Sarkozy battles General de Gaulle's NATO retreat

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone against the late General Charles de Gaulle’s decision in 1966 to remove France from NATO, but that move promises to be something of a public relations disaster.

Intensive security measures are planned as tens of thousands of anti-NATO demonstrators plan to block the summit during the military organization’s 60th Anniversary conference in Strasbourg in April.

Sarkozy is pulled in different directions over reintegrating with the NATO military machine. He believes France needs US friendship to do business worldwide and wants to benefit from the US military umbrella. He has worked hard to overcome the violent hostility to France that dates back to the quarrel over the war in Iraq, which saw Americans pouring French wine into the Potomac River, but he also wants a European defence policy for Europe and does not want to follow the US into Vietnam style quagmire in Afghanistan.

Above all, the French want to keep their independence and have no intention of seeming to become the next British style US poodle. Yet much of the world sees NATO as the military arm of US foreign policy. Sarkozy thinks that he can achieve these contradictory aims from within the alliance but the result is that different levels of the French government are giving off conflicting messages.

The administration is playing up two opinion polls that show a small majority of French people in favour of reintegration. Much of the press have dutifully echoed the result. Little attention has been paid to the high figure of 21% of ‘don’t knows’. Equally the French press has ignored completely the Angus Reid poll that shows that only a tiny 12% of French people think that the engagement in Afghanistan boosted by Sarkozy, ‘has been mostly a success’ – the lowest figure for six comparable western European nations.

Faced with this President Sarkozy has appointed a personal envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pierre Lellouche. In so doing he reinforces France’s diplomatic presence in the region at a time when policy is under review by the United States and its NATO allies. The move follows similar appointments by Britain and Germany, which in turn were triggered by the appointment of the veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke to head up a similar US diplomatic mission. For the moment, despite US pressure, there is no question of sending more troops.

It is likely that the appointment of Lellouche has been made after consultation with the Americans. His career path confirms this. He has close links with America and achieved a doctorate in law at Harvard University. In his political career he has specialised in foreign relations and in particular NATO. He is President of the French parliamentary delegation to NATO and was President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from 2004 -2006. Last year he conducted a cross-party parliamentary enquiry into conditions in Afghanistan. He worked with Holbrooke in Bosnia in the 1990s.

The importance of the appointment of Holbrooke, linked to that of his French, German and British counterparts, to a hard pressed President Obama is clear from the fact that it came only two days into his presidency. Any support for him by France is welcome. President Sarkozy has appointed an envoy very much to the taste of his allies and has talked of staying in Afghanistan ‘as long as is necessary’. However, in Washington, recently his Minister of Defence Hervé Morin put it differently:

“We will have to stay as long as is needed… Our aim is not to stay there for ever. That is what the President of the Republic has reminded us several times.”

And he went so far as to pose the question: “Why not set, quite rapidly, a date for the beginning of the withdrawal of the alliances forces?”

Lellouche himself was more blunt:

“It is right that we operate as co-pilots in the international strategy in Afghanistan. There must not be a repetition of unilateral excesses of the Bush era, which provoked a deep gulf between the United States and its NATO allies”.

He said that the French government would ‘test’ the dialogue proposed by President Obama. “Let us hope that it works. We will not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely”. He stressed that the conflict there “was a war and not an international police operation. The proof is that France spends nearly €200 million a year on its army in Afghanistan whilst spending only €11 billion on civilian aid”. He pin pointed the withdrawal of all but 7,000 US troops at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as the main cause of the deterioration of the allied position in Afghanistan. But he said “The game is not lost. Studies show that if there is a lack of support for the Karzai government, the people do not want a return to the rule by the Taliban.”

By fully rejoining NATO, France removes a thorn from the US diplomatic flesh and adds the full support of the world’s second biggest diplomatic service backed up by Western Europe’s only genuinely independent nuclear deterrent plus experienced and respected military forces. Even so, quite how much influence France will really have over policy in Afghanistan, with a total of only 3,300 troops deployed, remains to be seen. The United States now has 38,000 present with a further 15-30 thousand to arrive shortly.

The point is underlined by the announcement that French troops there are now to come directly under US command whereas before they operated as an independent unit. This will be grist to the mill of those in France who claim NATO reintegration means loss of national control. It will not help Prime Minister François Fillon, who after some hesitation, decided to call for a vote of confidence on the question in the French National Assembly. By putting the survival of the government on the line he will win easily and it gives him a chance to counter the arguments of those within his own party and in the opposition who oppose the move.

Despite this neat political manoeuvre, the reality is that the French President is confronted by real opposition from many in the French political class over NATO reintegration and in particular involvement in Afghanistan. They argue, often privately, that this is more a colonial war to control pipeline routes from central Asia to the sea coast of Pakistan than about democracy. Worse they suggest it may be an excuse to establish a long term presence in the region with no other real military aim.

They point to the coincidence that the US led invasion followed one month after the award by the Taliban government of a key energy contract to an Argentinean company rather than American Unocal and that before becoming President, Hamid Karzai was an oil consultant to Chevron in Kazakhstan. The same Afghan President requires a twenty four hour a day American body guard of over 100 men to stay alive, unlike his much criticised Communist predecessor.

They question why after seven years, the US security services that employ 100,000 people and spend an astounding $50 billion a year, cannot find Osama Bin Laden. They note that Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest producer of heroin under Western occupation.

Finally they do not think the war can be “won” in any meaningful sense. They echo the view of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told CNN:

“Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had – my reading of Afghanistan history is – it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.” The Canadian parliament has voted to withdraw all troops by 2011.

Despite all this there are indications that President Sarkozy will eventually take the risk of sending more troops. Under the French constitution it is his decision alone, but this will not happen before the controversial NATO summit in Strasbourg in April and the vote in parliament. In any event he will do what he can to prevent the alliance from failing in Afghanistan because he believes that such an outcome would damage NATO credibility perhaps fatally. This is especially the case in the light of the recent humiliation of Western financial institutions.

All this leaves the United States and its NATO allies confronting the classic military dilemma well summarized by Winston Churchill over a hundred years ago:

“It is one thing to take the decision not to occupy a position. It is quite another to decide to abandon it once occupied.”

More troops may just make it possible in one form or another to ‘declare a victory and go home’ to the great relief of the French electorate and government. This process is likely to be accelerated by the bankrupt finances of the NATO governments.

Robert Harneis for RT