France Flips While Congress Shifts
Ahmadinejad at Columbia provided the entertainment, but Sarkozy at the United Nations provided the substance. On the largest possible stage -- the U.N. General Assembly -- President Nicolas Sarkozy put Iran on notice. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had said that France could live with an Iranian nuclear bomb. Sarkozy said that France cannot. He declared Iran's nuclear ambitions "an unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world."
His foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, had said earlier that the world faces two choices -- successful diplomacy to stop Iran's nuclear program or war. And Sarkozy himself has no great hopes for the Security Council, where China and Russia are blocking any effective action against Iran. He does hope to get the European Union to join the United States in imposing serious sanctions.
"Weakness and renunciation do not lead to peace," he warned. "They lead to war." This warning about appeasement was intended particularly for Germany, which for commercial reasons has been resisting U.S. pressure to support effective sanctions.
Sarkozy is no American lapdog. Like every Fifth Republic president, he begins with the notion of French exceptionalism. But whereas traditional Gaullism tended to define French grandeur as establishing a counterweight to American power, Sarkozy is not averse to seeing French assertiveness exercised in conjunction with the United States. As Kouchner put it, "permanent anti-Americanism" is "a tradition we are working to overcome."
This French about-face creates a crucial shift in the balance of forces within Europe. The East Europeans are naturally pro-American for reasons of history (fresh memories of America's role in defeating their Soviet occupiers) and geography (physical proximity to a newly revived and aggressive Russia). Western Europe is intrinsically wary of American power and culturally anti-American by reflex. France's change from Chirac to Sarkozy, from foreign minister Dominique de Villepin (who actively lobbied Third World countries to oppose America on Iraq) to Kouchner (who supported the U.S. invasion on humanitarian grounds) represents an enormous shift in Old Europe's relationship to the United States.
Britain is a natural ally. Germany, given its history, is more follower than leader. France can define European policy, and Sarkozy intends to.
The French flip is only one part of the changing landscape that has given new life to Bush's Iran and Iraq policies in the waning months of his administration. The mood in Congress also has significantly shifted.
Just this week, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for very strong sanctions on Iran and urging the administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. A similar measure passed the Senate on Wednesday, 76 to 22, declaring that it is "a critical national interest of the United States" to prevent Iran from using Shiite militias inside Iraq to subvert the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad.
A few months ago, the question was: Will the Democratic Congress force a withdrawal from Iraq? Today the question in Congress is: What can be done to achieve success in Iraq -- most specifically, by countering Iran, which is intent on seeing us fail?
This change in mood and subject is entirely the result of changes on the ground. It takes time for reality to seep into a Washington debate. But after the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, the reality of the relative success of our new counterinsurgency strategy -- and the renewed possibility of ultimate success in Iraq -- became no longer deniable.
And that reality is reflected even in the rhetoric of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most politically sophisticated of the Democratic presidential candidates. She does vote against war funding in order to alter the president's policy (and to appease the left), but that is as a senator. When asked what she would do as president, she carefully hedges. She says that it would depend on the situation at the time, for example, whether our alliance with the Sunni tribes will have succeeded in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq. But when asked by ABC News if she would bring U.S. troops home by January 2013, she refused to "get into hypotheticals and make pledges."
Bush's presidency -- and foreign policy -- were pronounced dead on the morning after the 2006 election. Not so. France is going to join us in a last-ditch effort to find a nonmilitary solution to the Iranian issue. And on Iraq, the relative success of the surge has won President Bush the leeway to continue the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy to the end of his term. Congress, and realistic Democrats, are finally beginning to think seriously about making that strategy succeed and planning for what comes after.