November 15, 2005 [LINK]

France on the front line

There are many explanations for the sudden outburst of rioting in African- and Muslim-populated neighborhoods around Paris and throughout France. If you follow the global-scale perspective of Samuel Huntington, there is no question that the riots are yet another manifestation of the "Clash of Civilizations." As with all such social phenomena, it reflects a confluence of various latent trends, and I see no point to emphasizing one at the expense of others. Jim Hoagland made that point in last Wednesday's Washington Post: Religious grievances probably have little or nothing to do with the violence, so this is not "jihad" -- at least not yet. (French laws that restrict scarves and similar outward expressions of Muslim faith no doubt contribute to the immigrants' sense of exclusion, however.) Hoagland also points out that for years, French police have retreated from the immigrant ghettos out of expediency and fear, letting the residents police themselves. It will take years to restore law and order there, if the attempt to do so is even made. That's the price they pay for putting their heads in the sand, and the same phenomenon is transpiring right here in the United States, though on a lesser scale. As I wrote on August 9, "In France, it's probably too late to resist the Muslim invasion by means of law enforcement, and time is running short in the United Kingdom. Is that the route we want to follow?"

Why do the children of immigrant families burn their own neighborhoods? Pourquoi non? As with the angry black youth in America during the 1960s, arson and vandalism can be loads of fun for marginalized, bored kids, and it helps to get attention as well. Sometimes such acts even entice the government into providing more funds for social programs. (Such remedial measures could never hope to offset the original destruction, however, so no rational mind could contemplate this as a deliberate strategy.)

Neglect by the French government is certainly another big part of the equation, but the prevailing social attitudes rank at least as high: French people feel entitled to the good life, and this attitude rubs off on the new arrivals. President Jacques Chirac lamented yesterday that his county is suffering from malaise, probably not even realizing that Jimmy Carter's use of that word (which is French) in 1979 cemented his image as a dour pessimist and sealed his political fate. It is an apt comparison, however: The French political system is essentially paralyzed by a complacent, pampered electorate that is accustomed to getting high wages, cheap government health care, and long paid vacations, all of which is made possible by cheap labor of immigrants. Well, it was nice while it lasted...

One big difference in urban geography between France and America will probably save Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse from the fate of Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles: In France, the poor people live in the outskirts, while the rich folks live closer to the center. Not being as dependent on the automobile as the Americans, the French can at least go about their daily lives while riots continue a few miles away without too much disruption. "Out of sight, out of mind." (That's part of the problem, too, however.) Another big difference relative to the U.S.A. is that France is an indigenous, ethnically homogeneous national culture, whereas America is a nation of immigrants with a strong tradition of assimilating immigrants, and incorporating immigrant culture into the "blank slate" mainstream. (Taco Bell: Think outside the bun! ) In sharp contrast, France has long had a strong tradition of exporting its culture to the rest of the world, and now it's on the receiving end of the stick.

How the leaders and average citizens of France respond to this challenge will have a critical effect on how the global clash between the Western and Middle Eastern civilizations unfolds. For our own sake, let's hope they react wisely and bravely, not hysterically. Since they were the ones who gave us the Statue of Liberty, it would be supremely ironic if the United States ends up as the refuge for millions of native French people fleeing from a second great invasion by "Moors," almost fourteen centuries after the first such invasion was turned back at the Battle of Tours.

Years from now, who will remember how this tragedy was unleashed? Two North African boys were fleeing from police on October 27, and were electrocuted while climbing a fence at a utility substation. The fact that the police were blamed for their deaths by the immigrant community shows how deeply they distrust the government. In an unstable social setting, such minor, random acts can trigger a horrifying cascade of violent consequences, one of the most common applications of chaos theory in the social sciences. Just another friendly reminder to the complacent majority in this country who convince themselves that all is well, or nearly so: Watch out!

France and Iraq

According to Jim Dunnigan (on Strategy Page), a French staff officer visited the Pentagon in December, 2002, offering to send a reinforced division of troops to help invade Iraq, on the condition that France be given exclusive control over its zone of occupation. "What exactly were the French up to? No one is sure, but the most plausible theory was that the French wanted to be in Iraq, after Saddam fell, to make sure no embarrassing documents, or witnesses, showed up." In any event, the Department of Defense rejected the idea, and France ended up sharply opposing the subsequent U.S.-led liberation. The proposed territorial partition would have been just like after World War I, when France and Britain carved up the Arab-populated lands formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Such a neoimperialist approach, clashing directly with the United Nations mandate, would have been an ironic twist. History repeats itself.

Recruitment is up

One bit of good military news is that the Defense Department reported that it surpassed its monthly recruitment goal (4,700) in October by 225. For fiscal year 2005 (ending [September] 31), there was a shortfall of 6,700 troops, which delayed the planned increase in force level. Successful recruiting will be essential if the Army is going to carry out its planned expansion of aggregate troop strength by 40,000, adding six additional active-duty combat brigades (from 37 to 43, each with about 3,500 soldiers and officers) over the next two years. This will take the pressure off the National Guard, which currently provides a large fraction of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had initially rejected the argument that pacifying Iraq would require a significant boost in Army manpower. Rumsfeld's huge miscalculation has eroded his credibility, and some believe that his days in the Pentagon are numbered. I just hope his reform initiatives don't stall when he steps down.

What puzzles me is why the Army insists on maintaining divisions of such large size: 18,000 or more is now the norm. They could cover much more territory by thinning each division down to the historical level of 12,000 - 15,000 men. That might entail reducing brigade strength to 3,000 or less, and/or reducing certain support units.