The Long History of French Military Intervention in the Middle East and Africa

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The Long History of French Military Intervention in the Middle East and Africa

November 16, 2015

After the 9/11 Attacks, American politicians invented the “they hate us because we're free” explanation of why the US was a target for international terrorism. The slogan has been especially effective among very ignorant sectors of the population who seemed to be under the impression that the United States had been engaged in non-interventionist foreign policy prior to the 9/11 attacks. “Why, we were just minding our own business,” came the shocked and exasperated claims of the know-nothings. “These Arabs just attacked us for no reason, so they must just hate us because we're so doggone free.”

Naturally, no one even remotely familiar with the history of the US in the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula would actually believe such assertions so at odds with the facts of the matter, including those who are in favor of more military intervention. Nevertheless, the long history of US-orchestrated coups in the region, the funding of brutal military dictatorship like the one in Egypt, the military presence in Saudi holy sites in the 1990s, 1980s meddling in Libya, the arming of “friends” who later turned out to be enemies, and the US cozy relationship with Israel were all events that provided Islamist radicals with all the help they needed in turning hearts and minds against the US.

A quick look at social media today reveals that many of the same people who imagined the US was “minding its own business” prior to 9/11 now seem to be under the impression that France has a hands-off approach in the Middle East and surrounding areas.

Of course, this position is even more ridiculous since the French have an even longer and arguably more brutal history than the US when it comes to Syria, Lebanon, North Africa, and more. 

The Atlantic today has published a helpful summary of French meddling in Africa and the Middle East in recent years. Since September 2014, for example, the French government has engaged in 200 bombing raids in the middle east. The ones conducted on Sunday in retaliation for the Paris murders, was the just one of many:

France has reportedly launched some 200 strikes in Iraq. The French task force is centered around the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is currently stationed in the Persian Gulf. According to AFP, French air capacity in the region includes 21 Rafale fighters, nine Super Etendard fighters, and some Mirage jets. (By way of comparison, the U.S. says it has launched nearly 6,400 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.)

Meanwhile, the French have seen some mission-creep. A year to the month after commencing airstrikes in Iraq, France began flying missions in Syria as well. “In Syria, so long as we haven’t found a political solution; so long as we haven’t destroyed this terrorist group, Islamic State; so long as we haven’t got rid of Bashar Assad; we will not find a solution,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Christiane Amanpour in September. In October, French strikes hit an ISIS camp in Raqqa, rumored to be housing foreign fighters including French nationals. Last week, French officials said planes had struck an ISIS-controlled oil refinery in Syria.

It’s worth noting that the ISIS statement translated by SITE makes no explicit mention of Syria. The French military has been heavily involved in operations against Islamist militant groups outside of the Middle East over the last few years, including one group that has pledged fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph. France has deployed 3,000 troops to West Africa—a region where they’ve historically had great influence, as a colonial power and otherwise—with a presence in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ivory Coast. The fight in Mali has centered on al-Qaeda affiliated militants, but in Nigeria and surrounding countries, France has been the Western nation most invested in fighting against Boko Haram, the brutal Nigerian Islamist organization. Earlier this year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. For radicals inclined to view Western fighting against Muslim groups and nations around the world as part of a larger crusade, France’s military deployment in Africa may be lumped together with its involvement in the Levant.

While it's difficult to take exception to bombs being dropped on the likes of Boko Haram, only the most naive of observers could assert that these bombings and other military actions have not taken their toll of local civilization populations. France has long been bombing, killing, and maiming Middle Easterners and Africans.

And let us not forget that the French government was at the forefront of the NATO war against the Libyan government in 2011, which was part of an effort by colonial European powers to reassert control over a region that was falling under Chinese influence.

Nor do we need to look only to recent events to find evidence of France's long, brutal colonialist history in the region. The Algerian War, for example, which ended only in 1962, led to more than 100,000 dead, which proportionally, was nothing short of a bloodbath in Algeria.

Moreover, the authoritative history of the origins of modern western meddling in the region is David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace which details how the French and British governments divided up the middle east among themselves for future government as colonial satraps. Specifically, France was to get Lebanon and Syria as part of the deal. (Britain would get Palestine and Iraq). France and Britain have regarded the region as their unofficial colonial possessions ever since. 

Even worse, from the Arab point of view, the Arabs had been told if they fought with the French and British against the Ottoman Empire in World War I (a German ally), the Arab countries would gain national autonomy. T.E. Lawrence, for example, used this bait and switch tactic to get Arab tribes to assist the British throughout what is now Saudi Arabia and Palestine. Lawrence, knew, however, that the French and British had already divided up the former Ottoman empire among themselves. They had already agreed that if the Ottoman Empire could be defeated, the newly independent states that resulted would forever remain under the thumb of Britain and France. And so it would have likely remained indefinitely had the Europeans not veered off course by attempting total self-annihilation in a Second World War, largely due to revanchist and heavy-handed British and French reparations demands placed upon Germany. 

So, claims being made today that the French government has been a meek, peaceful lover of human rights will strike the well-informed as absurd. Americans may be blissfully unaware of all of this, but rest assured that angry young men in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa are not.

However, many Americans who subscribe to this bizarre theory of French pacifism may still be under the influence of old propaganda that the French were anti-interventionists that refused to assist the US in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. This refusal to join the US was not on humanitarian grounds, of course. The French dispense with human rights as readily as any other Western regime when it is in the state's interest. The French government simply recognized — correctly — that the Saddam Hussein regime was fighting against the terrorists that the US claimed to be fighting. The French government probably could have also predicted — correctly, again — that getting rid of the secularist Hussein regime would serve the interests of the terrorists that now attack France and the West.

Thanks to this more level headed opposition to a pointless war in Iraq, Americans were told to villify the French, complete with “freedom fries” propaganda and calls to boycott French companies and to do everything within our power to teach the French a “lesson.” Added to this was a new genre of revisionist history that attempted to re-cast the French as the greatest enemy of the American people. One example was Kenneth Timmerman's The French Betrayal of America. Its Amazon blurb reads:

In this stunning New York Times bestseller, investigative journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman—who lived and worked in France for nearly two decades—exposes the depth of France’s treachery. Reading this shocking insider account, Americans will see their anger at France turn to sheer outrage…Read The French Betrayal of America to find out the unvarnished truth about the supposed ally that the United States should now treat as an enemy.

But look away! That's all ancient history now since we're being told by American militarists that the country they recently told us was “an enemy” is now our closest friend.


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