within the territory they control. Further, they have an army that attacks neighboring states in an attempt to take more territory from them. I don't understand how that doesn't qualify as a state. Our response to IS could be more coherent if we gave in to the reality that IS isn't Al-Qaeda, they're a new government, and our response should be the same as we would respond to any other state actor.

What does complicate things is that IS are taking territory from other states around them, and those other states claim sovereignty over the territory held by IS. However, this is no different than any other better-recognized government that decides to conquer their neighboring countries. These situations will always result in territory that is in dispute. In this case, those neighboring governments don't necessarily want our help, which does complicate the politics and legality of a military response in these IS-controlled disputed areas.

Shag from Brookline said...

Query: What military action has Congress authorized in Syria before or after the recent events in Paris? The power to declare war is directly with Congress. We are all aware that at times the Executive acts without a formal declaration by Congress of war. There are various kinds of authorizations by Congress short of a formal decaration. But shouldn't there be a meaningful debate in Congress, our representative form of governance, with public inputs?

American leadership is important, but often followers are reluctant to put particularly risks to their blood alongside our military. Iraq I under Bush 41 was quick with relatively few casualties. During Clinton's presidency, Bush-41 neocons urged Clinton to take military action against Iraq. Then with Bush 43 (elected by SCOTUS 5-4, via Bush v. Gore), Bush 43's administration, staffed my many of those neocons, talked of action against Iraq well before 9/11. While Afghanistan may have been a proper target in response to 9/11 fairly quickly thereafter, the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq in 2003 continues to be a questionable war (for many reasons). Yesterday, JEB was on TV saying this was war for America. Yes, JEB is being advised by neocons in his presidential campaign by neocons from both Bush 41 and Bush 43. So shouldn't this be addressed by Congress, controlled by the Republicans? We need a meaningful debate. But for political reasons, I don't think Congress will engage in such a debate. Rather, 2016 presidential candidates, in both parties, will address ISIL politically, critical of Obama. But shouldn't they be critical of Congress?

Shag from Brookline said...

I just saw a re-run of last night's (11/16/15) Charlie Rose Show that addressed the Paris events and ISIL and America's response with 5 guests for the hour, 3 pundits, an author of a book on ISIS and a former Obama Administration official. Two of the pundits, Bernard Levy and Roger Cohen, felt strongly that Obama's reactions are wrong in addressing blood spilled in Paris at the hands of ISIL. While they did not explicitly so state, it seemed they wanted to have American blood spilled in Syria with ground troops against ISIL. This segment is available on the Internet. Just Google. Charlie Rose Show tonight will follow up on the same topic. What was not criticized was the role of NATO in responding to ISIL's act of "war" in Paris. America is part of NATO, but so are many European nations.

By the way, Congress does not seem to be considering a declaration of war; rather, it may focus on the matter of allowing some Syrian refugees into America. So it seems the debate I am looking for may very well not take place.

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