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France's Quagmire By: Thomas Patrick Carroll
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 24, 2004


Maybe the Europeans are right. Perhaps we Americans don’t pay enough attention to the advice of our wiser, more experienced cousins on the Continent. When it comes to the arts of diplomacy and international affairs, surely Old Europe can teach a thing or two to the provincial, ham-fisted Yanks.

Unfortunately, Europe is not as active on the world stage as it once was, so there aren’t many examples for our instruction and enlightenment. But have no fear. Even as we speak, Jacques Chirac and his foreign ministry are putting the finishing touches on their latest diplomatic masterpiece — the tragically botched operation in Côte d'Ivoire. Watch and learn, as they say.

For most Americans, the West African nation of Côte d'Ivoire first appeared on the radar screen in early November, when violence swept the southern half of the country. (Southern Côte d'Ivoire is Christian and controlled by the government, while the north is Muslim and held by rebels.) The proximate cause was a surprise strike by Ivorian government warplanes, killing nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker. The Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, said the attack was an accident. The French said it wasn’t. In any event, the 4,000-strong French military contingent stationed in Côte d'Ivoire retaliated, wiping out the Ivorian air force — two fixed-wing jets and a few helicopters.

The situation quickly got worse. Supporters of Gbago went on a rampage. Businesses belonging to French expatriates were looted and burned. About 1,500 Europeans sought shelter inside a French military base. French and other western governments, including the U.S., scrambled to evacuate their nationals. Several people were killed, hundreds wounded, and something like 4,000 prison inmates escaped. Then the Ivorian government accused the French forces of shooting unarmed demonstrators. Paris initially denied the charges, but later admitted its soldiers killed 20 protesters in front of a hotel. Ivorians say the number was three times that, and France’s own Human Rights League agreed with the Ivorians. Videos of the shootings were shown at the UN and circulated on the internet.

How did the French get into this mess? It’s tempting to draw parallels with the problems the U.S. is facing in Iraq, but that’s being too generous to France.

In the first place, Iraq is relative terra incognita for America. The language is foreign and we never had a presence there. Saddam destroyed whatever intelligence networks we once had in Baghdad, and any cultural interplay between the U.S. and Iraq has never been significant.

For France and Côte d'Ivoire, the situation couldn’t be more different. As the former colonial power in the country, the French stayed on in a big way after independence in 1960. Not only do they maintain a large military garrison, but French expatriates dominate the economy, French is the official language, the university in Abidjan uses the French model, French social, legal, and cultural influence is widespread, and government-to-government relations have traditionally been good.

The problems France is facing in Côte d'Ivoire go back at least to September 2002, when civil war broke out after Muslim rebels in the north staged an unsuccessful coup against President Gbagbo. By January 2003, the French had brokered a peace agreement between Gbagbo and the rebels, but the deal fell apart within days. In an instance of bad faith for which he is famous, President Gbagbo secretly ordered his supporters to riot in protest against the peace agreement he had just endorsed. Nobody was surprised by this double-dealing except, evidently, the French government and its crack intelligence service, both of which seemed to be caught completely off-guard. The maelstrom has spiraled downward ever since.

The obvious irony is that France should be on firm ground in Côte d'Ivoire, not stuck in a quagmire it can’t comprehend. Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute for International Relations, put it well when he said, “What is difficult is, we thought we understood this country. But we have discovered we do not understand this country.” [1]

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is ridiculous. Côte d'Ivoire is a Third World nation with a relatively open society and a non-totalitarian government. This is precisely the kind of place in which a competent western intelligence service and a sophisticated European government should have the local players penetrated to the hilt. And it’s not like the French have all that many countries to keep an eye on anymore. Tracking developments in Côte d'Ivoire, Tahiti, and a few others places shouldn’t lie beyond the wit of Chirac and crew.

But there’s more. Unlike the case with the United States and Iraq, France has no opposition among the great powers to its thrashing about in West Africa. When Paris asked the UN Security Council for an arms embargo on the Gbago government, for example, the United States graciously voted in support of Chirac’s request. There was no attempt by Washington to subvert or embarrass the French, even though doing so would have been very easy and lots of fun.

What explains French bungling in Côte d'Ivoire? Lack of broad, contemporary international experience has something to do with it. As much as Paris likes to look back fondly on its Great Power past, the fact is that people working today in France’s foreign policy establishment do not have the wide range of international experience their counterparts in Washington do. France is a second-tier power at best, and that’s reflected in its second-rate exposure to the world beyond its borders.

So there is indeed a lesson America can learn from the French example: “Don’t let this happen to you.”

Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. Email: carroll@meib.org

 



 

[1] Keith B. Richbury, “France’s Influence Wanes in Ivory Coast,” The Washington Post, 4 February 2003.


Thomas Patrick Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency and a current member of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin editorial board. He speaks and publishes on espionage, national security, foreign policy, terrorism, counter-intelligence, Turkey, and Islam.


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