France's nuke problem

Posted: Mar 05, 2003 12:00 AM
Paul Johnson, the formerly left-wing but for the past generation renowned and brilliant British conservative journalist and historian, has put forward a particularly naughty proposal. Drawing on a thousand years of British distrust of the French, in this week's Mr. Johnson innocently poses the question: " ... whether France can be trusted as a nuclear power. The French have certainly sold nuclear technology to rogue states in the past, Iraq among them. In view of France's attempts to sabotage America's vigorous campaign to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we need to be sure that France is not planning to cover the cost of its flagging nuclear weapons program by selling secrets to unruly states. Certainly Anglo-American surveillance of French activities in this murky area must be intensified." Written in the puckish style of Edwardian short story writer Saki, it is hard to tell whether Mr. Johnson's observation was intended as needling humor or serious policy. It is a measure of how much things have changed in the last few months that I remain in doubt on that point. But in the context of the remainder of his article (which I recommend to you), it would seem that he is quite serious. And when one combines this perhaps whimsical suggestion with President Bush's decidedly unwhimsical speech last Wednesday night, we just might get a glimpse of things to come in this world gone mad that we are obliged for a while longer to call home (as soon as NASA can organize a colony on Mars, sign me up.) In President Bush's underrated and understudied speech last Wednesday (See the Washington Times editorial "Wings Over the World," March 1, 2003), he warned that: " ... we are opposing the greatest danger in the war on terror ... outlaw regimes arming with weapons of mass destruction ... the passing of Saddam Hussein's regime will deprive terrorist networks of a wealthy patron ... And other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated." Given how serious and deliberate President Bush is on this supreme danger, that quoted passage must be read as putting Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea on notice that what we are about to do to Saddam will be their fate, too, should they continue in defiance of civilized behavior. Mr. Johnson would seem to be adding France to that watch list. It's not as absurd as it sounds. Of course, France is not a terrorist state -- merely a sometimes-annoying one. If they have transferred nuclear technology to Iraq in the past, it was surely only for commercial purposes. But then, North Korea sells its weapons to all buyers -- including rogue regimes -- because that is all they have to sell to finance their country. North Korea, a largely Buddhist country before it became communist, has no particularly sentimental attachments to jihadist Muslim terrorists; it's just business. And France, a formerly Christian country before it became atheist, has never had overly sentimental attachments to the Muslims either (of course, now that its Muslim population is growing so fast, France well may be developing political attachments to them). But French atomic sales to Iraq, I'm sure, were just business also. Nonetheless, the logic of President Bush's policy is cold and objective. The danger to the civilized world of weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist hands is unconditional. Any nation that is an agency for such transfers is, objectively, a threat to the civilized world. If France were to again transfer atomic technology to a still Saddamized Iraq, or a still radicalized Iran, or any other conduit to terrorists, the civilized world would have to take notice and attempt to block such transfers. And in her current effort to block President Bush from his mission of protection, she has become a force for measureless danger to the world. It would be a pity if France had to be removed from the list of civilized countries. She was, after all, the first western civilized country to emerge after the fall of Rome and the long night of darkness that followed. For a half a millennium before the Renaissance, France was the single light of civilization in the western world. In many ways, she remains an exemplar of educated, civilized deportment. It is a bafflement to me that now, in this greatest crisis of western civilization, France could have so lost her way as to be the prime agent of hope for Saddam and the system of terrorism he underpins. As a French general once observed: It's worse than a crime, it's a blunder.