It's like we're living in some kind of alternate universe where traditional paradigms have evaporated around the Syrian conflict. Suddenly, the fate of the world lies almost exclusively in the hands of France and its pragmatic Socialist President Francois Hollande -- and as a-right-winger based in France, I'm strangely comforted by this. France is the kind of friend who won't always tell you want you want to hear, but they'll have thought it through.
Arguably, no nation is better positioned than France to mitigate this potential global fiasco. Well, aside from Russia, that is-- but apparently no one in the West can be bothered to ask much of the Russians right now, and they're not exactly offering because they're still obsessively engaged in a rhetorical Cold War with the West, even as their backyard gets bulldozed.
America won't intervene unilaterally in Syria. Team Obama most likely never wanted to ever have to go over there in the first place. But then someone went nuts with the chemistry set and killed a lot of people-- and Obama had already said something like, "If anyone breaks out the chem set, I'll have to spank you -- with a Tomahawk missile." And as every parent knows, if you don't use the Tomahawk when you have the chance, it's a slippery slope to a nuke-spanking -- or something.
In the event that the Obama administration ever allowed itself to somehow be persuaded to do something stupid -- because this is politics, after all, and such a possibility can't be ruled out -- it would at least need someone riding shotgun to go anywhere. Both France and America have independently said that in order to have a Syrian road trip, they would need a friend in the passenger seat releasing primal screams and playing DJ with the iTunes on the car stereo while crushing beer cans on their respective foreheads.
Britain's electorate won't let its military go and play war, but France's President Hollande seems hopeful that perhaps his might, especially as he's turned out to be a surprisingly adept wartime general since the start of his mandate over a year ago. And even if the U.S. congressional vote fails, France could still succeed in making the case for its own intervention in Syria along with the Arab League.
Hollande ultimately gets the final say because no French parliamentary debate would be binding on his war powers. French law doesn't require any initial parliamentary authorization for war -- only for it to continue after four months. Most recently, such an extension was voted in April for France's Operation Serval in Mali, initiated by Hollande in January. Still, he could reasonably be expected to factor in the French electorate's 64 percent opposition to military action, according to the latest poll, if he's considering re-election to an eventual second mandate.
In any case, you know how people always complain about how slow and ponderous French films are? That's the way France debates subjects much less important than war, so Hollande no doubt knows that he'll have to quell any itchy trigger finger, make himself comfy, and hunker down for awhile in the interest of fair play.
It should be reassuring that French presidents from each of the two main parties have led in significant military action recently, and haven't screwed up in an era when "not screwing up" represents the epitome of excellence.
In the past few years alone Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande intervened visibly in Libya and Syria respectively. Both actions had overwhelming bipartisan support at their outset. French public opinion seems to serve as a good barometer for both a president's willingness to intervene and eventual French military success. So the fact that only 36 percent of the French population supports French intervention in Syria ought to be somewhat reassuring to non-interventionists.
It's also comforting that the French can conduct defense operations that barely anyone notices. Screw-ups, on the other hand, happen a lot less discreetly. France's Le Monde newspaper reports that in 2009, the French parliament extended operations in Chad, the Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Kosovo, and the Central African Republic.
Finally, Hollande himself has largely proven to be a pragmatist, particularly on foreign affairs matters. And given France's diplomatic strength and its leverage within Europe -- being a key Russian trade partner -- Hollande should be able to persuade Russia to step up and focus on getting Team Assad in line rather than obsessing over scoring public relations points against America. For all the talk of war, that's still the best hope for détente.