Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky. Doubleday, 294 pages, $24.95.
In a New Yorker profile last month, Ken Auletta caught speechwriter Bob Shrum—who at that point was John Kerry’s right-hand man—relaxing at home on Cape Cod, snacking on “hard cheeses” and French bread. Quelle horreur! Seemingly overnight, Mr. Kerry demoted Mr. Shrum and hired Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Joe Lockhart (whose more aggressive campaign style helped turn around Mr. Kerry’s sagging poll numbers). The shakeup in the Kerry campaign wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut instance of France-bashing—but the timing is certainly suspicious.
Our Oldest Enemy, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky, is a shrill battle cry in the war of words you probably think started with the “Freedom fry” incident in the wake of France’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Messrs. Miller and Molesky would be quick to tell you that you’re wrong: The war, according to the co-authors, has actually been raging ever since the United States first began to nudge France from center stage over 200 years ago.
The crux of the argument is that from their support of America’s War for Independence to Le Monde’s eloquent Sept. 12 headline “Nous Sommes Tous Américains,” France has always only had in mind the restoration of the prestige and power it enjoyed at the time of the Bourbon kings. Though this thirst for national greatness has colored all French foreign policy since Napoleon, according Messrs. Miller and Molesky, the authors are particularly concerned to demonstrate that the will to power was the principal French motive in opposing the invasion of Iraq.
Never mind that a large majority of the French public was adamantly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq—”true friends and allies of the United States do not behave the way the French did. Despite the British public’s misgivings about the wisdom of invading Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair acted with a solid appreciation of America’s positive role in the world and a firm understanding of common values and mutual interests,” the authors argue. Democracy in France, it seems, should take a backseat to America’s strategic interests.
As for the notion that France’s own long experience with terrorism might have informed its position on the American-led War on Terror, Messrs. Miller and Molesky are bluntly contemptuous: “[O]ver the years [France] followed a more lenient policy toward terrorism than any other Western country.”
In fact, throughout Messrs. Miller and Molesky’s history of Franco-American relations, the French routinely consort with terrorists (to whose ranks you can now add the Native Americans, whom the French used as “weapons of imperial terror against the hardy men, women, and children who settled on the frontier”), largely because French military might has been insufficient on its own to advance the national interest.
However tempting it might be to do so in the face of an argument that so drips with animosity towards the French, one cannot summarily dismiss the claim that in using its influence on the U.N. Security Council to prevent the U.S. from invading Iraq, and then trying to force Central European nations to tow the French line, France was jockeying to set itself up as a new pole of influence to counterbalance what Hubert Vedrine has called American hyperpower.
Mr. Miller, a columnist at the National Review, and Mr. Molesky, a Seton Hall history professor, argue that every French action since the United States began to siphon off their influence has been calculated to re-establish France as the official world superpower. Even the act that gave birth to the “enduring myth of Franco-American solidarity”—France’s military assistance in the American Revolution—was “grudging, sporadic, and undercut by the incompetence and vanity of French commanders.” Forget the romanticized notions of a shared love of liberty, equality, and fraternity—France just wanted to get back at their old rival England and win back some of the New World territories they had lost during the French and Indian Wars.
The animating force of Our Oldest Enemy turns out almost always to be the vanity and incompetence of the French, from Charles Gravier de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister during the American Revolution, to Charles de Gaulle in the last century and Jacques Chirac and the loathed Dominique de Villepin in this one. In addition to their delusions of grandeur and prissiness on the battlefield, Messrs. Miller and Molesky portray the French as uniformly decadent, effeminate, snooty, amoral and—a low blow, this—bad colonialists.
If all that’s not enough reason to hate the French, just remember that leftist Paris is responsible for giving birth to the most despicable trend of the late 20th-century: deconstruction, which—as described in the ingeniously titled chapter “Fables of the Deconstruction”—has turned a whole generation of American college students into mealy-mouthed, politically correct liberals with no regard for history or tradition.
The irony in Messrs. Miller and Molesky’s railing on dead French theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault is that the reading of history in Our Oldest Enemy confirms one of Foucault’s central arguments. In the authors’ own words, Foucault’s concept of history favored contemplation of the “sinister forces that wielded power in society through the control of language or ‘discourse’” over “solid historical evidence.”
Now listen to what Messrs. Miller and Molesky have to say about the myth of Franco-American fraternité: “This familiar and comforting narrative can be found in our history books. French politicians eager to advance their country’s interests have nurtured it. American statesmen have been seduced by its charms. Yet this feature of our popular imagination is in fact a figment of our imagination.”
In other words, what we thought of as American history is actually just another narrative deployed for political gain. A bit simplistic for Foucault, perhaps. But still, very French.
Alex Daye, a freelance writer and editor, works at CUNY.