TCS Daily

The Frog of War

By Russell Seitz - May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Nations begin when diplomats write new words on old maps. Talleyrand would not be, profondement choque', to find Babylon's borders in flux and armies marching on Saladin's doorstep, for he observed that treaties, like maps, are made of words, and words are not permanent things. He certainly had a point - and it applies to the Prince of Diplomats' own nation. France is just a locution arising from an eighth century failure of diplomacy of the sort the French now so loudly deplore.

The problem was Charlemagne's illiterate and bellicose grandfather, Charles the Hammer. He may have lacked the social graces of Attila the Hun, but where would we be today if Charles Martel had made 732 memorable as the year of the first Paris Peace Talks, rather than the Battle of Tours?

Imagine this posting from a Merovingian web page:

Agence Frank-Presse DCCXXXII - The Saracens are here to stay. The ultimatum demanding their withdrawal issued by King Dagobert's national security advisor has been vetoed by Gaulish leader Jax Chiractacus.

"Contrary to what Martel says, they're in full compliance with resolution MCDXLI," Chief Weapons Inspector Getablix told the United Normans General Assembly yesterday. "We found no evidence of Greek fire, plague infested dead horses, or other weapons of mass destruction in the Saracen camp. Even if Emir Abdullah had them, he has no trebuchet capable of launching such missiles. As a Druid, I frankly worry more about Greek fire causing global warming, or the North Frisians obtaining weapons grade iron."

Chiractacus, interviewed in the triclinium of his villa near Lutece, dismissed last night's address by Martel to the UN's assembled generals:

"What's all this about an 'axis of infidels' - has he been using those perfidious Angles as speechwriters again? A bunch of Saracens chasing deer through the Aquitane is hardly a casus belli - all this talk of an invasion is an affront to the Peace of God.

"Who cares if there are 80,000 of them - they co-exist with Constantinople, and I think they're real gentlemen. They rape, pillage, loot and burn less than the guests at a Norman funeral, and they eat less too - they don't touch the wine or the roast boar.

"I've begun to see why since I swapped my old cook, Dysenterix, for a Saracen chef. Amazing man - makes anything that moves delicious, from frogs to snails, and brews a hot black potion fit to rattle God's teeth. You'd better step into the vomitorium and make room for some. We've six more courses coming before it."

Another luncheon guest, Substerno Singetorix, Dean of the Salic Law School, and former Ambassador to the Huns, also scoffed at Martel's policy initiative:

"An ultimatum? Of all the indomitable gall! What does that hammerhead think this is, the dark ages? These Saracens are just the blowback from the Vandals invading Africa and covering Carthage in political graffiti - what goes around comes around.

"We've entered a post-Roman era of multi-polar alliances and culinary relativism. King Dagobert had better watch out before his delusions of chivalry send Austrasia the way of failed states like Camelot. Instead of fantasizing about missile shields making the longbow impotent and obsolete, we need to exercise our powers of diplomacy by breaking bread with the Saracens, as I often have at the Organization of Pepper Exporting Caliphates. Very good bread it is too, white crusty stuff, none of that moldy pumpernickel Martel gnaws on when he isn't chewing on his shield rim.

"Some tonsure-tank scribes expect the universal acceptance of feudal values to lead to the end of history, and imagine Martel prevailing with Briton and breton aid. Not me - I'm a Realist. If things escalate, there's no way an Anglo-Armorican alliance could beat the Caliph of Baghdad.

"It would take a Holy Roman Emperor to pull it off, and I don't expect to see one anytime before the Millennium. From now until M gives Byzantine diplomacy CCLXVII years to strive towards a kinder, gentler, oriental despotism.

"With Goths at the gates, and terrorists like Grendel crashing into mead halls, this is no time for a clash of civilizations, let alone a high crusade."

Islamic history does not need revision to impress, with its expansion into a contiguous 7000 mile sprawl from Mauritania to the Straits of Malacca, and its implosion of Europe's eastern frontier to within 700 miles of where Martel stemmed the Saracens. Yet the Battle of Tours' greatest impact was felt in the New World.

A millennium after it was fought, the cowboy diplomacy of Beaumarchais and Lafayette helped establish both the American nation and its oldest alliance. One now in jeopardy for a novel reason - France is loosing its own war of independence with the UN.

Demoted from empire, and alienated from NATO in the days of de Gaulle, France fought on in the General Assembly to retain the vestiges of great power status, but at the cost of its pivotal role in diplomacy. It now rotates in limbo, an axis of banality revolving around itself as its identity slowly devolves into lower-case european.

This can only sadden Americans, for the French taught our young Republic more than cynicism. We purchased half our nation from them, and went on to share adventures and objectives alike - ours was not the only nation that bombarded British warships, and stormed the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli. We've both been besieged in Beijing, and chin deep in Indochina.

But what threatens to undo this long and tempestuous affair is a betrayal of benefaction that could plunge Franco-American relations into a chill as deep as Dante's Ninth Circle: Like some Neo-Bourbon amnesiac Chirac can't seem to recall who twice went Over There to spare two proceeding French Republics being gerrymandered by the Germans.

He is in the process of discovering that America has a long memory as well as a short attention span. As France's age of empire faded, it lithely deployed a brilliant international legal fiction. It responded to demands for decolonization by absorbing some of its possessions and making client states of others. Neocolonialism? Nonsense - Guyane and Tahiti are just unfashionable arrondisements of Paris.

With troops present in many of the former colonies and a beholden francophone clientele in the UN General Assembly, France uses the permanent seat we gave it on the Security Council to assert that the UN has a monopoly on legitimacy in foreign affairs. And what of its oldest ally's concerns?

Cynicism is not a Gallic monopoly. Would the language of diplomacy still read from left to right if Martel had foresworn the sword and waved Abd Er-Rahman's Saracens on to perfidious Albion? Paris may hector Secretary Powell about America's imagined dreams of empire, but from Corsica to New Caledonia, the sun never sets on the French Foreign Legion.

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