It might be America’s oldest alliance, but it has rarely looked more vibrant.
French President François Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to intensify their nations’ military attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq at a White House meeting lent urgency and deep symbolic significance by the terrorist attacks on Paris 10 days ago that opened a new phase of the war on terror.
Even before the attacks, France, as the only European nation joining the United States in striking ISIS in Syria, and after several anti-terror operations in Africa in which the two nations cooperated, had emerged as the closest U.S. transatlantic military ally.
And the solidarity on show between Obama and Hollande during an hour-long press conference in the East Room of the White House made clear that the U.S.-France diplomatic relationship is tighter than ever — even if Obama doesn’t plan to greatly change his strategy or work with Russia to battle the terror group, as France has called for, unless Russia confine its attacks to ISIS.
Despite some divergence in the two leaders’ ideas for how best to battle ISIS, Tuesday’s press conference seemed to be a deliberate show of unity and exchange of rhetorical support between the presidents at a time of international disruption and global terror.
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Obama spoke in unusually personal and emotive terms directly to the French people about his own memories of spending time in France as he argued that the ISIS shootings and bombings on cafes, a soccer stadium and a concert hall in Paris were by extension an attack on the world itself.
“We love France for your spirit and your culture and your joie de vivre. Since the attacks, Americans have recalled their own visits to Paris, visiting the Eiffel Tower or walking along the Seine. We know these places. They’re part of our memories, woven into the fabric of our lives and our culture,” Obama said.
The President said that upstairs in the White House residence, he had a photo of first lady Michelle Obama and himself kissing in the French capital’s Luxembourg Gardens.
‘Our hearts broke, too’
“When tragedy struck that evening, our hearts broke, too,” he said of the attacks earlier this month. “In that stadium and the concert hall, in those restaurants and cafes, we see our own. In the face of the French people, we see ourselves.
“Nous sommes tous Francais,” meaning we are all French, Obama said, recalling the French newspaper headline in the days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, “Nous sommes tous Americains.”
Hollande’s visit was part of an extraordinary diplomatic initiative that will see him meet the leaders of the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany and China this week as he seeks to bolster an international coalition against ISIS and to focus it squarely on attacking the extremist group.
Obama’s embrace of Hollande represented an important endorsement from an American president who remains popular in France, despite indications the two leaders have different interpretations of the likelihood of Russia agreeing to align its military operations in Syria — which have been mainly aimed at bolstering President Bashar al-Assad — more closely with Western nations.
The talks, in which Obama and Hollande agreed to intensify airstrikes and to broaden the target list, was also a sign of how things have shifted in the U.S.-France relationship.
A dozen years ago, it was a French president — Jacques Chirac — who was calling for restraint as George W. Bush was bristling for war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the September 11 attacks. And it was a French foreign minister who warned that Washington might win the war but lose the peace if it fractured Iraq.
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Now, Hollande is the one who’s beating the drums of war, calling for a robust international coalition in the Middle East and declaring that France is in a state of emergency.
Obama, by contrast, is the one warning against a major new ground operation in Syria that he fears could degenerate into another years-long entanglement for America in the Middle East.
France is no longer a punchline in American politics, and after the attacks, even conservatives who have long viewed the French with suspicion over their opposition to the Iraq War, have been hailing France as a courageous partner in the war on terror.
Hollande, however, stressed on Tuesday that France would not insert ground troops into Syria, so it seemed clear he had accepted the U.S. president’s position on further ground incursions.
The changing dynamic between the two old allies reflects the impact of 14 long years of war that has left America weary of foreign intervention, as well as the insistence by Obama that a rush to war after terror attacks often goes awry.
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And it’s a sign of the acute political pressures for immediate retribution faced by leaders — like Hollande — of nations that come under terrorist attacks and the consequential choices on national security they face at times of maximum national stress.