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French Kiss-Off

If you think the French diplomats were bad yesterday, wait until you get a load of their TV coverage of Powell's speech.

11:00 AM, Feb 6, 2003 • By DAVID BROOKS
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I MADE THE MISTAKE of watching French news the night of Colin Powell's presentation before the Security Council. The report on Powell's speech on A2, which is the second most important French channel, wasn't too bad. There was a sneering summary of Powell's argument that there is al Qaeda activity in Baghdad. "As proof, Secretary Powell presented a photograph of a man," the broadcast reported. Naturally, there was no mention of the dramatic footage of an Iraqi-owned but French-made Mirage jet spraying chemical weapons. But overall the tone was fair.

Then they brought on a single "expert" to analyze Powell's presentation. This fellow, who looked to be about 25 and quite pleased with himself, was completely dismissive. The Powell presentation was a mere TV show, he sniffed. It's impossible to trust any of the intelligence data Powell presented because the CIA is notorious for lying and manipulation. The presenter showed a photograph of a weapons plant, and then the same site after it had been sanitized and the soil scraped. The expert was unimpressed: The Americans could simply have lied about the dates when the pictures were taken. Maybe the clean site is actually the earlier picture, he said.

That was depressing enough. Then there were a series of interviews with French politicians of the left and right. They were worse. At least the TV expert had acknowledged that Powell did present some evidence, even if he thought it was fabricated. The politicians responded to Powell's address as if it had never taken place. They simply ignored what Powell said and repeated that there is no evidence that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and that, in any case, the inspection system is effective.

This was not a response. It was simple obliviousness, a powerful unwillingness to confront the question honestly. This made the politicians seem impervious to argument, reason, evidence, or anything else. Maybe in the bowels of the French elite there are people rethinking their nation's position, but there was no hint of it on the evening news.

Which made me think that maybe we are being ethnocentric. As good, naive Americans, we think that if only we can show the world the seriousness of the threat Saddam poses, then they will embrace our response. In our good, innocent way, we assume that in persuading our allies we are confronted with a problem of understanding.

But suppose we are confronted with a problem of courage? Perhaps the French and the Germans are simply not brave enough to confront Saddam. In that case every time we show them what a serious threat Saddam poses, they will become less likely to join the American led coalition because they won't want to run the serious risks the operation will entail.

Or suppose we are confronted with a problem of character? Perhaps the French and the Germans understand the risk Saddam poses to the world order. Perhaps they know that they are in danger as much as anybody. They simply would rather see American men and women--rather than French and German men and women--dying to preserve their safety. In this circumstance too, Colin Powell's presentation would have done nothing to persuade them to join the coalition. Far better, from this cynical perspective, to signal that you will not take on the terrorists--so as to earn their good will amidst the uncertain times ahead.

Maybe I'm just fired up by the newscast. But it is certainly true that we have to continue to try on other mentalités. As we confront Saddam, we have to continually imagine how he is thinking. (For example, from his vantage point it may be better to die in a massive nuclear holocaust, prompted by his own chemical attack, than from an unheroic bullet to the head.) And we have to try on the potential mentalités of our "friends" and "allies," who may understand the case against Saddam very well, but respond to it in ways we might find alien or repulsive.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.