Former British defense minister Michael Portillo has an excellent column on the French “grandstanding” once again on display in Lebanon. Portillo first applied that term — by which he means the habit of making impressive statements with no means to put them into effect — to the French when he dealt with them during peace-keeping efforts in Bosnia. As Portillo puts it
The French believe that what they say is at least as important as what they do. They spin grandiloquent phrases and strike postures. Rhetoric is a way of life and if you point out it is divorced from all strategic reality that is thought to be nitpicking.
This time around France used the “uncelar rules of engagement” as its excuse for not supplying promised troops for the U.N. operation in Lebanon. But, as Portillo notes:
If any country could have settled such important details in advance it is France. It took the kudos for working up the UN resolution. It acted as spokesman for the Arab world within the permanent five members of the council. It insisted that the resolution should not be made under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which would have given the troops the right to impose their will by force.
Moreover, although Chirac now claims that he has reaceived assurances that enabled him to increase French numbers, Portillo says that the rules of the mission are still unspecified. The real reason for enhanced French participation, says Portillo, is that the Italians had offered to lead the deployment and the Americans had mischievously welcomed that “bizarre” idea. France “could not bear the mortification of operating under the command of its southern neighbour — least of all in Lebanon, a country so strongly tied to the French by history and culture.”
But why did Chirac make such a fool of himself and his country? According to Portillo, the answer is simple — “France’s reluctance to tackle Hezbollah.”
And that does not bode well for this mission. It’s already clear that neither the U.N. force nor the Lebanese army will (a) attempt to disarm Hezbollah or (b) block arms shipments to Hezbollah from Syria. If Portillo is correct, and I suspect he is, the U.N. force is also likely to turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s rearmament.
Looking at the bigger picture, Portillo’s conclusion is even more damning:
Now that British and American forces are bogged down in Iraq, this should be the moment for the French cock to crow. But what exactly has the distinctive French alternative produced for the world or France? The softer European approach to Iran over its nuclear programme was decisively rebuffed, and Europe has had to join America in calling for sanctions. When France was invited to provide leadership over Lebanon, it vacillated. Its offer of 2,000 soldiers remains underwhelming. Chirac’s pro-Arab policies have not even bought off Muslim discontent at home, as the urban riots showed.
On the other hand, French foreign policy rhetoric remains unsurpassed.