Of Piffle and Petite Grandeur

November 20, 2002

Of Piffle and Petite Grandeur

I don't mean to bother folks with details they may not care to know, but it so happens that not all varieties of raspberries grow the same way.

I don't mean to bother folks with details they may not care to know, but it so happens that not all varieties of raspberries grow the same way. Your purple and black raspberries sprout laterals off their main fronds in every new growing season, but your red and golden raspberries don't-they send up fronds right from the ground which fruit out in their second year. A person has to know the difference when it comes time to prune a raspberry patch after the first few hard frosts, as we've done at Chestnut Nook this week, or he can cause real disappointment come springtime.

A person who takes an interest in the affairs of the world also needs to keep certain basic distinctions in mind. One of these distinctions is between people who see the world as it is, and those who allow themselves to see it as they want it to be-and who often become so habituated to that indulgence of character that they lose track entirely of what they're up to. Such indulgence is so natural to human nature that everyone is probably guilty of it at least from time to time. But some folks really take the cake, and sometimes they come in groups.

Take the folks-go ahead, take `em-at the New York Times. Now, as Paul Rahe explains in the next issue of The National Interest, in a fine essay called "An Inky Wretch", there never was, isn't, and never will be an unbiased journalism. Bias isn't the point, however; competence and credibility are the points. I had to pinch myself after I read R. W. Apple, Jr.'s front-page article on November 6th, the day after the midterm election, to see if he and I were living on the same planet. "Two years after the most bizarre presidential election in American history was decided by the Supreme Court", he began-and hold it right there, R.W.! It wasn't the most bizarre election in American history; the election of 1800 beat it hands down, and the circumstances of the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes make what happened in Florida two years ago look like an old episode of "Romper Room." And no, the Supreme Court did not decide the election; the rule of law and of the electoral college decided it.

But never mind.

Apple goes on to claim that "the nation voted yesterday in a mood of disenchantment and curious disconnection from the political system." He doesn't tell us how he knows that. But he continues: ". . .the campaign that led up to the balloting was notably lifeless and cheerless, with pep rallies devoid of pep and stump speeches that stirred few voters." He doesn't tell us how he knows that, either-nor does he explain how come such unstirred-up voters went to the polls in numbers greater than the last midterm election, and even the one before that. That sure was a heckuva way to show how devoid of pep the electorate was.

Why does Mr. Apple write such things? We soon get a hint: Apple quotes Senator John McCain saying "I see a Republican breeze blowing" only to comment that "if there was such a breeze, it was more an autumn breeze than a cyclone." Now, Senator McCain was not speaking in the past tense, and he never said anything about cyclones. Makes you wonder whether the voters would not have been near so retrospectively listless, disconnected from the political system, lifeless, cheerless, and devoid of pep if the Democrats had not taken such a pounding.

There's a certain amusement value in what the New York Times does, at least. You'd need an argument characterized by well over six degrees of separation to claim that the Times really does serious harm, gets people killed, and so forth. Not so other examples of such confusion.

If there is a French expression that equates to the American southernism, "happier than a pig in mud", then it deserves to be said about Jacques Chirac these days. The 69-year old French President is on a roll. It all started when his socialist nemesis, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, was ousted from the presidential race in the first round by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen's showing scared the French for bejeebers out of the electorate, and the result was that, not only did Chirac get rid of his need for cohabitation with the Socialists, but his own party's parliamentary edge waxed mightily. Chirac was thus able to make a relative novice, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, prime minister. To invoke the style of the late Lyndon Baines Johnson, every relevant part of Mr. Raffarin's anatomy is in Mr. Chirac's pocket.

More recently, Chirac has suborned German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the context of European Union politics, notably the Common Agriculture Policy but other matters besides. Chirac saw that Schroeder could not afford a big public argument with France after Schroeder's election campaign eccentricities had dissed Washington and isolated German policy within the EU. Some Sonderweg. Chirac has also outflanked Tony Blair of Britain: The amount of the British subsidy is now again front and center since the CAP is not, and Chirac's having penned cowboy Bush in the UN Security Council corral has made Blair's up-front support for the United States look both syncophantish and ungainly.

It is this last escapade, however, that thrills Chirac the most, no doubt. The President, with his Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin, believes that French diplomacy has run circles around the United States with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. UNSCR 1441 cannot of itself prevent the United States from going to war, of course. But if the Bush Administration so orders in the teeth of Security Council-sanctified French (and maybe Russian) opposition, after having plowed the fields of multilateralism to a fare-thee-well, the United States will pay a higher price in diplomatic capital than if it had never gone to the United Nations in the first place. The French are downright in love with themselves over this.

But why? Some people think that the French government operates according to stark, even cold-blooded calculations of national interest. Sometimes it does, especially when its own political interests accord with the former. Therefore many point to oil: oil contracts and the oil business with Iraq. This may motivate the French in part, but French national interests, concretely or commercially construed, are not really at the base of French policy, and what is at its base runs directly counter to French national interests.

What is behind French policy is the love of the game itself, and the object of that beloved game is to manacle, diminish, offset and constrain American power for its own sake. The United States is guilty of success, and that is all that is required for it to become an object of French envy and gamesmanship. That we have also filled the world with hamburgers, inexcusable as that may be, comes distinctly second. What is at work here is the exhausted volcano of French grandeur spitting cool fire at the hyperpower. Call it, then, a case of petty, or better, petite grandeur.

How is this harmful to the real French national interest? This is almost too obvious to bother explaining. When asked to justify their policy in Realpolitik terms, French observers are liable to say that Saddam Hussein and Ba`ath do not need to be removed because, even with deliverable weapons of mass destruction, they can be deterred, as other countries with dangerous weaponry have been and are being deterred. Perhaps it is true that Iraqi use of nuclear and biological weapons can be deterred (and perhaps not), but much less certain is that Iraqi use of aggressive conventional force can be deterred once it stands before the shield of nuclear weapons. The French can have all the oil concessions they like, but if a nuclear-weapons endowed Iraq invades Kuwait, or makes Saudi Arabian oil fields no-go zones from having showered them with anthrax and VX, or in due course intimidates or subverts Qatar or Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, the cost to the United States of sending or using its own conventional expeditionary forces to stop or reverse such dangers becomes exorbitantly high. An Iraq with nuclear weapons is likely to evoke the same sort of U.S. attitude as North Korea with nuclear weapons: we will bleat about diplomatic solutions where there are none, and we will be loath to threaten or to use force because it is just too dangerous.

Now, whose interests would be most harmed by such a turn of events? It is true that France uses nuclear energy well to generate electricity, but it still gets its oil and gas mainly from the Middle East. Perhaps it could turn more to Russia, as the United States might. But for now, France is more dependent on such sources than is the United States. An Iraqi destabilization of the region, and its holding the international price of oil to ransom, would harm France far more than it would harm the United States. So for France to deliberately undermine the U.S. position in the Middle East generally and in the Persian Gulf in particular is just stupid; it is like sawing off the legs of the stool on which one is sitting. If the United States fears to confront a nuclear Iraq over, say, a second invasion of Kuwait, who is going to do it instead? The French Foreign Legion?