The Politics of Hating (And Loving) France
From freedom fries to fast friends, after the Macron visit will Republicans who choose to stand with Trump continue to stand with France? The war on terrorism may depend on it.
A new British prince was born this week, yet Americans — those in politics and security, at least — were off gettin’ hot with the French. (Sorry, Charlie.) With notable pomp, France’s President Emmanuel Macron walked with President Trump across the White House lawn, past U.S. troops staged for the cameras. It marked a new era for the power couple. No, not Macron and Trump; rather, for the United States and France.
For the moment, the “special relationship” with Great Britain has faded into memory. While the U.S. president has been told, in essence, to stay home from a London visit, France is now America’s most-talked-about and visible partner in the Trump era. Even discounting the political theater, France may be Washington’s most important security partner against terrorism. From the hearts of European cities to the deserts across the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. and French security forces are operating more closely than ever.
"I also want to thank President Macron for France’s vital contribution to our very successful campaign against ISIS," Trump said to Macron, at Tuesday's White House press conference. It’s not a partnership that started with Trump. But with the American president alienating many other world leaders, his working relationship with Macron, who is as willing as Trump to fête and be fêted, is signaling that no ally in Europe, or the world, perhaps matters as much to the White House than Paris.
Pause to put this moment into perspective and think about how politics can influence national security. Just 15 years ago, Republican leaders in Washington snidely disparaged the French because they refused to follow Americans blindly into the Iraq War. The GOP stoked among Americans a ridiculous hate of all-things-French for pure political gain. They — and this is not a mock headline from The Onion — had the cafeteria menus in Congress change “french fries” to “freedom fries.” It was calculated, short-sighted, petty, and disrespectful to the French armed forces. But disparaging a staunch NATO ally worked — in that it helped rile up their followers and make it harder for anyone to question President George W. Bush and his administration in an era where “support the troops” meant “support the president’s politics.” And it went on for years. When then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., ran for president in 2004, he was derided by congressional Republicans as a private-school elite who spoke French (gasp!) When Kerry became President Obama’s secretary of state, they jabbed him for spending so much time at the U.S. embassy in Paris.
How times have changed. Now some of those same congressional Republicans Tuesday night will sit at a state dinner hosted by Donald Trump, who is the king of freedom frying anyone or anything that opposes him, friend or foe. The president invited no Democrats to the Tuesday dinner, making the point that like-minded foreigners are welcome but that Americans of the opposition party are not. Congressional Republicans long ago traded their political ideology for Trump. Rather than fight back and risk splintering the party — or divorcing themselves from it and the White House — they play along. Now have traded their legislative brother and sister Democrats for the French. That’s literally trading country for party. Strange bedfellows, indeed. Enjoy the wine.
In the world of militaries and national security politics, this all matters. The French flip-flop is yet another example of how Americans should know that the messaging and posturing of global political leaders often have little to do with, nor do they reflect the reality of, the military and intelligence relationships. It’s also another example of how, under Trump, U.S. troops are getting mixed messages from their commanders about whom they should trust.
To a layperson conservative outside the Beltway: first you were told the French were the enemy, and now they’re your best friend. To members of the military, whom Trump keeps using as political props: first their commander-in-chief said the enemy was the media. Now, he is saying, with this latest snub, the enemy is the Democrats.
The fact is France remains as close an ally to the United States as any. One of the closest, in fact. And Americans in military and intelligence would say so, no matter the staged fakery of their elected leaders. The current friendlier tones may all go back to November 13, 2015, and the ISIS attacks across Paris. France quickly declared war on the group. Two months later, when the Obama administration needed a European counterpart to persuade other countries to contribute troops and resources, the U.S. turned to France. By January 2016, a coalition of 26 countries was meeting in Paris. French diplomats were also instrumental in winning Arab permissions and participation. Meanwhile, French troops have stepped up as well, with the Gallic answer to JSOC hunting down French citizen-militants fighting for ISIS. Others are fighting and training forces in Africa, often alongside U.S. troops, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger. After Iraq and Syria, the war on Islamic extremist terrorism will focus on Africa, where Americans will need all the help they can get.
"We've pretty much finished with ISIS, and we're going to be making some big decisions in a very short period of time. But we're working very closely together with France and with the president," Trump said, keeping his focus on the military's mission there and the threat from Iran, beyond the nuclear deal.
Macron talked more of peace than threats, adding that the end of the war in Syria must be negotiated with Iran, as part of a regional agreement on that and three other security points. "Beyond this military presence, and beyond our troops on the ground, we will have to build, as I said, peace -- i.e. a new inclusive framework -- in order to be sure that certain people will have the opportunity to live in peace -- all the different ethnics, all the different religious, all the different groups -- and to be sure that there is no hegemony in the region. That's the diplomatic work that we've already started but we have to finish. This is something different," he said. Would Trump follow France to a peace table with Iran? Will Congress?
The point is, nobody on Capitol Hill is making fun of French stuff anymore. Nor are Republicans in Congress doing much of anything to cross Trump. How long will it last? After this week’s French-American reset, will Republicans who choose to stand with Trump continue to stand with France through the next partisan meme moment? Certainly, no one expects Trump’s own affinity for Macron to be of any particular firmness or duration. The U.S. president has shown he will praise anyone with one tweet and insult with another.
There are no more freedom fries being served in Washington. But politicians continue to display infantile politics around the U.S. relationship with France. Maybe between the handshakes and hats some Americans also will learn more information about how both nations are fighting the war on terrorism together, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Love them or hate them, by Trump’s design, we are all talking about the French these days. And you haven’t even thought of that British prince, have you?