Ten years ago, as America prepared for war with Iraq, few countries protested more noisily about George W. Bush’s war plan than France. Paris opposed an American effort to win United Nations approval for an invasion of Iraq and generally denounced U.S. aggression on the world stage. The backlash in Washington was so strong (and juvenile) that, in what may have been the zenith of pre-war conservative hubris, Republicans renamed the House cafeteria’s french fries as “freedom fries.” (Before typing that sentence I had to double-check that such a preposterous thing was not some apocryphal joke but actually happened.) France’s refusal to join George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” popularized, especially on the right, the anti-French label of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
What a difference a decade makes. Ten years later, France is leading the west into an extremely dangerous confrontation with Islamists in northern Africa. Earlier this week the French launched airstrikes against Islamist rebels who were threatening to take over the country, putting a western face on an effort that the Obama administration had been mounting as quietly as possibly, copiously relying on indigenous forces with admittedly poor results. An almost immediate result was the terrorist attack on western oil workers in neighboring Algeria, leading to a chaotic hostage situation in which, thanks to a trigger-happy Algerian government, a dozen hostages are dead. Has this tragedy–precisely the sort of thing that the Obama team feared might come from a direct intervention in Mali–led Paris to second-guess its Mali intervention? To the contrary, French president Francois Hollande–a Socialist, no less!–says the episode proves him right.
Now the U.S. is pledging to provide support, albeit of a limited, logistical nature, to France’s Mali operation, which is already looking more complicated than first expected. And while a major escalation of the conflict there seems unlikely, it’s also likely that, once engaged, the west is always determined to avoid the appearance of defeat or retreat.
This isn’t even the first time that France has dragged Obama into conflict. As civil war raged in Libya two years ago, it was not Washington but Paris which pushed hardest for a NATO intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi. Indeed, there’s a good case that Obama might not have allowed military action but for the agitation of the swashbuckling French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Does this mean that the cheese-eating surrender monkeys have somehow transformed into carnivorous attack chimpanzees? Not exactly. There are some specific causes for France’s interventions, including its historic colonial ties to Africa. But times certainly have changed. Finally, it’s once again safe for conservative hawks to be seen eating french fries.