For nearly five years I've been bandying about a funny ethnic slur -- borrowed from "The Simpsons" -- and just when I was about to abandon it, the rest of the world discovered it. Amid all the kerfuffle over American-European relations the last few weeks, esteemed writers in The Washington Post, The Economist, The New York Review of Books, Slate, Canada's National Post and several British papers have all referred to the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and most of them credit me with popularizing the phrase.
Now, I'll admit, it's nice to be noticed (although I'd rather it had been for something like curing cancer or figuring out what Trent Lott's hair is made of). But the dynamic right now between America and France -- and America and Europe more generally -- is more complicated than even the best "Simpsons" humor can capture. And if I'm going to be considered a purveyor of anti-French vitriol on the right, I might as well get to make my case.
My problem -- America's problem, really -- with the French boils down to two things: What they say and what they do. Rhetorically, the French, along with their gentle-giant pals the Germans, claim that they are leading a "new Europe." The unifying myth of the "new Europe" is that over the last 50 years it has achieved peace and prosperity through endless blather in Zurich hotel conference rooms.
"Europeans have done something that no one has ever done before: create a zone of peace where war is ruled out, absolutely out," Karl Kaiser, director of the Research Institute of the German Society for Foreign Affairs told the Chicago Tribune. "Europeans are convinced that this model is valid for other parts of the world." Or as The New York Times' Ethan Bronner wrote recently, "Through common economic interests, education and relentless talk, the Europeans have forged a new world for themselves."
The problem with all of this is that it's absurd. Europe's accomplishments are great and good and all that, but the European model isn't what it is portrayed as being. The reason Europe remained peaceful during most of the last half of the 20th century is that it had a common enemy to the east in the form of the Soviet Union and a protector and leader to the west in the form of the United States. For much of the Cold War, the U.S. carried the bulk of the defense burden of Europe, in effect subsidizing the lavish welfare states the French and others now take for granted.
It's a classic free-ride problem. The Europeans have benefited from the global stability provided by the United States. But the Europeans -- or at least the French and Germans -- now take that stability for granted and berate the United States for doing what it sees as necessary to ensure continued peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, the idea that violence never solves anything is a fraud. Violence ended the Holocaust; in the U.S., it freed the slaves. And, in 1998, American-led violence ended slaughter in the Balkans while European paper shufflers stood by paralyzed.
The French and Germans claim that the United States is a "bully" and a "cowboy" largely because America can do things the French and Germans can't or won't. Their own military capacities are woefully deficient, and so they champion peace at any cost in part because they're loath to admit they couldn't fight if they wanted to. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If all you have is a briefcase full of petitions and human rights lawsuits, every problem is going to call for more paper shuffling.
It's not all that surprising that the power imbalance has led to envy and festering resentment. Throughout the 1990s, French bookstores bulged with such books as "Who Is Killing France? The American Strategy" and "American Totalitarianism." "No Thanks, Uncle Sam" was a best seller written by a member of the French Parliament who concluded, "It is appropriate to be downright anti-American." A more recent French best seller suggested that America itself plotted the 9/11 attacks.
Indeed, anti-Americanism is so strong in France -- in part because French governments encourage the sentiment -- that French governments have wide latitude to do just about anything they want so long as it is seen as being contrary to American interests.
Which brings us to the second problem with the French: What they do. France's long-term ambition for the new Europe has always been to lead a united European Union that could rival the United States in global influence. "What is the point of Europe?" Charles de Gaulle once asked. "It must serve to prevent domination either by the Americans or by the Russians." With the Russian threat gone, France considers it even more important to block "domination" by the U.S. This is their chief motivation for blocking U.S. efforts to oust Saddam Hussein.
Certainly, as a matter of realpolitik this long-term strategy is intellectually defensible. The practice of one state trying to check the influence of another is a time-honored tradition. But this isn't a game of Risk between family members where you team up with your brother to keep your father from winning the game. As de Gaulle's statement reveals, French foreign policy has a tendency toward blindness when it comes to good guys and bad guys. (Witness the recent invitation of Zimbabwe's thug-in-chief Robert Mugabe to Paris.) Indeed, equating American and Soviet "domination" -- even rhetorically -- as equal threats is not merely stupid; it is morally outrageous.
France is playing a similar game with Iraq, claiming that the United States is the bad guy in this scenario. Never mind the ingratitude of a country saved by U.S. military action twice in one century, what is truly galling is that France's motives toward Iraq are profoundly more cynical and selfish than our own. In addition to their desire to curb U.S. influence in the region, the French are far more hungry for Iraqi oil money than the United States. If we were hellbent on Iraqi oil, we would lift the sanctions tomorrow in exchange for fat oil contracts -- something Hussein has suggested in the past. Or we could have just taken Iraq's oil a decade ago when we briefly occupied the region. America has no interest in fighting a war for oil. But France desperately wants "peace for oil."
In exchange for France's opting out of the no-fly zones and denouncing the pain and suffering inflicted by Iraqi sanctions, Hussein has consistently rewarded the French with lucrative contracts through the oil-for-food program. An American-led war would end that.
Indeed, there's almost no criticism of the United States that doesn't apply with greater or equal force to France. The French are certainly willing to trade blood for oil, just so long as it's not their own. And if it's true to say that America helped "create" Hussein, it's doubly accurate to say it of the country that sold him a nuclear reactor. The only difference between the two countries is that America is eager to correct its mistakes while France is entirely at peace with letting Hussein continue murdering and terrorizing his subjects and neighbors.
It's true, the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" isn't particularly accurate here. The French aren't being cowards: They're more like cheese-eating appeasement monkeys, willing to negotiate with evil for short-term advantage. If that makes them heroes to the anti-war movement, so be it. But it doesn't make them principled -- and it certainly doesn't make them our friends.