Non monsieur le President, Je suis desole….

Under President Obama, the US is  going to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the argument being that we need to “finish what we started.”    One of the key aspects of this new strategy is to convince the NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.   Convincing them to do so, however, is going to be very, very difficult.  Lost in the inauguration hoopla, the French Defense Minister seemed to give a pretty strong signal of his country’s intentions: 

France’s defence minister on Wednesday appeared to rule out any immediate reinforcementof French troops in Afghanistan if requested by Barack Obama, the new US president.  Hervé Morin said deploying additional French forces to the war-torn country was “not a question for now”.  France had, he said, already made the “necessary efforts” when it sent 700 extra troops to Afghanistan six months ago, taking the total to 2,900.

These comments  prompted a couple negative posts from Daniel Drezner  ( here and here) who blames the decision on public opinion saying that  “less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama.”   Here are a couple of points worth noting:  

1)   Public opinion is very important.  True, and here’s a great comment from the Drezner posts:

 I assume the French know their public better than the rest of us do. If they already know that their public will not support additional deployments of troops to Afghanistan, then the French did Obama a favor by clarifying this point now. The alternative would be to allow Obama to invest prestige in in a policy ambition that could not be achieved, and then face embarrassment and a loss mojo when he fails to achieve his aim. Better to make a clean and neat statement now

2)  But its more than just public opinion.   I recommend reading this post by Judah (who follows French politics closely)  at World Politics Review. 

But the reality of European resistance to an escalation in Afghanistan is much more complex than American caricatures which focus on public opinion (which certainly is lacking) or the willingness and courage to fight (which certainly is not). So before President Obama decides to go to that well, he might want to make sure there’s some water left in it.

Looking at this from the French perspective, its hard for me to see why its in French interests to send troops to Afghanistan.   If the US ship is sinking in Afghanistan, as many are saying, why should France jump on board,  given their long-term interest in maintaining a global foreign policy independent of the United States?  Furthermore, US-Europe relations during Bush term II   (and especially with France since Sarkozy took over)  weren’t  nearly as bad as the media sometimes portrays,  so its  not as if France feels any urgent incentive to make some gesture to the US on Afghanistan. Or even to “repair relations.”

Closing Guantanamo

Don’t get me wrong, President Obama’s order_to_close the Guantanamo Bay  prison is a good thing.  That being said, we should not exaggerate the effect that closing it will  have.  Of the things  that people are pissed off at the US for in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay is not near the top of the list.   And if its not accompagnied by a serious US engagement in the peace process, noone in the region is going to give Obama any special “props” for closing Guantanamo.  We also have to remember that most of the remaining prisoners are hard-core security threats and they can’t just be put out on the street.   Today Robert Worth reports:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.

The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabiain 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.

His status was announced in an Internet statement by the militant group and was confirmed by an American counterterrorism official