US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Sarkozy in the Middle East: Between Zeal and Reality

in Program

By Emile El=Hokayem – In his first hundred days in office, France’s new President Nicolas Sarkozy has  conducted an activist foreign policy reminiscent, in its rhythm and exposure, of his predecessor’s flamboyant opposition to the Iraq war. This time, however, French diplomacy in the Middle East is no longer about obstructing grandiose US plans.

Rather, a decidedly pro-American (concerned French would say ‘Atlanticist’) outlook dominates in Parisian decision centers. Even on the Middle East, traditionally a zone of competition between Paris and Washington, there is unprecedented convergence of views and positions. Whether this will prove a winning bet at a time US policy in the region is under intense criticism is debatable, but it is noteworthy that the Middle East has – at least in the medium term – become a zone of cooperation given their history of rivalry and divergence. 

Unsurprisingly, the Middle East remains an area of immense importance for France. For decades, geographic proximity, colonial history and shared economic and strategic interests have compelled France to articulate and pursue a realistic, non-ideological approach to the region better known as its ‘politique arabe.’ France rejected morality and interventionism as drivers of its dealings with Arab states; good relations with established albeit authoritarian regimes guaranteed business opportunities and strategic relevance.

Then came the rise of Islamic extremism with global reach, a new urgency to address the political backwardness and economic underperformance of the Arab countries, grave ethno-sectarian conflicts able to fragment the region even more, and a more aggressive US policy in the region. The challenge for France was to adapt to this changing world while preserving its strategic interests in the Middle East. This difficult task, which President Jacques Chirac acknowledged but did not undertake, is now Sarkozy’s.

Soon after moving into the Elysee palace, and assisted by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian activist with liberal interventionist inclinations, he grabbed the headlines with overtures to Libya, Iraq and Syria, mediation efforts in Lebanon, and a hard-line approach on Iran. If this occasionally overdone diplomatic activism was alternatively praised and derided at home, it reflected to a large extent Sarkozy’s stated ambition to wake and shake a slumbering middle power.

Speaking to France’s diplomatic corps and press in late August, Sarkozy gave coherence to his Middle East vision, explained his worldview and sketched out an ambitious foreign policy. The French president called for a concerted and determined effort to prevent a clash of civilizations between the Western and Islamic civilizations, which he deemed the major challenge of our times. He warned about the looming threat of violent Islamic fundamentalism to civilization and stability. Borrowing from Bush’s repertoire, he claimed that those extremists work toward establishing an Islamic caliphate spreading from Indonesia to Nigeria. He also stressed the importance of supporting economic and political reforms in Muslim countries as a response to the Islamist peril. 

The speech came under fire from those in France who worry that Sarkozy l’Americain is espousing an Americanized vision of the Middle East that defines the challenges very much the way the current US administration sees them. In reality, if the rhetoric was somehow new, including a conciliatory tone about relations with the United States, there was no significant break with traditional French policy. Sarkozy did not embrace the emphasis on democracy promotion that defined so much of the Bush era, nor did he announce a revolution in how France would conduct its affairs in the region. Sarkozy, who spent his summer holidays in New Hampshire, a first ever for a French president, insisted that France was allied and not necessarily aligned with the United States. He saluted Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war, calling the US invasion a mistake. However, breaking with his predecessor’s disengagement from Iraq, he extended a helping hand to the United States by dispatching his foreign minister on a first-ever visit to Iraq.

Sarkozy’s first foreign endeavor had taken him to Libya to secure the release of Bulgarian health professionals caught in a convoluted affair of AIDS contamination that poisoned the European Union’s relations with Tripoli. After dispatching his wife Cecilia to negotiate with Muammar Kaddafi, a French plane brought the Bulgarians back home. Then, Sarkozy traveled to Libya to seal the deal, boosting his image at home and abroad while upsetting European officials who had laid the groundwork for such a resolution for years. Soon however a controversy erupted in France about the benefits Libya obtained from France, including arms deals and a commitment to contribute to Libya’s civilian nuclear energy program. 

Sarkozy has also initiated a spectacular rapprochement with Qatar’s ruler, Emir Hamad al-Thani. What is in it for France is simple: huge contracts with the gas-rich sheikhdom. Indeed, the Emir announced during the first visit of a foreign dignitary to Paris in the Sarkozy era that Qatar would buy 80 Airbus 350 planes worth 16 billion dollars. In a different vein, Qatar has reportedly been pivotal in facilitating the Libya episode by contributing to a Libyan fund for the AIDS victims. Qatar’s ruler was thanked very generously: he sat next to Sarkozy during the military parade on Bastille Day and saw his son, a graduate of France’s elite military school, march down the Champs-Elysees. But this relationship has downsides. Sarkozy may be on the verge of replicating the mistake of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who allowed his personal bond with former Lebanese Premier Hariri to shape French policy toward Lebanon and Syria. By getting too close to the leader of a rich albeit small state with antagonistic relations with its neighbors, Sarkozy risks upsetting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Qatar has an independent foreign policy, often at odds with that of its neighbors. France can hardly align itself with it at any cost.

During the early days of his mandate, there was speculation that Sarkozy would move away from the Chirac-inspired French support to the beleaguered Lebanese majority for a more ‘balanced’ approach to Lebanon and better relations with Syria. Indeed, Sarkozy sent a high-level envoy to Lebanon to restart the dialogue between the parties, reach out to Syria and even organize a dialogue session in France. Despite investing political capital and prestige and promising spectacular returns should Syria soften its position, France failed to bring the Lebanese factions closer or to get Syria to stop its interference in Lebanese politics. France has much to lose from being entangled in the treacherous politics of Lebanon. But as Lebanon gets closer to crucial presidential elections, Paris’ role, because it largely determines European policy toward Lebanon and Syria, will remain as central as ever. A wavering France, whose steadfastness was crucial in bringing about the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, would be interpreted by many in Damascus and Beirut as an implicit French acknowledgement of Syrian influence, even undue. After losing Syria partly because of tensions over Lebanon, France has few options, and a dramatic reversal of alliances is not one of them. The residual French influence in the Levant remains an important dimension of French diplomatic prestige. Paris can hardly allow Lebanon to gravitate exclusively in someone else’s orbit, so France will continue to stand by its traditional allies there, as unsavory as they may be. This means that Sarkozy will stay the current course by working to solidify Lebanon’s special ties to the West, promote internal dialogue and maybe a re-negotiation of the power-sharing formula, however difficult this is, and weaken Syria’s grip there.

Kouchner’s surprise visit to Iraq broke with years of French coolness toward Baghdad under American occupation, more a reflection of a ‘I-told-you-so’ mindset in Paris than a reluctance to assist Iraq’s reconstruction and political reconciliation. Kouchner’s stated objective, beyond fact-finding, was to identify ways to promote the latter, but his post-trip blunder (he confided to a US newspaper that “[the Iraqi prime minister] has got to be replaced,” and then apologized for meddling in Iraqi affairs), the late French foray into the Iraqi arena, and the advanced state of fragmentation of Iraqi politics and society all but guarantee that France will remain an ineffectual player for years to come. France is now faced with an entirely new and unfamiliar cast of Iraqi politicians. Kouchner has always entertained good relations with the Kurdish political leadership, a legacy of his humanitarian past. But the rise of a new Shia political elite, with which France has no relations, with the notable exception of Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, and the disappearance of the old Sunni class and the ruling circle of Saddam Hussein mean that France has few relays in Iraqi society on which to build a special relationship. What France can bring, however, is legitimacy and muscle to regional initiatives aimed at stabilizing Iraq as America argues about the merits of withdrawal. This role will largely depend on dynamics that France can’t impose or shape. Once they converge, however, France will have every interest to support and accompany this process, and maybe position itself as a privileged partner of an unlikely stable Iraq.

If France feels vindicated by its previous stance on Iraq, it makes no secret of its convergence of views with Washington on Iran. France’s repeated denunciations of Tehran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, its full support of multilateral but also unilateral sanctions against Iran, and Sarkozy’s warning that the prospect of a nuclear Iran could lead to preemptive military action are clear signs that France is the country closest to the US position on Iran. Underlying France’s hardline views on Iran is an acute fear of the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime and a nuclear race at the door of Europe. This has led France to support a harsher sanctions regime to the dismay of Germany and other European states who worry about US belligerence. How far France is willing to go in confronting the threat of a nuclear Iran is uncertain (Kouchner warned that “[the world has] to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war,” while Sarkozy spoke of “the need to avoid the terrible choice between the Iranian bomb and bombing Iran”), but French officials seem determined and hopeful that a coercive diplomatic approach will bear fruits and change the dynamics within the Iranian leadership. 

Critics say that Sarkozy is all style and no substance. This is an unfair characterization of genuine efforts to facilitate dialogue and broker deals in difficult places. But missing from all these initiatives is coherence. Sarkozy has created the illusion that France is moving away from its traditional ‘politique arabe’ without formulating a clear path for coming years. On the threat of Islamist terrorism, democracy promotion, the Arab-Israeli conflict or regional security in the Persian Gulf, admittedly the hot buttons in the region, Sarkozy has mostly been unsatisfactory or short. Absent a better, more focused articulation of France’s interests and vision in the Middle East, even a zealous Sarkozy might prove his critics right.

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