The French Connection

Why it's time to build a new special relationship between Washington and Paris.    

Despite the headlines, French President François Hollande's state visit to Washington, which begins on Feb. 10, will focus heavily on international security issues. Europe is "our principal partner" in seeking global security, according to the Pentagon's strategic guidance. But across the continent, economic strains and disenchantment with military interventions are eroding the political will and defense investments needed to maintain and deploy capable forces. So the United States has a clear interest in supporting an ally that's bucking those trends.

Before his election in May 2012, Hollande seemed an unlikely candidate for special attention by either the White House or the Pentagon. His Socialist Party cohorts -- including current Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius -- had lambasted Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande's predecessor, for reintegrating France into NATO military structures after its 43-year absence. While campaigning, Hollande rashly pledged to withdraw all 3,400 French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. (Under Sarkozy, the French were the third largest European troop contributor, after the British and Germans, and often assumed tough combat missions.)

As president, however, Hollande has steered a pragmatic course broadly convergent with U.S. strategic interests. True, real French defense spending has dipped with inflation, and some conventional capabilities have been trimmed. But new air transports, air refuelers, and U.S.-built Reaper "drones" are entering their forces, and the nuclear deterrent has been largely protected. Hollande should be strongly encouraged to avoid further cuts while commended for his global engagement.

Meanwhile, little has changed in France's approach to NATO. French officers have kept important posts, including as head of Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Va., one of the alliance's two strategic commands. Hollande stretched out the pledged drawdown in Afghanistan, where some 200 French military remain in training, medical, and logistical roles. And should NATO deploy its Response Force (NRF) during 2014, whether inside Europe or further afield, a French headquarters will command the NRF's high-readiness land component.

In Africa, Hollande has not hesitated to use hard power. In January 2013, he ordered air strikes and dispatched 4,500 troops to Mali to deal with al Qaeda-affiliated extremists threatening major parts of the country. Last December, he sent 1,600 troops to staunch the Central African Republic's descent into a brutal civil war. The numbers may appear small, but these are substantial and risky commitments, involving roughly the same share of the French army as the United States has committed in Afghanistan. In both cases, the United States quickly provided political backing and practical aid, including intelligence support to the French and airlifting African Union peacekeeping forces working with them. Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently called the United States an "indispensable partner" in Africa.

U.S.-French military cooperation has extended to other regions, as well. French and American aircraft carrier groups, led by the Charles de Gaulle and Harry S. Truman, recently conducted joint training in the Gulf of Oman, where Paris and Washington have similar interests in reassuring the Gulf Cooperation Council states worried about Iran. The two militaries also regularly interact in the Caribbean region, where maritime security and combatting transnational crime are shared concerns. But more could be done to bolster defense-related ties with France. Even better, this can be accomplished while strengthening our traditional "special relationship" with Britain.

At the strategic level, informal trilateral consultations among top U.S., British, and French policymakers and military officials are nothing new. But last summer's spate of mutual recriminations, involving their respective "red lines" and readiness to launch military strikes against Syria, shows there's room for improvement regarding crisis response. Emerging threats need greater attention, too. For example, as nuclear weapons states, the three allies should be discussing how to improve the resiliency of space assets and cyber systems that are critical for effective deterrence against potential adversaries.

Trilateral consultations should be buttressed by deeper military cooperation. The 2011 Libyan intervention demonstrated that close, multilevel ties among the U.S., British, and French air forces can produce decisive operational advantages. The three navies work together well in the Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf, and off the coast of Somalia. But they could do more to ensure their interoperability for maritime security missions in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Guinea, where potential threats come from terrorists and pirates. The three armies (especially their Special Operations forces) face growing demands to train African peacekeeping and counterterrorism forces, so improved coordination and role specialization makes sense.

Logically, trilateral cooperation should complement the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, under which Paris and London launched an ambitious bilateral program to create a muscular Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, share certain nuclear weapons-related laboratories, and improve defense industrial collaboration in future air-combat systems and anti-ship missiles. If successful, Lancaster House will set a powerful example for other Europeans to follow. This should be a "win-win" from a U.S. perspective.

However, U.S. clearance procedures for certain classified materials reportedly are hindering information sharing between British and French staff officers, slowing implementation of key Lancaster House initiatives. It's a sensitive area, but as President Barack Obama stated in his January 17 remarks on signals intelligence: "Heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners." A meeting of the three defense ministers and other top national security officials may be necessary to come to grips with these issues and craft a practical approach.

And since you cannot "surge trust," we should continue investing in the intellectual interoperability of our future military leaders. Today, some 55 French men and women serve as exchange or liaison officers in U.S. units or study at our top professional military education institutions. Some 35 American officers occupy similar positions in France. Embedding a few senior officers in each other's national planning staffs (as we do with British, Canadian, and Australian officers) would be a logical next step.

True, France, at times, can be a difficult partner. Yet its policies, capabilities, and operational commitments will play an important role in shaping those of other Europeans. Strengthening America's "entente pragmatique" with our oldest ally can strengthen the transatlantic alliance as a whole.



We Did Not 'Lose' Iraq

But it is America's job to help Baghdad beat back the new threat from al Qaeda.

Iraq has made an unwelcome return to the American public consciousness. In late December, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized considerable territory in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province. Its gains included neighborhoods in the city of Fallujah, the site of an epic U.S. battle against al Qaeda in 2004, rekindling American fears that its old enemies have gained the upper hand in a region where the United States sacrificed so much blood and treasure.

President Barack Obama's administration is doing the right thing by increasing intelligence and operational cooperation with the Iraqi government, sending weapons to the Iraqi army, and moving forward on attack helicopter transfers. At the same time, the administration is correctly pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern more inclusively, as his marginalization of the Sunni Arab minority has contributed to al Qaeda's appeal among the community.

But despite Maliki's flaws, the United States should wholeheartedly work with him in combating the jihadist threat. He is, after all, the elected leader of a critically important country, and the aid we are providing serves the vast majority of the Iraqi people in a desperate fight against a merciless enemy. It is obviously a core U.S. national interest to block al Qaeda from establishing yet another base in an ungoverned territory. This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, which if stable can provide oil exports of 6 million barrels a day by 2020 -- an output that would have a hugely positive impact on the global economy. Moreover, given the American sacrifice there, failure to help defend Iraq against a sworn enemy would further undercut U.S. credibility in the Middle East.

Yet, the renewed prominence of Iraq has opened old wounds. The administration initially took pains to stress that the fight against al Qaeda in Anbar was Iraq's fight, not ours. Meanwhile, some veterans of the Iraq war voiced their disappointment at everything now transpiring there, questioning the purpose of their service if al Qaeda was allowed to regain a foothold in the region. Republicans and Democrats in Washington traded the usual accusations, blasting the other side for "losing Iraq" or getting the United States embroiled in a quagmire in the first place.

Given the importance of the current situation, it's worth reviewing how we got to this juncture. The history of U.S. involvement in Iraq over the past decade contains valuable lessons about what America was able to achieve in Iraq -- and also the aspects of the country it found impossible to change.

The most important lesson from our decade-plus involvement in Iraq is that the country was never ours to "win." Iraq's fate remains an important U.S. national interest, but the country cannot be remade in our image. This was reflected in one explicit goal of our Iraq policy -- to provide real self-determination to the population. Not self-determination to do only the smart things as we see them -- but to do whatever Iraqis think is right.

Of course, we did provide the Iraqis with advice and assistance. But in contrast to colonial administrations, our very purpose was to have Iraqi voices determine their country's future. The fact that they are having difficulties doing so successfully should surprise nobody, given the state of the rest of the Middle East.

The contradiction at the core of U.S. policy was the mixing of two separate goals. On the one hand, the United States tried to transform Iraq into a model Western-style democracy -- an effort justified as much on geostrategic as idealistic grounds. On the other hand, U.S. policymakers pushed Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. The two goals would have been compatible only if the Iraqis had agreed they wanted to be "like us," and had the wherewithal to pursue that goal. Post-1945 Germany had both, post-2003 Iraq had neither.

We did not know that, however, at the time U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad. Back then, the hope was that the United States could generate a dynamic similar to that in Eastern Europe in 1989, when the fall of Soviet dictatorship liberated populations to seek a democratic future allied with the West.

But what we got in Iraq was chaos, followed quickly by insurgency. With the whole endeavor at risk, the United States managed to partially salvage its effort in 2007 and 2008 with the troop "surge," and the uprising of the Sunni tribes against al Qaeda. The central concept of this counterinsurgency effort was that stabilizing the security situation would generate space for the feuding ethnic and religious groups to reconcile, and allow for the emergence of a sufficiently effective government and expanding economy to generate citizen "buy-in" in the national project.

The endeavor required massive U.S. intervention in most public spheres, particularly national and local government, the legal system, the security forces, and the economy -- but we succeeded only very partially. This was not an insignificant achievement, and arguably justifies the sacrifices we made, but it did not meet the expectations of those across the U.S. political spectrum who believed in transformational nation building.

Today, the belief that the United States can transform foreign nations is much maligned, and authors such as Peter Beinart have condemned it as "hubris." But given the circumstances a decade ago, it was understandable. The United States had been engaged militarily in the Middle East almost constantly since the global military alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with no end in sight. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated how dangerous this demi-war could be and, given various anti-American despots' WMD programs, how much more dangerous it could become. Furthermore, America had successfully fostered Western-aligned democracies in the Balkans, Central America, and in East Asia, creating seemingly improbable new "Germanys" with the same formula applied in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the end, however, the U.S. experience in the Middle East came to resemble its long war in Vietnam more closely than its launch of the Marshall Plan in post-war Germany. The American people, meanwhile, lost interest in the costly effort.

Some who advocated nation building in Iraq blame either the George W. Bush or Obama administration for failing to complete the effort. But the full job -- broadly defined as an Iraq that had overcome its sectarian and ethnic divisions and that boasted vibrant Western-style political, economic, and legal institutions -- was simply not feasible. Even if the Bush administration had avoided some of its errors -- not disbanding the Iraqi army, committing more troops to the country in 2003, devoting more energy to reconciling the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, or tweaking the 2005 constitution -- the end result would still have been similar.

The Obama administration is in a similar position. Some critics blame the current mess on the administration's support for the re-election of Maliki in 2010, or its failure to keep troops in the country after 2011. These criticisms suffer from the same flaw as those aimed at the Bush administration: Any alternatives would not only have been extremely difficult, they would have made only minor adjustments in a complex political dynamic involving almost 30 million people.

Obama simply had little ability to change the basic course of Iraqi politics, even on the issues critics highlight as his signature mistakes. Concerning the 2010 elections, the two Shiite religious coalitions were united in having one of their own become prime minister -- and they won 50 percent of the vote, compared to less than 30 percent from the largely Sunni Arab coalition. For almost nine months after the election, the United States encouraged the political parties to find a potential premier more palatable than Maliki -- but none emerged. Regarding the troop withdrawal, it was the result of the Iraqi government's failure to extend the status of forces agreement: With violence levels very low and the Iraqi security forces more capable, the Iraqi electorate could accept a continued presence but balked at granting legal immunity to U.S. soldiers. Given this decision, the Obama administration simply had no choice but to withdraw all U.S. soldiers from the country, as stipulated in the agreement signed by the Bush administration.  

It's true that, if some U.S. forces had remained, the Iraqi army would be better trained, delivery of intelligence and counterterrorism assistance would be more efficient, and various parties in and outside Iraq would have been reassured about the country's political course. This would have helped in the current struggle against al Qaeda -- but only on the margins. Absent direct combat involvement by an American force much larger than anyone envisioned remaining in Iraq, the United States could not have been decisive in stopping this jihadist threat. A U.S. military presence would also not have intimidated Maliki into a more inclusive political stance -- he sometimes acted irresponsibly while we still had tens of thousands of combat troops in country, after all.

But regardless of how we got here, it's now the job of the United States to help Iraq beat back the al Qaeda threat. This time, we are more likely to understand that the country will not be the Western-aligned democracy that many dreamed of back in 2003 -- but that it could still enjoy relative peace and stability if the jihadists are defeated and Sunni Arabs get a better deal from Baghdad. In confronting this threat, we protect American interests and honor those Americans who risked their lives in Iraq and elsewhere across the Middle East over this past decade. They cannot celebrate a 1945-style triumph, but they have helped keep that critical region from total collapse.