Adrift in a Zéro-Polaire World

France's president was quick to promise military intervention in Syria. But will his country follow him into the fray?

In 1953, the French literary critic Roland Barthes published his now classic work Writing Zero Degree. "Writing," Barthes argued, was liberty by other means: While the artist is "situated" in a specific historical context, she nevertheless expresses her individuality through the language and style she fuses together. Freedom is possible even in a world where events seem determined.

Sixty years later, as the world debates the merits of a military strike on Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, France has returned to a sort of zero degree. This is both odd and fitting. Odd, because rather than France's artists, it is her foreign-policy makers who seem to have turned to Barthes. Fitting, because as Paris becomes ever more deeply "situated" in the Syrian morass, the government of François Hollande has taken the opportunity to express a new riff on the theme of French exceptionalism.

Last week, Hollande's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, addressed a gathering of French ambassadors and diplomats who met at the Quai d'Orsay for a series of conferences on the challenges France faces over the next 10 years. There was, of course, much self-congratulation for the country's successful military intervention in Mali -- recently handed off to U.N. peacekeepers -- and much self-introspection about problems ranging from global warming to disparities in global economic development.

Amidst the high-fives and deep thoughts, however, Fabius slipped in some insight about how he -- and perhaps the Quai d'Orsay -- conceptualizes the world. Until the 21st century, he noted, France navigated global seas that were variously bipolar, unipolar, and multipolar. Now, however, France has lurched into an "a-polar or zero-polar world." Teeming with "numerous actors, both states and non-states, of varying sizes and natures," this brave new world defeats the efforts of a single actor, or even a group of actors, to "assure effective and uncontested leadership."

This notion is intriguing less for what it says about the world -- after all, it is but a French remake of Richard Haass's "non-polar world" or Ian Bremmer's "G-zero world" -- than for what it says about France. In effect, Fabius wants to "situate" France, to use Barthes's term, in a world that will allow it to preserve and justify what remains of its vaunted foreign policy independence. A zero-polar world is, in effect, a weightless world -- one where a nation in decline might actually rise. In a world without magnetic north, deep cuts to France's military budget need not preclude her ability to project herself as a "puissance repère" or "noteworthy power," to borrow from Fabius. In short, America's "oldest ally" is back. Unfortunately, as in 1776, her finances are shoddy and her political leadership keener on making tough decisions abroad than at home.

As images from the Aug. 21 gas attack in the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta began to filter into the Western media, Hollande declared boldly that those responsible for the attack "will be held responsible." By Aug. 25, French intelligence services were certain that Damascus had ordered the attack; two days later, at the same meeting of ambassadors where Fabius spoke, Hollande announced that "France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents." As with the case of Mali earlier this year, Hollande's determination and decisiveness in this instance contrasted dramatically with his actions on domestic issues. Monsieur Flamby had again morphed into Asterix, the slight but fearless hero of René Goscinny's comic book series.

Also like the Mali operation, the opposition parties seemed once again to be slouching towards a "union sacrée" -- a government of national unity reminiscent of the solidarity that reigned during World War I. The day after Hollande pledged to punish the perpetrators, Jean-François Copé, the leader of the neo-Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) announced that the president's declaration was, in both language and substance, spot-on. In response to those who worried about the legality of such an intervention, Alain Juppé, foreign minister under both Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that one hardly needed to cite Antigone to recall that there are certain unwritten moral precepts that trump written laws. And had not Dominique de Villepin, France's dashing foreign minister who led the opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, earlier criticized Hollande for being too soft on the Assad regime? France must keep open its military options, he said in mid-2012: "If a crisis develops in the region, France will have no choice but to step in."

But it quickly became apparent that France did have a choice. Almost immediately, voices on the extreme left and right came together in an unlikely chorus to lambaste Hollande's decision. Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, slammed Hollande's "subservience" to American policy and suggested that Washington was, once again, "manipulating" the evidence. Le Pen's ideological antipode, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the democratic socialist Parti de Gauche, also insisted that the United States "has the habit of doing whatever it needs to in order to justify its wars." He mocked Hollande's government for joining the pack and "barking a bit louder than the others in order to give the impression that they are the leader."

More worrisome for Hollande, however, is the sharpening hostility of moderates. National figures ranging from former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to three-time presidential candidate François Bayrou, whose support for Hollande's own presidential campaign last year was crucial, have publicly criticized the government's effort to intervene in Syria. While populists like Mélenchon and le Pen accused Hollande of undermining France's independence, Bayrou and Giscard condemned him for endangering Europe's cohesion by going to war without the support of the European Union, much less NATO and the United Nations. Even Copé and Villepin, looking over their shoulders at events in London and Washington -- as well as opinion polls in France -- have retreated from their earlier support of military action. In a Sept. 2 interview with Le Monde, Copé warned Hollande against allowing France to be "pulled into" war by the United States and expressed shock, rather like Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, at the suggestion that this represented a reversal of his earlier position.

Over the weekend, the leader of the Socialist Party, Harlem Désir, sparked a firestorm of his own when he accused Hollande's critics of displaying "a Munich-like spirit" in the face of Assad's war crimes. Such a historical comparison is, of course, risible. But it nevertheless captures the ideological disarray of the French political class, and the political dilemma now facing the government. When Hollande declared that France was "ready to punish" Syria, he was prepared to invoke his constitutional authority to launch a military action without first consulting with Parliament. It was an ironic turn of events, especially considering that when Charles de Gaulle created the constitution of the Fifth Republic, he invested the presidency with such vast powers that his Socialist opponent, then a certain François Mitterrand, decried the making of a permanent coup d'état.

But following the seismic defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron's effort to win parliamentary approval for a Syria strike -- and the growing tremors in the U.S. Congress over the same issue -- the French political landscape has shifted dramatically. Since last year, when France became the first Western country to recognize the Syrian National Council, Hollande's government has consistently taken the lead on Syria. Indeed, Hollande declared his willingness to punish Assad even while his U.S. counterpart remained hunkered in the trench of indecision.

The great question now is whether France will follow her president into the fray. On Monday, Hollande's prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, met with parliamentary leaders to share the evidence gathered by France's intelligence services on the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. The government also agreed to a parliamentary debate on Sept. 4, though it will not be followed by a vote. This is well within Hollande's constitutional prerogative, one that he is loath to surrender. As his minister of interior, Manuel Valls, insisted earlier this week: "The Constitution does not change according to events."

But, of course, Hollande's political calculus will almost certainly change according to events. The most recent public opinion poll reveals that nearly three quarters of the French want Parliament to vote on the matter of a military engagement, and the UMP has just demanded that such a vote take place in order to legitimate military action without the backing of the United Nations. At yesterday's opening of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, meanwhile, Hollande suffered an additional blow when Herman van Rompuy, the EU president, dismissed talk of an EU military coalition out of hand. The outcome of a Syria vote in the U.S. Congress, assuming it precedes a French vote, will also likely influence Hollande's thinking.

In short, much remains in flux as France lurches toward further entanglement with the Assad regime in Syria. As Fabius noted in his address, one lesson France could learn from the past is that "the unexpected always happens." Little did he suspect that in this case the unexpected would occur with France's friends and not its foes. Then again, life in a zero-polar world can be lonely.

Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images


Pushed on the Bandwagon

Obama's Syria plan forced AIPAC's hand.

President Barack Obama's decision to make Congress decide on the course of the Syrian intervention has put the pro-Israel camp just where it did not want to be: openly advocating American military involvement in the volatile Middle East. It's a calculation based on the lesser of two evils, the greater being risking Washington's withdrawal from leadership on global security just as Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. No one has a greater stake in a strong United States -- and the credibility of America's deterrent capability -- than Israel and the Jewish people. Indeed, many of the arguments that motivate the president's opponents on Syria could also apply in the event that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities becomes necessary.

Yet this is a debate about the American national interest, and most American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters do not want it to degenerate into a debate about Israel. Most agree with former Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovitch that, "It's bad for Israel [if] the average American gets it into his or her mind that boys are again sent to war for Israel."

Paralyzed by these fears, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC supporters in Washington remained nearly silent for weeks, even after evidence of Bashar al-Assad's murderous chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians outside Damascus. And they remained quiet even after Obama indicated that he was preparing a military strike. They did not want to be drawn into a political melee in a deeply divided Congress, risking strains in the bipartisan support for Israel that forms the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

All that has now changed. Responding to a full-court press by the Obama administration -- a call to Netanyahu, a direct message to AIPAC, and messages via congressional leaders -- AIPAC has weighed in fully in support of the president's call for intervention.

This is a major change in precedent. Ten years ago, AIPAC struggled to stay out of the Iraq War vote when that issue was before Congress, and did not openly endorse that authorization. Neither the Israeli government nor AIPAC supporters in the United States considered Saddam Hussein nearly the threat that Iran was. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then warned President George W. Bush privately that he thought an attack on Iraq would be a mistake. After the Iraq vote, to prove its innocence, AIPAC organized a letter from 16 Jewish members of Congress stating that "AIPAC as an organization never took a position on the war and none of us were ever lobbied by the organization on the war in Iraq." It did not work. Israel's detractors never cease asserting that the Iraq War was fought on Israel's behalf, and that belief has eroded support for Israel on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But now, President Obama is making everyone stand up and be counted, and he is putting maximum pressure on all prospective allies to come out from behind the curtain and speak up. As a White House official told the New York Times, AIPAC is "the 800-pound gorilla in the room" because it has close relations with and access to a vast array of members on both sides of the aisle and on all sides of the debate. Simply put, the president has staked a lot of political capital on the gambit to sway Congress on his Syria plan -- and he needs AIPAC's support.

The administration is certainly aware that many of the wavering members in the House and Senate could be influenced if Israel's outgoing but powerful ambassador, Michael Oren, and the pro-Israel lobby joined the fray. Public statements of support are helpful, but the main thing is the mobilization of AIPAC's vast network of trusted "key contacts" to speak privately with members they know well.

AIPAC's leaders, like other Americans, don't see much to support on any side of the civil war in Syria, and in their hearts they would probably like to see both sides lose. But an American military strike that destroys Syria's aircraft and helicopters, degrades its air defenses, and disables its runways, would be a benefit to Israel and the region -- no matter who emerges victorious there.

And if, conversely, the red lines that have been declared by President Obama were to be wiped out by an isolationist Congress (much as British Prime Minister David Cameron was repudiated by Parliament), it could begin a wider U.S. retreat in the Middle East. It would certainly undermine the campaign to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program. Already, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are boasting about a "historic American retreat," and extremist elements from al Qaeda to North Korea must be rubbing their hands in glee. Without a strong United States, the world of our children will descend into a very dark void, because after America there is no one else waiting in line to assume leadership except these forces of evil and chaos.

If AIPAC sits on its hands, Obama might well lose this historic vote on Capitol Hill. If so, the Rand Paul/isolationist right and the antiwar left may celebrate, and conservative critics can blame it on Obama's feckless leadership. But it will be a disaster for the Middle East and the world, and it may be impossible to contain the damage.

Some can close their eyes to these realities, but Israel and its friends in Washington don't have that luxury. Americans and Brits are far away, but Israel's permanent reality is that it lives in that very bad neighborhood, faced with an existential crisis and a Syrian civil war in danger of spiraling out of control. That is why, while Americans are divided on the issue, an overwhelming majority of Israelis are hoping President Obama will prevail. And why, in the end, the pro-Israel camp knows it needs to support Obama.