In the last few years, France has asserted herself on the international scene in a very active way – first under President Nicolas Sarkozy and then even more under President François Hollande. She led the way among Western powers to intervene in Libya in order to oust Muammar Khaddafi. She has pushed the hardest line of all Western powers on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. She has intervened unilaterally in Mali to stop the downward sweep of Islamic armed movements. Hollande was received virtually as a hero when he came recently to Israel because of his hard line on negotiations with Syria and with Iran. And now she has sent troops to try to restore order in the Central African Republic.
This is the same France which, ten years ago, was being pilloried by the United States Congress for its refusal to go along with U.S. intervention in Iraq, to the point that the food term “French fries” was publicly rejected in the United States. This is the same France that was regarded as far too pro-Palestinian by the Israelis. This is the same France that not so long ago publicly renounced the concept of “Françafrique” – France’s presumed duty to keep order in its ex-African colonies – as no longer appropriate behavior. What has happened to explain this turnaround?
There are of course some factors internal to France that contributed to these developments. Because of its colonial history, France today has a large number of Muslim residents and citizens who are largely an economic underclass. Many of the younger Muslims have become increasingly militant and some of them have been attracted to the more radical versions of Islamist politics. While this shift has occurred throughout the pan-European world, it seems particularly strong in France. It has therefore evoked a political reaction not only from extreme-right xenophobic groups like the Front National but from persons holding unyielding versions of secularism (laicité) on the political left. Today the most popular Socialist minister seems to be Interior Minister Manuel Valls, whose major activity is taking extra-strong measures against illegal migrants, mostly Muslim migrants, to France.
Furthermore, at a time when neo-con ideas seem to have passed their prime in U.S. politics, the French equivalent, centering on the slogan of responsabilité de protéger (RdP), has been getting stronger within France. One of its leading figure, Bernard Kouchner (founder of Doctors Without Borders), had been a foreign minister under Sarkozy. Another leading figure, Bernard-Henri Lévy, played a formidable pressure role on governmental politics under Sarkozy and still does under Hollande.
The greater explanation however may be external – the role France thinks it can still play on the world scene. Ever since 1945, France has strived to remain a major figure on the world scene. And in this effort, it always saw the United States as the major force trying to diminish its role. The reassertion of France’s world role was the primary concern of Charles de Gaulle. It was a goal he pursued in many ways, from early outreach to the Soviet Union to withdrawal of French troops from NATO. He wove a strong relationship with Israel during the Algerian war, at a time when the United States was pursuing a quite different policy. It was France that put together the Franco-British-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956. To be sure, once Algeria gained its independence in 1962, France ended its special link to Israel, more concerned with renewing good relations with its North African former colonies.
This policy was not merely a Gaullist policy. Non-Gaullist (or anti-Gaullist) political figures like François Mitterand and Sarkozy adopted Gaullist stances on multiple occasions. From Churchill during the Second World War to Obama today, the United States and Great Britain have always found French leaders too rambunctious, too difficult to control for their taste.
What is permitting this current return to aggressiveness is precisely the decline of United States’ effective power on the world scene. Suddenly, France can seem more hardline against the enemy, now defined as the Islamic enemy, than the United States. Once again, after a long delay since 1962, Israel can see France as a better friend, if a less powerful friend, than the United States.
The problem for France is that although U.S. decline allows for a stronger rhetorical position for France, the new somewhat chaotic geopolitical scene is not one in which France can really replace the United States as the hardliner. There are too many other powerful nations involved in the Middle East for France to play a primary role there. Even less can France play a major role in East Asia, despite the fact that it had been a major colonial power there.
The one place where France can reassume a major role is Africa, because for the moment neither Great Britain nor the United States is as ready, for various reasons, to act with military force. France is seizing the opportunity. And Hollande, otherwise in increasing domestic unpopularity, finds support from public opinion for this role.
However, this kind of aggressive policy has a major downside, as the United States has discovered in the Middle East. It can be very difficult to withdraw one’s troops once they are there. And public opinion at home begins to sour on the interventions, seeing them as increasingly futile and unsuccessful.
There has been civil war in Colombia more or less continuously since 1948. It seems it may finally be coming to an end. It is ending the way most other long-lasting civil wars end. A changed geopolitical context combined with a deep sense of exhaustion on both sides is permitting an uncertain and imperfect compromise arrangement to prevail. This ending is comparable to similar endings in Northern Ireland and South Africa. It is what is not yet happening, and may not happen for quite a while yet, in Afghanistan, Syria, or Egypt.
Colombia’s civil war started with the assassination of the Liberal Party’s candidate for president, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, who was thought likely to win the 1948 election. Colombia was at that time a largely agricultural, largely Catholic country. There were two mainstream political parties, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party. The very names replicated a classic left-right split. They also reflected a classic split between freethinking and Catholic forces.
Over the next ten years, paramilitary forces linked to the two parties engaged in continuous fighting, particularly in rural areas, over control of the land. Captured soldiers were often killed in extremely cruel ways, especially by the Conservative party’s forces. It resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and came to be known as “La Violencia.” By 1958, the Conservatives had more or less won, and imposed a deal on the Liberals.
The restored calm did not last long. By 1964, a Marxist-Leninist political movement emerged from within the relatively small Colombian Communist Party to begin guerilla action against the mainstream. It took the name of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. The early 1960′s was a moment when similar movements were emerging in many Latin American countries. FARC turned out to be one that was able to survive a long time, until today in fact. Its ups and downs were many. The important thing is that it transformed the civil war into one that revolved around more fundamental divisions than the initial Liberal-Conservative confrontation. Indeed, the emergence of FARC seemed to bring the Liberals into a de facto coalition with the Conservatives to oppose the guerillas.
In the 1960s, the United States considered FARC as the kind of force they were fighting across the world and gave military and political support to the Colombian government. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States turned its attention to what they considered to be a war on drugs. Here too, Colombia turned out to be crucial as a production and transit point for drugs, particularly cocaine. And after 9/11 in 2001, the United States (and other Western countries) labeled FARC a “terrorist” organization.
There was one serious attempt to end the war politically. In 1984 President Belisario Betancur entered into a pact with FARC, which allowed FARC to contest elections as the Unión Patriótica (UP). But so many of the UP’s active leaders were assassinated by ultra-rightist forces as well as by state agents that the FARC members returned to being active guerillas by 1986. This sabotage of the pact by the far right has weighed in all subsequent negotiations.
The Colombian president from 2002-2010, Álvaro Uribe, refused any idea of negotiations and launched maximal military actions against FARC, including crossing frontiers into neighboring countries when and where he thought FARC leaders were hiding. When his term ended, he was succeeded by his Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos. Santos had been thought to be the hard-liner behind Uribe. He turned out to be the one willing to negotiate.
What changed for Santos was the geopolitical context. The United States was unable to provide the military attention it had previously offered because of its own geopolitical decline. Santos, who is undoubtedly one of the best friends of the United States in Latin America, was keenly aware of the rise of left and center-left forces in Latin America. He was most interested in preserving economic links to the United States and seemed to think that working within, rather than against, autonomous South American and Latin American structures, was most likely to give him the space for what was most important to him. He became receptive to offers by President Hugo Chávez of neighboring Venezuela and even Cuba to mediate. Negotiations seemed the better path.
Meanwhile, FARC was suffering not only from depletion of its strength but sheer fatigue, and suddenly became open once again to negotiations. These negotiations have been going on for some time now in Havana. And on November 6, President Santos announced on television that the government and FARC had agreed on the second point of the agenda for negotiation. The first point, on agrarian development, had been resolved in late May.
The second and crucial point was on disarmament and participation in electoral politics. Santos said that a “fundamental accord” had been achieved on this second point. He emphasized how Colombia would not now need another half century of civil war. The representative of FARC agreed. There still is a third point on narcotraffic, but no one seems to doubt that this will be resolved.
Opposition to the accord has already been verbalized loudly by former president Uribe. But public opinion is no longer on his side. Nor does it seem that there is any opposition to the arrangement forthcoming from the United States, which does not want to undermine the position of President Santos, its still very good friend. Nor are there any voices from the left, internally or internationally, likely to try to sabotage the accord.
How good a deal is this for Santos, still a conservative neoliberal, and for FARC, still a left force? It is too early to tell. But there seems a good chance that the pact will hold. The civil war is ending, in T.S. Eliot’s famous refrain, “not with a bang but a whimper.” But sixty-five years of civil war is exhausting. One wonders how many young people in Colombia would even recognize today the name of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán.
I have long argued that U.S. decline as a hegemonic power began circa 1970 and that a slow decline became a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush. I first started writing about this in 1980 or so. At that time the reaction to this argument, from all political camps, was to reject it as absurd. In the 1990s, quite to the contrary, it was widely believed, again on all sides of the political spectrum, that the United States had reached the height of unipolar dominance.
However, after the burst bubble of 2008, opinion of politicians, pundits, and the general public began to change. Today, a large percentage of people (albeit not everyone) accepts the reality of at least some relative decline of U.S. power, prestige, and influence. In the United States this is accepted quite reluctantly. Politicians and pundits rival each other in recommending how this decline can still be reversed. I believe it is irreversible.
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Commentary No. 363, Oct. 15, 2013
In the Bible there is a famous story of Samson, who is a hero. There are many interpretations of the meaning of the tale in which Samson, an Israelite, and someone of God-granted strength, pulls down the temple of the (also very strong) enemy Philistines, dying himself in the process. I take it to mean that an act which seems irrational (Samson dies in the process) is both heroic and quite sensible in that it becomes the way (possibly the only way) in which the strong enemy is defeated and his “people” saved.
Commentary No. 362, October 1, 2013
In the diplomatic negotiations that are now quite unexpectedly blossoming between Iran and the United States, one has to say that the Iranians have shown the greater capacity for verbal formulas that catch popular imagination.
When the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, suggested that Iran would be willing to engage in diplomacy with what the Iranians used to call the Great Satan, everyone held their breath until we all knew if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would endorse these efforts.
For the past month at least, the world seems to have been discussing nothing but whether, how, and when the United States will engage in a punitive air strike of some sort against the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad. Three things stand out about this discussion: (1) It has been full of endless surprises in every aspect of the affair, including and perhaps especially the latest Russian proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons be turned over to some international agency. (2) The degree of worldwide opposition to U.S. military intervention has been extremely high. (3) Almost all the actors have been giving public statements that seem not to reflect their true concerns and intentions.
Let us start with the so-called unexpected Russian proposal, which Syria’s Foreign Minister has endorsed. Was this really the result of an off-hand, unserious remark of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, cleverly seized upon by the Russians the day before President Obama was scheduled to make his plea to the American people to endorse a military strike? It seems not. Apparently, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been quietly discussing such a possibility for over a year.
Commentary No. 360, Sept. 1, 2013
It is almost always bad news when armies are in power. In Egypt, the army has been the deciding force since 1952. The recent destitution by the Egyptian army of President Mohamed Morsi was not a coup d’état. One cannot commit a coup d’état against oneself. What happened was simply that the army changed the way it was governing Egypt. For a short period, the army had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to make some limited state decisions. When they began to feel that the actions of the Morsi government might lead to a significant increase in Muslim Brotherhood power at the expense of the Egyptian army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided that enough was enough, and acted ruthlessly to increase the day-to-day power of the army.
Armies in power are in general highly nationalist and very authoritarian. They tend to be very conservative forces in terms of the world-economy. Furthermore, the senior officers not only permit the army to have a direct entrepreneurial role, but they also tend to use their military power as a mode of personal enrichment. This has certainly been the case for most of the time since the Egyptian army assumed direct power in 1952 – or shall we say, at least since 1952.
Espionage is an eternal activity of governments. Once upon a time, governments spied primarily on other governments. Today, they spy on everybody, and I do mean everybody. We all have learned recently, thanks to whistle-blowers, Wikileaks, and the British newspaper, The Guardian, just how extensive has become the reach of the United States, which apparently has the most extensive espionage system of any government in the world, in particular, that of the National Security Agency (NSA).
Strange as it may seem to the spyers, many ordinary people who are not themselves spies or engaged in nefarious activity are both surprised to learn that their privacy has been massively invaded and do not appreciate the experience.
What the NSA has been doing is what is called mining metadata. That is, they arrange that the services that transmit emails and telephone calls turn over to the NSA whatever records they have for analysis by the NSA of “patterns” that are presumed to reveal actual or potential “terrorist” activity.
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