Voulez vous faire la guerre avec moi ce soir?
Elie Elian | Tuesday, April 12, 2011
The French are not known to be a warring people, despite Napoleon, WWI and French involvement in Francophone Africa. They have the reputation in mainstream America as cigarette smoking, baguette and cheese lovers who needed bailing out in WWII. In reality, the French have proven themselves to be quite the fighting force under President Sarkozy.
Today, for the first time in the nation’s history, they are involved in three wars across the globe: in Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast and Libya. They were the first to drop bombs on Libya, they are working to overthrow Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to step down as president of the Ivory Coast after losing the election, and they are fighting alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan. This level of military activity would usually shock the French public, but France has taken America’s queue on international wars: never fight them alone. Not only is France fighting under the banner of the U.N. in the Ivory Coast and NATO in Afghanistan and Libya, but they claim to be fighting in the name of “saving lives.” It is reasonable to assume that the French public would be resistant to the new aggression; however, the IFOP (L’Institut Français d’Opinion Publique) has found that 65 percent of the French public support French involvement in Libya. While this statistic might indicate a “rally ’round the flag” effect in the French public, it is most revealing when compared to the American public perception of our Libya involvement.
According to Gallup, only 47 percent of Americans support military involvement in Libya. This is the lowest approval rating for any military action in U.S. history. In fact it was the only military action with a minority of Americans in support. I think this might be the only time in history where the French public supported a war more than the American public. Is it we who have become numb to our warring ways or have the French become more eager to fight?
It is clear that during the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the French government and Sarkozy were very slow to react, and in many cases reacted inappropriately. Regarding Tunisia, former foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie made a public suggestion during her vacation in Tunisia that France should send riot police to support the regime and quell the pro-democracy protests. To many, France’s prompt and aggressive reaction in Libya and Ivory Coast is Sarkozy’s way of making up for France’s mistakes regarding Egypt and Tunisia. It is also posited that this is an attempt for Sarkozy to prop up his approval rating for next year’s election. What is evident is that the French people are reacting positively to France’s new stance in protecting democracy and the innocent. Therefore, it seems that the high approval ratings regarding Libya can be credited to France’s use of the U.N. and NATO, as well as their mission to protect the unprotected, to justify military action.
These justifications can also be used to support U.S. involvement in Libya; however, U.S. public support for the intervention is significantly lower than historic support for military action. Even though U.S. and NATO intentions can be questioned in this conflict, the only comprehensive explanation of this trend is a change in the American attitudes towards military intervention. The U.S. has involved itself in war with more questionable motives in the past with higher approval ratings. Public support for military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has steadily decreased since the start of the wars and is recently at its lowest levels. Perhaps the American public is fed up with the continuous U.S. presence in Middle Eastern conflicts.
It seems that this distaste with aggressive foreign policy explains the low public support for military action in Libya. This distaste is understandable, but it is also dangerous. While Afghanistan and Iraq have left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Americans, this mustn’t cloud our judgment regarding the appropriate use of force. When a dictator uses indiscriminate force against his people because they demand freedom, we have a right to intervene, especially when the U.N. requests it.
Indeed, this war is arguably one of the most justifiable wars we have fought in recent times, and yet it has the least amount of backing from the American people. We should not let our trials in Iraq and Afghanistan dissuade us from waging war. They should inform us when considering war. While the American people might be fed up with war, we mustn’t resort to an isolationist attitude. We must continue to engage the world, taking what we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan into consideration. I believe our actions in Libya are sign of this maturation; however, the majority of the American people don’t. This is a concerning trend. Perhaps we should take a queue from the French this time and be more eager to fight the good fight next time.
Of course, defining the good fight is a whole other kettle of fish.
Elie Elian is a sophomore political science and Arabic major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.