WASHINGTON — It might surprise a great many Americans that the French actually think Saddam Hussein is "a bloody dictator" who deserves to be disarmed. How astonishing, given France's extraordinary efforts to keep him in power.
According to France's ambassador to the United States, Jean David Levitte, the only difference between his government and the United States' is how to go about disarmament. Oh yes, and whether Saddam should be removed from power. Levitte expresses hope that Americans will understand the differences and stop all their "French-bashing" for the good of relations that go back a couple of hundred years.
Well, it seems appropriate to ask that if Saddam is such a bad guy, why, Mr. Ambassador, is your country working so hard to thwart American efforts to have him removed? Why not support U.S. efforts to end his reign about the only way he has shown it will ever be terminated, with extreme prejudice, as the CIA puts it? Could it be that he is your bad guy, that French interests are tied to his rule and that it is important to France's declining role in the world theater to have a hit show?
Trying to put the best face on the deepening rift between the United States and France over Iraq, Levitte warns that American hard feelings would only intensify the animosity of the French people toward this country.
So what's new, pal?
Is it possible that "french fries" becoming "freedom fries" in the U.S. House of Representatives and reports that Euro Disney had to quit setting off fireworks outside Paris because the French kept surrendering finally have penetrated the Gaulish shell of indifference to anything American? Levitte, a former ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters recently that he witnessed this spectacle with "great sadness."
What apparently hasn't penetrated is that American resentment about France's obvious disdain, culturally and otherwise, for the United States has been building for a great many decades and that France's lead in undercutting our position on Iraq is just the capper.
More importantly, the damage caused by this latest episode will not be easy to repair despite his seeming optimism. Even Americans opposed to President Bush's war plans are angry over the fact that once again it is the French who are leading the opposition to American interests.
While the ambassador acknowledged that "you saved us in two wars," he doesn't seem to fully understand the feeling of betrayal among tens of thousands of Americans whose relatives are buried in French soil because of those wars. Nearly any other nation could have led those opposed to attacking Iraq without engendering the same animosity.
There is little doubt that the United States will need broad international help in reconstructing Iraq after a war, if it comes. Levitte indicated the French would be right there to help. When the time comes to think about the future of Iraq and the Middle East, Levitte said," the United States and France will be together. You will need friends and allies." Survey Americans on whether they think the United States can count on France in the postwar era and the response probably would be overwhelmingly negative.
It would be a good bet that France's postwar position, just like its prewar policy, will be determined by its own self-interests. The French adamantly deny, as Levitte did, that any French company has signed oil development contracts. But there is ample evidence of French business dealings with the Saddam regime. The truth is that the French have their hands all over the Middle East and continue to pursue a policy that would establish them as the pre-eminent link between those states and Europe. It's their return to fame.
The French position, at this juncture, is to give the "bloody dictator" four more months to meet U.N. inspection demands — as if 12 years weren't enough. Meanwhile, France would encourage us to keep the 200,000 U.S. and British forces in the region just to pressure him a little. After all, Levitte said, the United States has kept thousands of troops in Asia and Europe for far longer.
Yeah, and we saved your bacon twice in one century with American blood and millions on millions of American taxpayer dollars in the Marshall Plan afterwards. Want to know why the wounds you would like to heal quickly won't? Because it's personal, that's why.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.