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The New World Sport
France does not know it, but we are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, a vital war, a war without casualties, at least on the surface.
--Former French President Francois Mitterand to his longtime confidant, Georges-Marc Benamou
Americans thought we could always count on France -- and it turned out to be true. We could count on the French to be troublesome, to be haughty and demand respect, to threaten to refuse cooperation before eventually capitulating. That unflattering sketch was a picture of the France of old -- before things got even worse.
In the weeks after September 11, France gave America good cause to wonder. John Rossant, who writes for Business Week from Paris, noticed it two weeks after the 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington. "Members of France's center-left coalition government also are starting to chime up," he wrote, and quoted Green Party member Noel Mamére: "The reality is that American policy could only result in the kind of terrorism we've just seen."
Once again, for the French, even a vicious attack against America could be the fault of no one but the Americans themselves.
Ever since the United States evicted France's embedded Nazis at the end of World War II, the French have followed this predictable, if maddening, pattern -- causing difficulty before eventually falling in line. But in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it was clear something had changed dramatically. The behavior of the French was beginning to sound more than merely cranky and irksome, until Americans had reason to wonder: Which side is France on?
The answer could be found in the Arab media, which reported intently on developing events and shaped the news into an almost mythical tale that every Arab would have recognized.
Their story went like this: The clouds of war were darkening a near horizon. As the Arab world stood in abject horror, an Armageddon of invader hordes promised catastrophe, with no army to stand in sensitive Arabs, the clash appeared to be over -- in a cascade of humiliation -- before it even began.
But as the long period of argument and debate dragged on, momentarily holding off the spectre of humiliation, one man stood to lead the Arab Nation, to speak eloquently and cleverly for the cause that would stave off the worst catastrophe in a millennium. Ultimately his mission failed, and the spectacle of outmatched defenders falling valiantly in the face of Western onslaught was salved only by the memory of that one man, who had the courage to throw himself before the inevitable conflagration. To the Arabs, his cause was in vain, but his defiance was noble and proud.
This man was proclaimed leader of the Arab Nation, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf -- the man who shamed the ineffectual poseurs who pretended to lead the desperate Arabs, but who only grew irrelevant and fat in their weakness.
Who was this savior of the Arab people?
Jacques Chirac, the president of France.
So strenuous were Chirac's efforts to defend Saddam Hussein's regime that Iraq's state newspaper, Babel, awarded him the ceremonial title Al-Munadhil al-Akbar: Great Combatant.
One Algerian fundamentalist leader, Abdallah Jaballah, praised Mr. Chirac as "the only truly Arab leader today."
Imad al-Din Husayn, a columnist for Al Bayan, the government-owned newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, played with the idea. "I came to the conclusion that installing Chirac as president of the Arab League could bring about a solution to our problems," Husayn said, musing on the Gordian Knot Chirac could hack open for the Arabs. Unlike his Arab counterparts, Husayn reasoned, at least Chirac would make an attempt to defend against the American war machine. With the prospect of sure failure besetting the Arab peoples -- invasion, death, carnage, humiliation, all at Western hands -- miracles of salvation "would be wrought by the hands of our new Saladin al-Chirac."
Saladin, the twelfth-century son of a Kurdish chief, born in Tikrit, Iraq, at a young age united the Arab world by force of arms, installed himself as the Sultan of Egypt and Champion of Islam. He eventually drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem, which Muslims then held for centuries. In the Arab world, it is hard to pay a higher compliment than to enshrine a man's name as Saladin. "Saladin al-Chirac."
As the Arabs contemplated the bleak future they had wrought -- the coming Iraq war, of course, but also the continuing Palestinian conflict -- they saw but one figure and one country on the world stage even attempting to stand in the way of the United States: President Chirac and his anti-American nation of France.
Chirac's behavior provoked a basic question: Why were the Arabs and the French working so hard to protect Saddam Hussein? The French certainly knew they were doing the Iraqi people no favor trying to stop a force that would drive Saddam Hussein out. As the war approached in 2003, the French, other Western Europeans -- and, yes, the Arabs themselves -- had seen a dozen years of reports from international human rights' agencies, including the United Nations, making it abundantly clear how agonizing the Saddam regime was for the Iraqi people. The United Nations Human Rights Committee had concluded in 1997 that Saddam's Iraq suffered a "high incidence of summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill treatment by members of security and military forces." The Committee noted that Saddam's regime imposed retroactive laws, empowering security services to execute and torture people for newly declared crimes. It noted with particular disgust Iraq's Decree No. 109 of August 1994, which ordered criminals whose hand had been amputated as a punishment for their crimes be branded with an X on their forehead, so that amputees from Iraq's wars could be easily distinguished from criminals who had been maimed by the state.
In August 2001, Amnesty International weighed in with yet another of its many voluminous reports on Saddam's human rights' abuses. The report recounted a series of horrific tales from various individuals who had been taken into custody and tortured, some for a period of years. "Some of the victims have died and many have been left with permanent physical and psychological damage," the document reported. "Others have been left with mutilated bodies."
After the end of major conflict, enormous mass graves were found in Iraq, containing the bodies of more than 300,000 executed men, women, and even children. but the real tragedy was that these graves came as a surprise to no one: Arabs and Westerners alike had known of Saddam's murderous practices for a generation. Guest workers in Iraq came home in boxes, their bodies showing signs of prolonged torture before death. Indeed, France itself had spent years trying to convince Saddam to change his ways in order to help him rejoin the world economic community. France was especially eager to rehabilitate Saddam so that the U.N. sanctions against him would be lifted -- allowing the dictator once again to sell Iraq's oil legally on the world market.Hating America
The New World Sport. Copyright © by John Gibson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.