LOS ANGELES - Yesterday, George W. Bush made it official: French President Jacques Chirac is no longer welcome to play in his sandbox.
"I doubt," the U.S. President told NBC anchor Tom Brokaw in an interview, "he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon."
For Bush, a man fond of personalizing diplomacy, invitations to his private ranch in Crawford, Tex., are the leading indicators of professional friendship and respect. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch ally in Gulf War II, is heading out to the range in two weeks. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was rewarded for his support with a visit in February. Other bonding buddies have included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"He only brings people there who he considers friends," Secretary of State Colin Powell once explained.
Right now, those "friends" include Crown Prince Abdullah and Ambassador Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia -- the totalitarian country that produced most of the money, theology and virgin-seeking "martyrs" behind the Sept. 11 massacre -- but not the president of the United States' oldest democratic ally.
In one sense, the Bush administration's preference for Saudi oligarchs over Gallic technocrats could be explained by proximity: Bandar has been cozying up to the oil-oriented Bush family for two decades, while Dubya had visited Europe all of once before becoming president.
But the main reason for the transatlantic rift -- and a large potential source of danger, in my view -- goes back to the President's famous dictum of Sept. 20, 2001: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
The Bush administration, and what online commentator Glenn Reynolds calls the "American street," are increasingly under the distinct impression that the French are no longer with us, indeed if they ever were. Decades worth of unrebutted insults about McDonalds, Hollywood movies and bad manners were collected and spit back at France after Sept. 11, with a ferocity and venom the French still can't quite comprehend.
During my annual Christmas visit to France in 2001, I found my American skin could no longer shrug off the usual Yankee-bashing. Listening to French friends equating Osama bin Laden with George W. Bush, or linking synagogue burnings in Marseilles to U.S. support for Israel, suddenly seemed less like a debating point and more like an unbridgeable chasm. This past Christmas, for the first time in my life, I was perfectly happy to bypass Paris altogether.
In the six-month season of United Nations diplomacy that ended with France's threat of an automatic veto against force in Iraq, the Frog-bashing rhetoric in the United States escalated to a fever pitch. What started out with the usual Jerry Lewis jokes and jibes about appeasing Hitler quickly morphed into charges of systemic anti-Semitism and irony-free calls to "invade Paris next."
"My fondest wishes are that Osama bin Laden live long enough to nuke Paris and bring burning nuclear death or radiation poisoning to every man, woman and child in that boil on the ass of humanity called France," a patriot named Celissa wrote on her personal Web site, reacting to news that vandals had desecrated a British military cemetery in France.
Among the dozens of colourful new bilateral-minded Web sites you'll find PaveFrance.com and FranceSucks.com, which is attempting to lead a boycott against brie and Champagne. Some group called the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) is forever filling my e-mail in-box with invitations to watch them pour French wine in the gutter of the French consul's Beverly Hills mansion.
This is all mostly harmless, if a little disproportionate (I am waiting for news that the YAF boys plan to rip off their own clothing to protest Communist China). There have been a handful of violent exceptions -- in California's San Joaquin Valley, a business called The French Cleaners had one of its stores burned to the ground, a second shot at, and the third tagged with anti-French graffiti (the owners, it turned out, were from Lebanon).
Immediately after Sept. 11, the Bush administration (at the urging of its Saudi friends) made repeated calls for tolerance toward Arabs, punctuated by personal visits to mosques in an effort to forestall (successfully, for the most part) any public backlash against Arabs. No similar attempt has been made by Bush and his officials to mute the virulent though less serious French-bashing. To the contrary.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took pains during the diplomatically sensitive month of January to single out France as being part of the sclerotic, foot-dragging "Old Europe." Soon thereafter, American officials changed the name of their very own food to "Freedom fries," "freedom toast" and the like. More directly, Powell stated flatly this week that France will suffer punitive consequences for its opposition to the Iraq war.
This may sound satisfying on the American street, but it's appalling. For all its pretensions, obstructionism and internal problems, France remains one of the leading democracies in the world. The notion that such a country should be "punished" over an honest disagreement in foreign policy is paternalistic, petty and likely to encourage the very behaviour it aims to rebuke.
Much of the world's distrust of the United States can be likened to schoolyard hatred of the Big Man on Campus, who is not only richer and more powerful, but is fond of bragging how much smarter than everybody he is. Even if he's right, people will resent the hell out of him. By taking dissenting countries out to the woodshed and angrily shaking off as many multilateral restraints as possible, Washington is in effect declaring that only agreeable, obedient kids get to sit at the lunch table.
There is no happy ending to this approach. The more the United States exercises and grabs power, bashes the United Nations, reprimands France and limits the Crawford Crowd to the Coalition of the Willing, the more the rest of the globe will view geopolitics as a referendum on American power. Governments will be incentivized to support Washington's initiatives, no matter how daft. Most non-Americans will feel like they have less power, and will therefore likely behave less responsibly, drawing still more U.S. rebukes. It's hard to see how to break the cycle.
In addition, this single-issue, with us/against us approach, is ushering in a brand new era of realpolitik, where countries will be judged not by their record of liberal democracy, human rights and championing of freedom, but rather by how high they leaped when Washington said "jump!"
In the same interview where Bush ruled out any Crawford visit by Chirac and warned against French anti-Americanism, he praised Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. "First of all, the thing that was important with those countries is they provided us [with] help when we asked for help," he said. "We needed basing help in certain countries, and they provided it. That was one of the reasons why we were successful against Saddam Hussein. We asked and they delivered."
It can be recalled that apartheid South Africa, the Shah's Iran, Pinochet's Chile and Afghanistan's mujahedeen all "delivered" when we asked for their help against the Communists. We are still paying the human and moral price for those compromises. One hopes, against fear, that we won't make the same mistakes twice.
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com