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Parlez-vous Francais 'Problem from Hell'?

02/18/2014 12:20 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

Not a few liberal interventionists, a clique of which I consider myself a card-carrying member, are singing the praises of France. Paris has dispatched forces on the African continent four times over the past three years, ostensibly humanitarian purposes, whether to put down violence, depose despots, or restore some semblance of order. And its track record is not half bad. In early 2011, it staved off a festering political crisis in Cote d'Ivoire. Later that summer, it intervened to depose of Qaddafi. In 2012, French forces routed Islamist and Touareg rebels in Mali. And in 2013, it dispatched 1,600 forces to assist an African Union contingent of peacekeepers in the Central African Republic to prevent a full-on sectarian civil war.

If the 1990s was considered the high point of humanitarianism -- consider that we intervened in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia for reasons of principles over interests -- then the 2000s was the decade that gave interventionism a bad name. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured at least 62 percent of the American public to any kind of sustained military intervention in Syria (though, puzzlingly, 70 percent support the use of drones against suspected terrorists). The liberals who dreamed a dream that norms governing the responsibility to protect innocents from senseless slaughter by their governments (the so-called R2P doctrine) or by rebel forces would become customary international law are now scratching their heads. The hard-nosed realism of President Obama has supplanted his lofty pre-Arab Spring rhetoric of holding governments accountable and empowering individuals. The R2P doctrine died last August, when over a thousand innocent Syrians living in the suburbs of Damascus were gassed, and the world stood by and watched. The British Parliament voted to do nothing. President Obama balked. And the Assad regime made overtures of giving up its previously "nonexistent" chemical weapons program.

Only the French appeared gung-ho to go in and remove Assad, to punish him for the wanton violence unleashed on innocent civilians. Why has France, which opposed the war in Iraq, suddenly taken up the mantle of humanitarianism? This is the same country that tried to "pacify" Algeria, bloodily chronicled in The Battle of Algiers. This is the same country that stood by as the Rwandan genocide unfolded, whereby French peacekeepers sent to protect refugees unwittingly provided safe passage for Hutu genocidaires feeling into the Congo. Is it guilt motivating France's latest bout of humanitarian interventionism? Or is the French government just more humane than ours?

Actually, none of the above. First, the French have intervened several dozen times in Africa over the past several decades. And so this latest pattern is not a detour from its past behavior per se. Its meddling has raised accusations of neo-colonialism. But when 200 French troops swooned into the town of Bouar northwest of the capital of CAR, they were greeted as liberators. True, those doing the cheering tend to be Christian, not Muslims. But the French have rescued Muslims, too, in Libya and Mali. Second, the fact that France has vast economic interests where it intervenes has raised suspicions that its intentions are far from pure. As Princeton's David Bell notes, its intervention in Mali may have been motivated more by France's dependency on uranium to fuel its nuclear power plants than by its humanitarianism (to say nothing of the fact that some 240,000 French citizens still reside on the continent). Just because its past interventions were driven partly by self-interest does not diminish the fact that French troops, not American ones, are saving lives in the world's backwaters.

To be sure, like the French, the United States has not shied away from limited military interventions. But it is motivated primarily by counter-terrorism principles, not humanitarian ones, which require more boots on the ground, UN cooperation, and so forth. The prism through which Washington eyes the world is still one shaped by 9/11 and talk of "protecting the homeland." In this world, self-defense trumps "saving innocents." There is a creeping isolationism and reluctance to get back into the business of nation-building, or to get sucked into another Iraq-style morass, two impulses that largely explain our flaccid support of the Syrian opposition. Sure, we still train indigenous forces in West Africa to fight extremists, deploy drones over Somalia and commandos to band down doors in Libya. Yes, we occasionally kill pirates off the Horn of Africa, and assist countries like Uganda to hunt for wanted warlords like Joseph Kony. But much of what we do is either unclassified or technically illegal. Virtually none of it is driven by humanitarian impulses. About the only person on President Obama's staff who has spoken out in favor of intervening in the world's myriad crises (e.g. CAR) is his ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on how to prevent genocide (Indeed, A Problem From Hell is the must-read bible for liberal interventionists).

We have passed the buck to France to do the thankless task of intervening to save lives. If ever there was a coda to mark the end of American exceptionalism and unipolarity, this is it.

Vive la France!