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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

France Takes Activist Role in the Muslim World - Paris Attacks Won’t Deter Its Involvement (It remains an article of faith in the French foreign-policy establishment that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major blunder that set off a disastrous chain reaction of Islamist radicalism across the region.)

From The Wall Street Journal:

PARIS—When the French president dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf last week, he used his speech to the troops to criticize the U.S.—for failing to launch timely military action in the Middle East.

How the tables have turned since the “freedom fries” days, when France was taunted by some in the U.S. for its supposed cowardice and appeasement because it opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In the Muslim world today, Paris is definitely a hawk.

As President Barack Obama tried to extricate the U.S. from overseas wars in recent years, France pushed for Western intervention in Libya, launched a massive military operation against Islamist militants in Mali and neighboring lands, and stepped into a conflict between Muslim and Christian militias in the Central African Republic. It is also now flying bombing raids in Iraq as a key member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

All of this means that, alongside the U.S., France now looms atop the jihadists’ target list. In September, when Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani urged the militant group’s followers to kill troops and civilians in “infidel” domains, he singled out the “spiteful and filthy French” in particular.

But, if jihadists calculated that this month’s Paris attacks, carried out by followers of al Qaeda and Islamic State, would frighten the French into withdrawing from the region, they appear to have miscalculated. French leaders have reacted by arguing that going after the terrorists in their own strongholds provides the best defense for the homeland.

It remains an article of faith in the French foreign-policy establishment that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major blunder that set off a disastrous chain reaction of Islamist radicalism across the region.

But, in analyzing the causes of Islamic State’s rise and the peril of European terrorism it has spawned, French officials now place as much, if not more, blame on Mr. Obama’s decision in August 2013 not to launch military action in retaliation for suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated rebels have gained the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, marginalizing the more moderate rebel factions backed by the West.

President François Hollande, who had been left blindsided by Mr. Obama’s last-minute decision to abort the planned airstrikes, returned to this sore point in his speech aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier last week.

“I continue to regret, and I say it in front of you, that the international community did not act at a desired time to end the massacres in Syria and to prevent the extremists from gaining even more ground,” Mr. Hollande told his troops. “France was ready. Orders had been given, the means were in place. Another path was chosen. We now see its results.”

Obama administration officials dispute the notion that they have pulled back from world trouble spots, arguing instead that they are using power in a smarter way.

It was Mr. Hollande’s predecessor, the conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who managed to heal the trans-Atlantic rift caused by the Iraq invasion.

Under him, Paris moved closer to Israel and adopted increasingly hard-line views on Iran and Syria. Mr. Sarkozy was also the main engineer of the 2011 Western air campaign that helped oust the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi—an intervention that, instead of installing democracy, eventually plunged Libya into a civil war. “If America doesn’t want to protect us, we have to do it ourselves,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East studies at the Sciences Po university in Paris, who served as the French prime minister’s diplomatic adviser in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “Now, only Islamic State has a strategy. We have to take back the initiative. We cannot wait for the next blow. We have done it in Mali, so this is doable.”

As the flood of weapons and militants from Libya destabilized neighboring African countries, in 2013 Mr. Hollande ordered military action to roll back the Islamist militias that seized northern Mali and threatened to overrun the rest of that country. While that intervention is widely viewed as a success, Islamist unrest still rumbles in the region, and France has to maintain 3,000 troops in Mali and nearby Mauritania, Burkina-Faso, Niger and Chad. Mr. Hollande has also stuck to Mr. Sarkozy’s hard line on Syria and Iran.

“French diplomacy since Sarkozy is dominated by neo-cons, very close to the thinking of the Bush administration—and this is something that continued under Hollande,” says Jean d’Amécourt, a former director of strategic affairs at the French ministry of defense and former French ambassador to Afghanistan.

Many French officials dispute this assessment—saying that France’s activism in the Middle East isn't so much the result of ideological shifts in Paris as a reaction to the whiplash caused by the U.S. going from Bush-era interventionism to what they see as the Obama administration’s neglect of the region.

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