IF all goes well, a small French military base some 3,000 miles from Paris will soon make history.
It will be in the Mussandam Peninsula in the United Arab
Emirates - the first base France has opened outside its territory since
the late 1960s and the first permanent French military presence near
the strategic Strait of Hormuz in more than 200 years.
The last time the French had such a presence in the Persian
Gulf was in the 1800s, when Gen. Gaspard-Amédée Gardanne headed a
military mission to the court of Iran.
At a time when some Americans regard maintaining any such
bases as a grievous sin, the prospect of a mid-ranking Western European
power opening one may seem bizarre.
Remarkably, however, President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement
provoked little debate and almost no negative French reaction. Even the
caviar-and-champagne left (which misses no opportunity to denounce the
United Sates for having bases anywhere) has greeted the news with
The base is unlikely to alter the military balance of power
in the region. French sources tell me it will house 400 to 600 military
personnel, who'll train local soldiers to operate the French hardware
that the UAE has purchased, maintain and repair that equipment - while
also serving as an observation post against "hostile powers" that might
threaten France's regional allies, including the UAE itself.
In a sense, the decision is an attempt to legalize a de facto
reality. Since the first Gulf War in 1991-92, France has maintained
hundreds of military personnel in the region, bivouacked either in US
bases or in military installations maintained by France's local
partners. The French navy has regularly visited the Persian Gulf since
the 1960s; French arms sales to the region date back to the 1950s.
The real importance of Sarkozy's decision is political: It provides
the latest sign of Sarkozy's determination to reshape French foreign
policy by sending a message - that the Persian Gulf is of vital
national interest and that France is determined to defend it.
The Sarkozy policy that has taken shape these last eight
months seems to assume that France can no longer hide behind
For the last half-century, successive French governments
(with rare exceptions) have tried to portray France as a major player
on the international scene by thumbing their noses at Washington.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle asked America to close its bases in
France (which the US promptly did), then withdrew France from the
military part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These moves
had little effect on the European balance of power or the basic issues
of the Cold War - but they helped the French feel good about
His two immediate successors continued his policy by pursuing
an illusory triangle in which Paris stood halfway between Washington
and Moscow. President Francois Mitterrand, a socialist, toned down
anti-Americanism, supporting President Ronald Reagan's decision to
counter the Soviet missile buildup in Europe and then joining President
George H.W. Bush in flushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. After 1995,
Mitterrand's successor, the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, revived the
anti-American gesticulations in their crudest form. But now Sarkozy is
trying to develop a policy that reflects today's realities and
His major predecessors started with the assumption that, when
it came to international issues, America was either the problem or the
solution. Sarkozy starts with a different assumption: that America
isn't involved, either as a problem or as a solution.
Imagine there's no America: Would radical Islamism still threaten
the European nations? Would the European Union still depend on oil and
gas from the Middle East? Would the acquisition of nuclear weapons by
the Khomeinist regime in Tehran be good or bad for France and the
European Union? Wouldn't Europe be safer if Afghanistan and Iraq turned
into friendly democracies rather than terrorist safe havens?
Sarkozy then asks: Regardless of whatever anyone else might
say or do, what can France and the EU do to protect and further their
Only after he has established an analytical framework does
Sarkozy proceed to his third question: How could we harmonize policy
with the United States, which, as a major democracy and a global
leader, is our strategic ally?
The Sarkozy method may show areas of difference between the
European Union and the United States - but mostly it will show that the
Western democracies' broadest interests coincide.
Sarkozy refuses to define French policy in systematic
opposition to the United States. Neither does he want to keep French
policy in suspension until America - whose domestic political system
makes foreign-policy decision-making difficult and unpredictable -
comes out with a position.
It's too early to tell if his method will work. Sarkozy
railroaded the new European Union treaty into agreement without waiting
for Washington to come out with a clear position. He took the
initiative on Darfur, again without waiting for the Americans to sort
out their ambiguities on the issue.
* While Washington frets over how far to accommodate the
Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy, Sarkozy has unrolled the red carpet
for him in Paris and swallowed the flak.
* While congressional Democrats calculate the number of votes
and/or campaign contributions they might gain or lose by offering
nuclear technology to Middle Eastern allies, Sarkozy has signed nuclear
agreements with half a dozen of them. He has assured them that they
won't fall behind Iran in any race for acquiring civilian nuclear
* On Iran, Sarkozy has come out with a range of punitive
measures against the Islamic Republic that go beyond United Nations'
Security Council sanctions.
Sarkozy is no Chirac - but he is no Mitterrand, either. He
seems determined to avoid their mistakes. But he's sure to make some of