If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war), and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq), and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq's transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.
France wants America to sink in a quagmire there in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its "rightful" place as America's equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs.
Yes, the Bush team's arrogance has sharpened French hostility. Had President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld not been so full of themselves right after America's military victory in Iraq - and instead used that moment, when the French were feeling that maybe they should have taken part, to magnanimously reach out to Paris to join in reconstruction - it might have softened French attitudes. But even that I have doubts about.
What I have no doubts about, though, is that there is no coherent, legitimate Iraqi authority able to assume power in the near term, and trying to force one now would lead to a dangerous internal struggle and delay the building of the democratic institutions Iraq so badly needs. Iraqis know this. France knows this, which is why its original proposal (which it now seems to be backtracking on a bit) could only be malicious.
What is so amazing to me about the French campaign - "Operation America Must Fail" - is that France seems to have given no thought as to how this would affect France. Let me spell it out in simple English: if America is defeated in Iraq by a coalition of Saddamists and Islamists, radical Muslim groups - from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris - will all be energized, and the forces of modernism and tolerance within these Muslim communities will be on the run. To think that France, with its large Muslim minority, where radicals are already gaining strength, would not see its own social fabric affected by this is fanciful.
If France were serious, it would be using its influence within the European Union to assemble an army of 25,000 Eurotroops, and a $5 billion reconstruction package, and then saying to the Bush team: Here, we're sincere about helping to rebuild Iraq, but now we want a real seat at the management table. Instead, the French have put out an ill-conceived proposal, just to show that they can be different, without any promise that even if America said yes Paris would make a meaningful contribution.
But then France has never been interested in promoting democracy in the modern Arab world, which is why its pose as the new protector of Iraqi representative government - after being so content with Saddam's one-man rule - is so patently cynical.
Clearly, not all E.U. countries are comfortable with this French mischief, yet many are going along for the ride. It's stunning to me that the E.U., misled by France, could let itself be written out of the most important political development project in modern Middle East history. The whole tone and direction of the Arab-Muslim world, which is right on Europe's doorstep, will be affected by the outcome in Iraq. It would be as if America said it did not care what happened in Mexico because it was mad at Spain.
Says John Chipman, director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies: "What the Europeans are saying about Iraq is that this is our backyard, we're not going to let you meddle in it, but we're not going to tend it ourselves."
But what's most sad is that France is right - America will not be as effective or legitimate in its efforts to rebuild Iraq without French help. Having France working with us in Iraq, rather than against us in the world, would be so beneficial for both nations and for the Arabs' future. Too bad this French government has other priorities.
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN