Has the Hegemon Been Humbled in Lebanon?

A few days after U.S. troops had entered Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled, Condoleezza Rice (serving then as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser) told American reporters that U.S. policy toward Europe should be to "Encourage the Russians, ignore the Germans, and punish the French."

The Bush administration, celebrating its military victory in Iraq and preparing for more "regime changes" in Syria and Iran, was basically sending a "go-fly-a-kite" message to the French and the other members of "Old Europe" who had opposed the use of military force to oust the Iraqi Ba’athist regime.

Pentagon officials explained then that Washington was going to place members of the "New Europe" such as Poland, Estonia, and Bulgaria at the center of the transatlantic alliance. After all, who really needed those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," as one neoconservative columnist bashed the French, who were also denounced as "Euro appeasers," "Arabists," and "anti-Semites."

For a while it sounded as if the Vichy regime of World War II were back in power in France and being led by President Jacques Chirac. For a while, Mr. Chirac competed for the title of the Most Hated Man in America.

Well, it has been three years since the anti-French hysteria in Washington, which among other things led lawmakers on Capitol Hill to rename the "French fries" in the menu of the congressional cafeteria "freedom fries." But guess who are now emerging as the Good Guys in the neoconservative narrative? Ahmed Chalabi and the rest of the Iraqi "freedom fighters"? Guess again. The French? Those wimpy Froggies? Yup.

"It’s Up to You, President Chirac," screamed the headline of a recent column on the pro-war editorial page of the Washington Post, which asked – actually pleaded with – the French president to deploy his country’s troops to Lebanon to help clean up the mess made there by the Israelis and the Americans.

Apparently the Estonians, the Bulgarians, and even the Poles were not ready to send their troops to Lebanon to disarm the Hezbollah guerillas. "France has had a very close relationship with Lebanon," President Bush explained in a recent press conference. "There’s historical ties with Lebanon. I would hope they would put more troops in," he said, adding that the French "understand the region as well as anybody."

These are the same French who in 2003 warned the Americans not to invade Iraq since they could end up in the same kind of quagmire that the French had found themselves in once upon a time in Algeria. In 2003, the advice of the guys who "understand the region as well as anybody" was dismissed by the neocons as a reflection of a certain lack of manhood.

But now everyone in Washington and Tel Aviv seems to be breathing a sigh of relief after President Chirac announced that France would commit 2,000 troops to the new international peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon.

The decision breaks a stalemate that has held up the dispatch of soldiers seen by diplomats as crucial to maintaining the cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel. Mr. Chirac’s announcement in a nationally televised address followed days of intense negotiations with the United Nations, Lebanon, and Israel over European concerns that the force would have no clear mandate and inadequate rights to open fire in defense of itself or civilians.

"We obtained the necessary clarifications from the UN on the chain of command, which needs to be simple, coherent, and reactive," he said, "and the rules of engagement, which must guarantee the freedom of movement of the force and its ability to operate when confronted with hostile conditions."

The French, it should be noted, also helped broker the UN cease-fire after forcing the United States to accept important changes in the original American draft resolution.

What is really interesting in all these latest developments is that even the most ardent neocons in Washington have not challenged the notion that the U.S. would not be sending its troops to Lebanon.

They justified that by pointing out that hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed during a bombing in Beirut in 1982. But the French also suffered many casualties at that time and are still sending their troops to Lebanon. So what gives? It seems that the Americans are basically conceding that they "cannot do Lebanon" and are passing the Lebanese "portfolio" to the French. Perhaps the Bushies are beginning to feel that the Americans are indeed overstretched in the Middle East and that the time has come to shift some responsibilities to other players.

But with responsibility comes power. With their troops being deployed in Lebanon, the French are going to be "in charge" in Lebanon, something that the American and the Israelis will have to accept.

And if this works, one would not be surprised to see the French and the Italians (who are also sending troops to Lebanon) and the Germans (who have good ties with the Syrians AND the Israelis) becoming more active in the region.

It seems the American hegemon has been humbled a bit. By the way, "French fries" are back in the Congressional cafeteria too.

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