November 16, 2015 | The Wall Street Journal

A France-U.S. Anti-Islamist Alliance

Even before the French-born Kouachi brothers went on a shooting rampage at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January, French officials knew their luck was running out. Paris had always counted on its internal-security services—the finest counterterrorist force in the West—to keep the peace. However, the post-Arab Spring chaos and the American withdrawal from Iraq gave rise to Islamic State and reanimated al Qaeda, and this started overloading the capacity of France’s counterterrorist agencies. As a French internal-security official put it to me a month ago, “We just can’t surveil anyone else.”

The massacres of Nov. 13 may well prove as momentous as 9/11. France is no longer a great power. Yet, fascinated by the might and freedoms of the U.S. and diffident about their own capacities, the French underestimate their influence. Frenchmen largely set the narrative for Western elites after the second Gulf War started going south.

Remember the 9/11 Le Monde editorial—“Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans)—written by Jean-Marie Colombani. The guardian of France’s center-left establishment, Mr. Colombani juxtaposed sympathy for a wounded U.S. with criticism and schadenfreude. Washington hadn’t been sufficiently attentive to the enmity-producing exercise of its unchallenged, unbalanced power.

He added that the American “hyper-power” had brought this evil upon itself by giving rise to Osama bin Laden by arming Muslim radicals against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Read liberal American critiques of post-9/11 America—including President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, with its apologies, cautions and irenic aspirations—and hear the echoes of French critiques.

But imagine if Paris had joined the Americans in the invasion of Iraq; the now-dominant Western narrative of that conflict might have been very different. Because of the attacks Friday, the narrative will change. The soft-power-heavy, somewhat guilty Western analysis of Islamic militancy—where the progressive-minded avoid referring to Islam in describing an antipathy that sanctifies killing—is now dead in Europe and will soon be irretrievably embarrassing across the Atlantic.

President Obama’s inability to have an adult conversation about Islam’s manifest problems with modernity, which also tore Christianity apart, have kept the West’s loudest bully pulpit from provoking contentious and entirely appropriate debates among Muslims. The advancement in the Middle East of grand modern causes—the abolition of slavery, the slow march of women’s social and political rights, the expansion of education, the brutal tug of war between secularism and religion—has always been stirred by Western thought and actions.

Having the French more vigorously in this game will help compensate for the politically correct, ahistoric timidity that has seized much of the intelligentsia in the U.S. and Britain. Trailblazers in analyzing modern Islamic fundamentalism, the French could well rescue the American left from its fixation on Islamophobia. They could provide encouragement and cover to American liberals to reflect and act without fear of being labeled Islamophobes (who are a dime a dozen on the American right and, as handmaidens of isolationism, don’t matter).

The attacks will make the French prouder and more protective of Western civilization. Several Western military incursions into the Middle East may lie before us. If we are to sustain that fight against Islamic State and other radical Muslims who mean us harm, Westerners obviously need to know—to feel it in their cultural bones—why they are fighting. Such things are not a given, as anyone knows who has watched President Obama try to transform the Afghan conflict from a “war of necessity” to a “war of choice.”

Washington always needs European allies to reinforce the moral purpose of sustained military action. The British are probably finished as a power of consequence. That leaves the French.

If they are committed to seeing this fight through to the end, the French make it more likely that the U.S. will commit more ground troops in Iraq and, as consequentially, put soldiers into Syria to create a defensible haven where civilians and the armed Sunni opposition can gather without fear of attack. Europe’s refugee and counterterrorist nightmares have no chance of resolution until the Syrian war is stopped.

The French and Americans are currently in a perverse situation since they have de facto aligned their military actions with the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar Assad against the Syrian Sunni population. As long as the Alawites and their Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese allies are slaughtering Sunnis—and they are doing the lion’s share of the killing in the war and are driving the refugee crisis—Islamic State is unlikely to be defeated. And Islamic State’s propaganda, depicting France and America as allies of Shiite butchers, will continue to have real influence among Sunni Muslims in Europe.

Both Paris and Washington know this, even if they want to pretend that a political solution is possible without militarily checkmating the Assad regime and its friends. If the French are willing to commit the Foreign Legion in Syria, an idea no longer unthinkable, it is much more likely that the Americans will consider ground troops and the arduous, dangerous, long-term effort to stabilize Syria. Although profoundly constrained by the size of its armed forces, France could serve, as Margaret Thatcher did for George H.W. Bush, as a back stiffener and force multiplier.

Franco-American alliances have never been easy. But it wasn’t merely a desire to enjoy Paris that convinced the Americans to put the center of their European counterterrorist efforts in France after 9/11. However faltering, the French remain the backbone of Europe’s defense against Islamist terrorism, which makes them the front-line defense of the U.S. Nous sommes tous en guerre. We are all at war. The rest remains in Monsieur Colombani’s imagination.

Mr. Gerecht, a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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