France's two faces on NATO

JACQUES CHIRAC IS expected to step down next year as France's president, so his clownish performance at Tuesday's NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, was apparently something of a final Bronx cheer for his fellow Atlantic Alliance leaders. At a time when the alliance is crying out for sober deeds, the French are yet again uttering meaningless words.

Chirac's office was negotiating with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to drop by Riga after the summit to celebrate the French leader's 74th birthday and perhaps dine with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. It's hard to imagine how even Chirac could be so tin-eared about politics in the Baltic states, where no Russian leader has visited since the Soviet collapse in 1991. The incident created an uproar, threatening to upstage the summit's few accomplishments, even though in the end the Kremlin canceled.

More tangibly damaging was Chirac's latest effort to assert French leadership out of one side of his mouth while limiting French support out of the other. "It is essential for each member state to agree to an appropriate defense effort," Chirac wrote in the Christian Science Monitor this week. "The Europeans have relied on their American allies for too long." Quite right, yet France is hardly setting a strong example.

The primary issue that NATO leaders hoped to address Tuesday is a shortage of troops in southern Afghanistan, where unexpectedly heavy resistance from the Taliban is endangering the alliance's most important mission. Among those not pulling their weight is France. Like Germany, Italy and Spain, France has placed caveats on the use of its 1,900 soldiers, preventing them from being shifted nimbly to the areas where they're most needed. The French also have refused to deploy a NATO strategic reserve battalion to address calls for 2,500 more combat troops.

NATO's mission in Afghanistan, unlike the war in Iraq, is a multilateral effort against a foe that presents a well-known threat to the West. A failure there would not only create a terrorist haven, it would expose NATO as a feeble, divided force. There were indicators Tuesday that some members have agreed to eliminate their caveats, which might bring more troops to the south. But the reluctance in many European capitals to commit the needed forces to such a vital effort is distressing.

This is not new territory for France. In 2005, Chirac announced with great fanfare that he would help stabilize Iraq by sending one (1) training officer to Brussels. When the call came out for a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Chirac's answer was a measly 200 French engineers. Stunts like the Putin invitation may make headlines, but it's the country's reluctance to participate fully in NATO — and lack of alternative ideas — that keep France from fulfilling a truly international role.

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