French President François Hollande is visiting the White House Tuesday, and he is the one who’s beating the drums of war, calling for a robust international coalition in the Middle East and declaring that France is in a state of emergency. He is being received by a U.S. president on a mission to avoid fresh and possibly interminable military conflicts in the war-devastated region.
The two men greeted each other briefly before the cameras as they kicked off their Oval Office meeting, with Obama telling Hollande he was glad to host him. Their talks will be followed by a press conference.
A dozen years ago, it was a French President — Jacques Chirac — who was calling for restraint as George W. Bush was bristling for war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the September 11 attacks. And it was a French foreign minister who warned that Washington might win the war but lose the peace if it fractured Iraq.
The changing dynamic between the two old allies reflects the impact of 14 long years of war that has left America weary of foreign intervention, as well as the insistence by Obama that a rush to war after terror attacks often goes awry.
It also reflects acute political pressures for immediate retribution faced by leaders — like Hollande — of nations that come under terrorist attacks and the consequential choices on national security they face at times of maximum national stress.
Hollande’s domestic political pressure and desire to aggressively pursue ISIS may not be sufficient to overcome Obama’s reluctance over his major agenda items: forming an enhanced coalition of military forces willing to escalate the battle against ISIS through ramped-up airstrikes and, to make that work, closer U.S. cooperation with Russia, which is also conducting strikes on the terror group and other elements in Syria.
Different takes on ISIS
The U.S. and French leaders might have a similar goal, but their separate political perspectives lead them to view the struggle against ISIS differently.
“This time it was France that was attacked,” said Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who teaches at France’s top social science university, Sciences Po, arguing that France’s lack of exposure to the Iraq War left it less gun-shy than some of its allies when contemplating military action.
“There is no war-weariness in France like there is in the U.K. or the U.S. There is no sense that Chirac, (successor Nicolas) Sarkozy or Hollande has lied to the French people,” he said. “There is no sense that the country has been taken in the wrong direction.”
Influential conservative commentators see the dynamic between Hollande and Obama as one of a resolute French leader and an American who prefers to lead from behind.
For instance, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post that Hollande had responded to the Paris attacks with an intensified air campaign, raids on suspected domestic terrorists and changes to his country’s constitution to make “France less hospitable to jihad.”
“Meanwhile, Barack Obama, titular head of the free world, has responded to Paris with weariness and annoyance,” Krauthammer wrote.
Obama has certainly been more tempered than Hollande in his response to the Paris attacks.
“We are in a war against jihadist terrorism, which threatens the entire world,” Hollande declared in a rare speech to the French parliament last week.
In contrast Obama, in a much-criticized press conference in Turkey last Monday, described the Paris attacks as “heinous” and “sickening” but argued that the U.S. strategy against ISIS was working.
Then on Sunday, in Malaysia, Obama warned about the danger of making swift decisions in the immediate aftermath of shocking attacks like September 11.
“I think we made some bad decisions subsequent to that attack in part based on fear, and that’s why we have to be cautious about it,” Obama said, appealing for perspective and for the world not to play into ISIS’s hands by over-inflating the nature of its threat.
Divergent domestic standing
Their divergent tones reflect different popular standing as well. Obama has been heavily attacked for his response, with 66% of Americans thinking he does not have a clear plan for defeating ISIS, according to a CBS News poll published Monday.
Hollande, for his part, has seen his stature, at least on foreign policy, soar. After plumbing barely believable depths of unpopularity — his approval rating once hit 12% and was an anemic 20% before the attacks — he’s now riding high in the French press, being hailed as a war leader conjuring up a new anti-ISIS coalition.
Hollande can rely on a firm base of domestic support for his military moves from a shocked populace, which had already approved of anti-terror missions he ordered in Mali and the Central African Republic.
In fact, the ISIS strikes on Paris reshaped the Hollande presidency in a similar way to how the al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington awoke a slumbering administration in 2001 and made Bush into an activist commander-in-chief overnight.
They may also have opened an opportunity for France to use its unique role to unify and deepen the coalition against ISIS, which currently suffers from a paucity of common purpose and lack of a central command structure.
To consolidate that opening, Hollande’s trip to the United States is part of a frenzied week of international diplomacy that also includes meetings with leaders of Russia, Germany and Britain.
Washington, and more recently Moscow, have both bombed ISIS, but remain estranged on the best way to end the civil war — which ISIS has exploited to seize territory — and the fate of Russian client Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And there are suspicions in Washington that Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to entice Europe to bargain away sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine in return for a more overt Kremlin role against ISIS.
Until now, the White House has ruled out any military cooperation with Russia, aside from operational communication to avoid midair conflicts over Syria as the two nations complete separate air campaigns there.
That’s unlikely to change following Obama’s meeting with Hollande, administration officials said, suggesting that while Russia — spurred by the downing of a passenger jet over Egypt — has recently intensified its efforts against ISIS, Putin’s support for Assad still presents an intractable obstacle in combining efforts.
“The question at this point is whether they (Russia) can make the strategic adjustment that allows them to be effective partners with us,” Obama said Sunday. “And we don’t know that yet.”
Instead, Obama administration officials said the President will again tout newly bolstered intelligence-sharing between the United States and France, which began shortly after the Paris attacks.
A U.S.-led coalition
Despite criticism of Obama’s strategy for underestimating ISIS — he once called it a “JV” team — it is still Washington that is calling the shots for the existing coalition, a coalition the U.S. put in place.
“The U.S. has been conducting 80% or so of the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and France has very importantly been the only European country to engage in airstrikes in Syria with us,” said Derek Chollet of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“The U.S. has already provided Hollande with the targeting for the airstrikes last week in Raqqa,” added Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
In fact, Washington — with military capabilities far advanced beyond France’s and its European allies’ — would likely welcome a more intense French role in the conflict, even as Obama warns that deploying large numbers of American boots on the ground is a fool’s errand.
Washington may, for instance, be interested in finding out whether the French would be willing to send Special Operations forces into Syria to compliment a detachment of 50 such troops Washington is sending, Chollet said.
And given France’s willingness to step up its military and diplomatic offensive, including by playing games of diplomatic chess with regimes Washington disdains, openings may emerge.
Dungan said, for example, that Hollande may try to secure an undertaking from Obama to implicitly agree to slow walk the departure of Assad in exchange for a more coordinated and targeted Russian role in hitting ISIS.
While Obama would not need to depart from his line that Assad must go, he could agree to de-emphasize a U.S. push for that happen soon to accommodate the Russian position.
One clear impediment to the formation of a wider anti-ISIS coalition is the often-stated argument that the key players, including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Gulf States all have differing priorities in Syria.
But Dungan argued that flexible French diplomacy could propel Hollande forward as the kind of leader that could keep such an informal coalition together.
“What hasn’t been said is they don’t need to have exactly the same interests. They only need to have a sufficient overlap of interests for them to be able to take united action under the leadership of somebody who can keep them together,” he said. “I think that this is Hollande’s goal. To provide that leadership.”