Libyan War Goes a Long Way to Improve the Pentagon’s View of France as an Ally

Eight years ago the French were called the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” who opposed the Iraq war. They inspired “freedom fries” and jokes meant to boost American military morale. “Have you heard about the new French tank?” a United States Marine commander asked his men in Kuwait in March 2003, only days before his unit crossed the border into Iraq. “It’s got six gears — all in reverse.”

But something has happened on the bombing runs over Libya. France played a major role in this war, winning grudging respect from a Pentagon that has long looked down on many European militaries. Although Americans led the way in knocking out Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s air defenses with volley after volley of Tomahawk missiles, French warplanes flew the first raid into Libya and, along with the British, have flown the bulk of the airstrike missions.

“It’s a very strong lead example to the rest of the alliance in taking charge of this mission,” a top American military official said Friday. Despite his words of admiration for Paris, the official asked for anonymity because of what he described as extreme sensitivity within the NATO alliance about the role of each country in the war.

Sensitivity is putting it mildly. The American military has been in the unusual position of at least publicly taking a back seat in Libya, and strains have been rampant. The Pentagon never wanted to get into the war in the first place and felt dragged in by the exuberance of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and a number of White House advisers. American military officials then grumbled that they had to unleash an initial shock-and-awe bombing campaign to destroy Colonel Qaddafi’s air defenses so that it was safe for the Europeans to fly their strike missions.

Since March, the United States has continued to fly critical refueling and surveillance flights, but has been obsessive about stepping out of the way and letting NATO, and to a large degree France, take the lead. So although France is admired in important quarters at the Pentagon, the building is still getting used to a strange new relationship.

“This is a different animal than we’ve been traditionally involved with,” said another top military official, referring to the Pentagon’s role within NATO in the last five months.

The Pentagon right now has “a love-hate feeling” about France, said Heather A. Conley, a European specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a military research institution. The “love” is appreciation for France’s contribution, she said, but the “hate,” or frustration, is the logistical confusion that occurred in the early days of the war, when the United States was trying to lead from behind and no one seemed to be in charge. “In this new model, everybody has to make important adjustments,” Ms. Conley said.

For now, the French are eager to highlight their contributions to the war, which over all are third behind the Americans and the British. According to the French military, France has flown about 4,500 flights, or sorties, in the five-month war, compared to more than 5,300 American sorties in roughly the same period. France has flown a third of all NATO strike sorties, or 2,700 flights in which ordnance was readied to be dropped. The French military did not provide their total number of actual strikes, which for the United States it is at least 262, but they said that their helicopters had destroyed 450 targets in Libya.

Between Thursday and Friday, French warplanes also destroyed 20 military vehicles near Misurata belonging to Colonel Qaddafi’s government. In the same period, the United States dropped two 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a surface-to-air missile loader and a surface-to-air launcher near Tripoli.

France also has the only aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, to be deployed during the war. In fact, it is Europe’s only aircraft carrier. The French have deployed up to 50 aircraft, including Rafale and Mirage fighter jets and combat helicopters.

“As the dust settles, if this thing turns out O.K., we will owe a fair amount of appreciation to the French,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

A French military spokesman said Friday that costs to France for the war were continuing and offered no total figure, although in June, France was estimated to be spending as much as $2 million a day on the war, which would be about $300 million to date. The Pentagon estimates the cost of the war to the United States through the end of July at $896 million, which includes military operations, munitions and humanitarian aid.

Despite the relative new esteem for France, few on either side of the Atlantic have forgotten the tongue-lashing delivered to NATO members in June by Robert M. Gates, then the United States defense secretary.

In a speech in Brussels, triggered by years of frustration over NATO’s shrinking role in Afghanistan and the logistical difficulties in Libya, Mr. Gates warned the alliance of “irrelevance” and a “dim if not dismal future” if it did not contribute more in weapons, money and people. Mr. Sarkozy fired back, saying that Mr. Gates, who was about to step down, was unhappy about his retirement and “this explains his rather bitter words.”

On Friday, a former Pentagon official said Mr. Gates had been addressing alliance problems larger than Libya. “I don’t think he had any beef with the French except perhaps that it was their exuberance, coupled with the British, that was barreling us down the road toward another U.S. ground war, and he was determined to prevent that,” the official said.

In the Pentagon, the French have also gained respect for their contributions in Afghanistan. France currently has about 4,000 troops in that country, largely in the east, and 74 of them were killed over the last eight years.

So it is a long way from “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” the phrase coined by a writer for “The Simpsons” in 1995 and popularized during the period before the Iraq war. It is also a long way from another joke once heard in American military circles about the French Army knife — 49 corkscrews and a white flag.

[Source: By Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, 26Aug11]

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