De Gaulle's lessons for Iraq

The Allies decide to dump their man, the very exile they groomed to take over after the liberation. His transgressions have been breathtaking. The man is an ingrate. He is arrogant. He endangers the Allies' war effort. He flirts with betrayal, consorting with dubious regimes and conducting what the White House calls "secret and personal machinations". In the end, it is the president himself who makes the call: "We must get rid of him."

These lines might describe Washington's official view of Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, the former exile whom the US has just excluded from Iraq's new leadership. But they are about Charles de Gaulle, the French exile from Hitler's regime who went on to define postwar France. Today we see de Gaulle as an inevitable hero, Mr Good War. In his day, however, de Gaulle was a problematic partner whose wartime relationship with the US and Britain was nearly as volatile as is Mr Chalabi's with the US. It is worthwhile to set aside the event that seems to have led to Mr Chalabi's exclusion - alleged betrayal of US secrets to Iran - and to look instead at de Gaulle. The French leader's trajectory reveals much about both exiled patriots and US failings generally when it comes to managing them.

The story starts in France after the first world war with a military preoccupied with constructing its defensive barrier, the Maginot Line. De Gaulle - a lonely officer known as much for his pride as for his ideas - argued that France must think offensively instead. Like Mr Chalabi, who spent years describing his vision of a free Iraq to anyone who would listen, de Gaulle was a man obsessed. This cost him a promotion, denied by the French military command. Still, de Gaulle was persistent, so much so that he even managed to infuriate his mentor, Marshal Pétain.

This combative pattern continued when de Gaulle arrived in London after Germany's invasion of France. De Gaulle instantly declared the existence of Free France. But, as was supposedly the case with Mr Chalabi, the number of followers who then emerged was not impressive. As de Gaulle later recalled: "This almost general abstention of French personalities vis-à-vis my enterprise did not raise its credit in the eyes of the world."

It was Winston Churchill who made de Gaulle, giving him aircraft, friends and plentiful airtime on the BBC. This was like the tens of millions of dollars US Congress voted to Mr Chalabi in the 1990s. Still de Gaulle went out of his way to antagonise Churchill. Like Mr Chalabi in Iran, de Gaulle travelled to Africa to build his own alliances - an activity Churchill deemed "most dangerous" for military campaigns. De Gaulle also went to Russia's representative to ask if his Free France movement might base itself in Russia instead of London. Though Russia was an ally, this was a form of treachery. Yet de Gaulle persisted, despite garden lectures from Clementine Churchill on how it is important "to hate one's enemies more than one's friends". Churchill for his part came down on de Gaulle with all the vehemence of a Paul Bremer (the US administrator in Iraq who clashed with Mr Chalabi). There was "nothing hostile to England this man may not do when he gets off the chain," he said. He also dressed down the general directly: "You keep on saying that you are France. I do not recognise you as France!"

Yet de Gaulle's relations with Franklin D. Roosevelt were even worse. FDR allowed Mark Clark, the US army general, to strike a deal with Jean-François Darlan, the Vichy general. De Gaulle saw this battlefield step as the US legitimisation of Vichy - in the same visceral way that Mr Chalabi reacted to decisions to include Ba'ath party members in the new Iraq. De Gaulle said it was "a strategic error to flout the moral character of this war". FDR wanted de Gaulle out - and only changed his mind later.

To be sure, Mr Chalabi is not de Gaulle. For one thing, de Gaulle reconciled with his patrons before occupation, whereas Mr Chalabi's decisive falling-out came after occupation. What's more, the charges against Mr Chalabi - specifically, that he told Iran the US had cracked its secret codes - are serious. Still, those charges are not proven. Meanwhile, de Gaulle's story recalls two things.

First, that leaders in exile are not convenient personalities. Anyone determined enough to nurse a dream for decades despite a death sentence over his head is not a compromising type. Inconvenience is valuable. A proxy puppet is fine in wartime, but in postwar periods only an independent mind can lead. De Gaulle caused enormous trouble in the quarter-century following the war, dividing Nato and developing nuclear weapons. Still, he was clearly good for France. Indeed, to survive, exiled leaders must show independence to get a following at home.

The second point is that loyalty to the Allies' friends is crucial to foreign policy success. When ultimately the US and UK did allow de Gaulle to march at the liberation, Frenchmen saw that the Allies had followed through. That inspired their confidence in themselves, the Allies and de Gaulle.

What works less well is betraying your exile friends mid-battle. And the US betrays them routinely. Seeing Mr Chalabi's face behind the cracked glass, one thinks of the Cubans whom the US shipped off to the Bay of Pigs - and then failed to back up; or of the Iraqis the US let down in the mid-1990s after urging them to rebel. Such inconsistency generated nation-sized tragedies. It can today as well.

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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