Friday, August 18, 2006

Trois Card Monte

Kevin Drum expressed more than a little displeasure at the recent noise emanating from Paris that France might not follow through with the provision of troops to fill out the beefed-up UN force in Lebanon that was pledged as part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by France in recent weeks. Kevin even went as far as to dispense the rare Political Animal "Wanker of the Day" award to Jacques Chirac (Drum is decidedly stingier than Atrios in bestowing such ignominious honors). Said Drum:

Let's summarize: Chirac personally rammed through the ceasefire resolution; insisted that it call for a UN force; did everything he could to imply that France would contribute several thousand combat troops; but in the end is only willing to stand up a 200-man military engineering company. Because Hezbollah might shoot back.
Allow me to suggest an alternative narrative, however - one that doesn't cast France as the double-dealing and duplicitous agent of evil. First, I would posit that the French didn't necessarily "ram through" their cease-fire proposal against anyone's will, but rather gave each party what they wanted, but could not ask for openly. The US wanted this conflict to end (not initially, obviously, but by this time), the Israelis wanted it to end (see, previous parenthetical) and, most likely, even Hezbollah (who may be the net winners here) wanted this to end.

But, and that's a crucial "but," each side needed something to save face. This is typically one of the major impediments to putting the brakes on a mutually destructive conflict once it has erupted, regardless of which faction is involved. So against this backdrop, in step the French to apply the rouge to the cheeks of the respective parties in a little Kabuki theater Left Bank style.

My guess is that the US, Israel and Hez were either aware that the French weren't going to actually commit the number of troops advertised, or that there was at least sufficient cause to doubt France's resolve on this matter (a shocking concept to many readers, I'm sure). It's possible the French out-maneuvered the US and Israelis, but it's also possible - likely even - that the US and Israelis were willing dupes, going along with the fiction so that each party could achieve their strategic objective (after adjusting those objectives to take into account the "facts on the ground" deduction).

The US got an end to a conflict that was roiling the region, weakening the democratically elected Lebanese government and boosting the stature of our enemies like al-Sadr in Iraq and Ahmadinejad in Iran. Similarly, Israel realized that things weren't exactly going well in their efforts to dismantle Hezbollah very early on, and thus have been looking for the escape hatch ever since. Israel isn't naive enough to have thought that the French were going to save their bacon on this, however, but it gave Olmert an opening to cut short this utterly counter-productive military campaign with some shred of plausible deniability.

As an added bonus, the US and Israel can later point to the French as the villainous and craven prevaricators. "See, those French spoiled the souffle of peace and democracy yet again with their deceitful lack of resolve!" Feckless, UN, multilateral, Old Europe, etc., etc.

Even Nasrallah probably realized that there was a point of diminishing returns fast approaching around which his symbolic victory would begin to pivot toward the pyrrhic, and at which point his already pocketed gains made in Lebanon's internal political scheme would become unnecessarily jeopardized. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush after all, even if not a dove.

Everyone essentially got what they wanted: A way out that doesn't look like surrender, and a scapegoat to wash away the bitter aftertaste. The French? Well, they got to relive their heyday as a major international player complete with globally impactful influence, guile and power. On a less cynical note, they were able to facilitate an end to a conflict that was destabilizing the region, radicalizing elements in a dangerous way and leading to massive loss of life. For these reasons, finding a way out was is in France's interest as well regardless of other nostalgic reminiscing of glory days long gone.

But keep this in mind when over the next couple of weeks, US and Israeli spokesmen adopt a Claude Rains pose and loudly proclaim their "Shock, Shock!" that the French forces never materialized. Yeah, we know. And there's gambling at Rick's Cafe Americain.

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