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Jewish World Review April 16, 2002 / 5 Iyar, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Our Vichy gamble



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Sometimes in war it is good policy to treat enemies like friends. You may lack the resources to take them on directly. You may want to delay taking them on, or you may want to indulge the fiction that the enemy is neutral for a time. But such a policy is morally troublesome and can be difficult to maintain. One example of treating an enemy like a friend was Franklin Roosevelt's relationship with Vichy France in the early days of World War II. Another example is George W. Bush's policy of sending Colin Powell to the Middle East.

The Vichy regime was the government set up in France after its defeat by the Nazis in 1940.

Vichy governed the French colonies and the southern part of France unoccupied by German troops and claimed that it was neutral in the war. The British destroyed much of its fleet, but the United States kept an ambassador there even after Pearl Harbor. Vichy surrendered its Asian colonies to Japan without a fight. It resisted, but only feebly, when Allied troops landed in North Africa in November 1942; German troops then occupied Tunisia and opposed the Allied advance. Our Vichy gamble (as one historian called it) succeeded, in part-we got into North Africa with minimal bloodshed. But it also cost us moral clarity (the movie Casablanca is a denunciation of the policy) and could not be sustained.

FDR pretended, for a while, that Vichy wasn't an ally of Germany; Bush and Powell are pretending, for the moment anyway, that Yasser Arafat is not a terrorist and is instead a man Israel should be encouraged to negotiate with. This even though Bush has denounced Palestinian suicide bombings as terrorism and the State Department has placed Arafat's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades on the list of terrorist organizations. And even though Bush has criticized Arafat repeatedly for doing nothing to stop terrorism. And even though Arafat lied to Bush about the Karine A, which was sailing from Iran to Arafat's territory with weapons forbidden under previous agreements.

One-sided. News coverage is focusing on the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not complied with Bush's request that he halt efforts to uproot Arafat's terrorist network in the West Bank (although he has withdrawn troops from several towns). It is noted, only in passing, that neither Arafat nor any Arab government is complying with Bush's request that they denounce suicide bombings and forswear violence. Critics of Israel denounce it for responding to terrorism while they ignore the refusal of Arabs to denounce terrorism itself.

Obviously, there is something incoherent about fighting a war against terrorism and refusing to recognize Arafat as a terrorist. And there is virtually no chance of a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians anytime soon: Arafat rejected Israel's more generous concessions in 2000, instead launching the intifada and, as we now know from captured documents, supporting the suicide bombings.

But Bush's Vichy gamble may be justified if it moves us closer to winning the bigger war against terrorism. And the next major move in that war, as Bush made clear in his press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Crawford, Texas, will be against Iraq. It is often said that we cannot move against Iraq until we have succeeded in settling the Israeli-Palestinian question. But actually the reverse is true: We can't settle the Israeli-Palestinian question until we move successfully against Iraq.

We should realize that while it may be prudent to treat Arab regimes as friends, they are in many respects enemies in the war against terrorism. All publicly oppose a war against Iraq; none will denounce suicide bombings. Saudi Arabia produced 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers, and Saudis continue to finance al Qaeda and other terrorists. Saudi Arabia, like Iraq, makes payments to families of suicide bombers. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt permit the publication of the most vile forms of antisemitism and anti-American propaganda. They stoke the fires of Arab hatred and foster popular support for terrorism. The Saudis propagate the intolerant and totalitarian doctrines of Wahhabi Islam around the world. There may be good reason to treat them like friends, for a while. But we do not need their support for operations against Iraq. And we should not forget they are acting more like enemies than friends.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone