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A Happy Return

There are absolutely no limits to bad faith in politics. The grotesquely laughable debate about France’s place in NATO is just the latest example.

First, it is not correct to speak, as people are doing everywhere, of France’s “return” to the alliance. This is because France never actually left NATO. In 1966, under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle, France left NATO’s integrated military command, but it didn’t leave the political council. According to French Defense Minister Herve Morin, France participates, and has always participated, in 36 of the 38 NATO committees. France has soldiers in two of the three main theaters (Kosovo, Afghanistan) in which NATO forces are engaged.

It is absurd, then, for people to say, in reaction to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin NATO’s military command, that France will lose its influence by reclaiming its place on the Defense Planning Committee. It’s all the more absurd since France could very well obtain, in exchange, command of the organization’s Allied Command Transformation center (Norfolk, Va.) and the joint headquarters (Lisbon, Portugal). Today, France commands nothing. Our soldiers risk their lives without our having the least influence on strategy decisions. Soon French generals will be seated in the holy of holies, in Norfolk, where new weapons systems are conceived. Loss of influence? Really?

It is false, factually and simply false, to pretend that in doing this France is going to align itself with the “American Empire.” It is obvious that the opposite will happen: Not only have times changed since the era when NATO could have been seen as an instrument of the United States, not only has NATO led a number of operations (Kosovo, Bosnia, the bombardment of Belgrade) on European soil and at Europe’s request, but, finally, in one recent case at least (Georgia’s and Ukraine’s bids to join the organization), we have also seen Europe say no to America and, alas, prevail. It is by being a NATO member without actually being there, by sitting on all its committees except those where the critical choices are discussed, that France leaves it to others to steer the boat: It is by resuming its place, rediscovering its voice, and participating in NATO’s debates that France will give itself the means to weigh in, advocate for its interests and, when necessary, go against American interests.

It is not only false but scandalous to throw the public into a panic by brandishing the specter of “wars that we don’t want and will find ourselves mechanically dragged into.” It is scandalous because, with one exception (in the case where a member country is directly attacked), the rule is that of unanimity. It is odious because, once an eventual intervention is decided upon, it is up to each member country to decide whether to commit troops, and how many, to the operation. And this outcry makes a mockery of true debate, ignoring the facts: In the case of the Iraq war alone, Germany’s wholehearted membership in the organization’s structures did not prevent it from opposing the war with just as much firmness as a France supposedly fortified by its sovereign “exception.”

And as for the argument that, by rejoining NATO’s military command, we would sacrifice the only worthy project--that of unified European defense--well, that’s another joke. Because finally there are quite a few obstacles to the defense of Europe. But there is at least one obstacle that Sarkozy’s decision will eliminate: namely, our partners’ suspicion of us, of our choice to be a lone ranger within NATO.

Can we trust a France bristling with a national independence so often manifested in unsavory friendships (with Saddam’s Iraq, with the expiring USSR, and not to mention the foreign affairs ministry’s sadly famous “Arab policy,” which resulted in France’s developing relationships with authoritarian regimes)? Do we want an organization for European defense that would be formed to the detriment of the Atlantic community (and to our solidarity on principles with other democracies)? Those are the questions that the Hungarians, the Czechs and the Polish are asking themselves, and also the Germans and the Spanish. Those are questions that they will, from this point on, no longer have reason to raise. This is for the greater good of the European construct and its spirit.

That a far-right nationalist French politician like Jean-Marie Le Pen does not want to hear this evidence, is understandable.

That he is joined by the far-left “anti-imperialists” (see Olivier Besancenot and his New Anti-Capitalist Party), is to be expected.

That a handful of Gaullists, sovereigntists and Euroskeptics rally to this pitiful axis, is no big deal either.

But that the socialists on one hand, and Francois Bayrou’s centrists on the other, join their voices to this mediocre chorus, that in so doing so some turn their backs on Francois Mitterand’s memory (he opposed de Gaulle’s decision from the beginning) and others on our Christian democratic heritage (inflexible, as a matter of honor, when faced with such a totalitarian stance); this is truly distressing.

Pavlovian anti-Americanism? Systematic, unnuanced, irresponsible opposition? Or yet again, the inability to understand the post-Cold War world? Everyone will evaluate the situation. And will then implore, as I am here, his friends to pull themselves together.

Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House.