French President Jacques Chirac managed a somewhat affable smile during his photo-op with President Bush at the G-8 summit in Evian. Mr. Bush returned the favor, saying that the two could “disagree without being disagreeable.” Though widely described as an attempt to mend fences after the deep disagreements between the two leaders over Iraq this winter and spring, it was hardly a highlight in the annals of diplomacy.
The French may be smiling instead of snarling, but they have by no means given up on their project for a multi-polar world — or on rewriting recent Middle East history to prove why they were right on Iraq, and the Americans were wrong. To keen observers of the French, this will come as no surprise; as far as national character is concerned, self-criticism has no place in the Gallic mindset.
What was amazing last week, however, was the way the Financial Times — a highly respected British newspaper read the world- over and recognizable by its trademark pink newsprint — swallowed the French arguments, hook line and sinker. In a series that ran over four days, covering full page after page, the distinguished paper presented an amazingly one-sided version of events.
Front-page headlines treated the French rationalizations over Iraq as though they were news. “U.S. decided on Iraq war in January, says France,” read last Tuesday’s front-page headline. “I realized then that those who wanted to make war had a free hand,” French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told the newspaper. No. Really? It is hard to believe that not a soul in Paris — or at the Financial Times, which considered this to be news — had heard the arguments widely made in Washington and New York in December that the Iraqis’ dissembling 12,000-page report on weapons of mass destruction was in and of itself a material breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.
Meanwhile, in a hilariously conspiratorial follow-up story the next day, the Financial Times exposed “the plot that split old and new Europe asunder.” It was an American plot, don’t you know it, that caused the 10 Vilnius countries to sign a declaration in support of the U.S. military action in Iraq.
On Jan. 30, a first letter by eight European countries had been published in the Wall Street Journal. On Feb. 5, the day Secretary of State Colin Powell made his presentation to the U.N. Security Council, the governments of Central and Eastern Europe followed with a strongly worded letter of their own, which, according to the Financial Times, had been drafted by none other than Bruce Jackson, formerly of the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO and a familiar face to those who have followed the NATO debate in Washington.
Interestingly, in this investigative expose, the picture accompanying the story of the “murky” Mr. Jackson (in the FT’s description) shows someone who does not remotely look like him.
Even if you believe that Mr. Jackson lent his penmanship to the letter, it is deeply insulting to the new NATO countries to postulate that their governments have no minds of their own and cannot decide what is in their own national interest. In fact, it is almost as insulting as to suggest that they “missed a good opportunity to shut up,”’ as President Chirac did a few days after its publication.
Even though the commentary that concludes the series pleads for a new foundation for the Trans-Atlantic relationship, based on mutual economic interests, it also concludes that “the U.S. has thrown off the constraints and balances of the multilateral system and exercised its enormous political and military power on its own terms.” (This is preposterous, given the continuous U.S. efforts to work through the United Nations.)
It portrays American foreign policy as being in the hands of a small demonic cabal, “murky U.S. figures,” that pulls the strings behind the scenes. And in this version of history, the task has fallen to the heroic French to stand up for the rest of the world. The British, by contrast, are shown as pulled almost helplessly along by American policy. (In actual fact, Britain has gained enormously in international stature from this association.)
So, what gives? Did a case of fine vintage champagne arrive at the doorstep of the editor of the Financial Times? Does he want to be invited to join the French Legion of Honor? It is perhaps understandable that President Chirac has come to relish this grandiosely deluded role for himself — it has, after all, made him popular at home for the first time in years, a heady feeling when you are not used to it. What is far less understandable is why the Financial Times should want to serve as his mouthpiece.