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.