Maria’s post on the Adam Smith Institute blog1 reminded me of an old joke from the ASI’s halcyon days of the 1980s when Sir Keith Joseph was at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s government pushing a serious Hayekian agenda. In those days, the role of the ASI was described as “taking ideas from the edge of lunacy to the edge of policy”. I only thought of this joke after reading Thomas Friedman’s latest effort in the New York Times (I actually read it by mistake; I thought that Krugman had shaved off the bottom half of his beard and if you look at the two photos side by side it’s an understandable error).
Time was when a man who seriously talked about the likelihood of imminent uprising by the French Muslim population and called articles things like “War With France” could safely be laughed at, or at least confined to the WSJ’s increasing eccentric online editorial supplement. Time no longer, apparently. Oh dear. Friedman is possibly wrong, by the way, in claiming that “France, with its large Muslim minority”, would necessarily see its “social fabric” hugely affected by Islamic militancy; as a French acquaintance pointed out to me recently, the Islamic population of France is heavily concentrated in metropolitan Paris and Lyon, and France is actually a country of small towns. But mistaking Paris for France is a common enough error (particularly by Parisians) so I’ll let that pass.
No, what really struck me as stand-out stupid in the Friedman piece was the moral indignation against France’s unwillingness to stick its hand in its pocket (still less, to put French soldiers at risk of death) to finance the consequences of a war it never wanted. For crying out loud. It is a fundamental and fairly sound principle of public finance that one should not write cheques from the public purse without maintaining some control over how the money is spent. If someone thinks that things are different in the case of Iraq, and I can see how a case could easily be made, the onus is on Friedman to make it. And it is usually rhetorically effective to tone down one’s high-handed moral condemnation of someone while one is asking them for money.
Friedman is right on one thing, however. The French proposal for some half-baked Chalabi/UN arrangement to govern Iraq is pretty laughable as a policy proposal. What he doesn’t seem to realise, though, is that it isn’t a policy proposal. It’s a diplomatic fig-leaf put up in order to allow the Americans to save some face from a situation which is, at its base, a blunt refusal. The French don’t want any situation to arise in which they end up committing money or troops to the Iraqi occupation.
“Why don’t the French want to help the Iraqis?”
The question is ill-posed. You might as well ask “why don’t the French want to support the International Perpetual Energy Machine?”. There is no proposal being offered by anyone for the French to help the Iraqis.
What do I mean? Look at it this way. As a decent first approximation, every troop committed by France allows an American soldier to be brought home. One can argue about the need for new troops, but there are no actual proposals to increase troop numbers in Iraq, so this approximation holds for the time being. Also as a decent first approximation, it is fair to assume that every dollar of financial assistance committed by France would allow the US budget request for money to finance Iraq to be reduced by a dollar. So, one would account for the net effect of France committing $2bn and 2,000 troops would be as follows:
France: debit cash $2bn (Iraq), debit troops 2,000 (Iraq)
Iraq: credit cash $2bn (France), credit troops 2,000 (France)
Iraq: debit cash $2bn (USA), debit troops 2,000 (USA)
USA: credit cash $2bn (Iraq), credit troops 2,000 (Iraq)
You do not have to be an ace designer of tax schemes, or even a qualified accountant, to see that the Iraq transactions cancel in this case; Iraq is being used as an “off-balance sheet vehicle” for a transfer of blood and treasure to the USA. This is the problem. It looks very much to the naïve outsider as if France, the EU, and the rest are not being asked to provide help to Iraq; they are being asked to provide aid to the USA, to reduce the political cost of a decision they advised against, to an administration that does nothing but insult them.
The French, that ultimate nation of realists, are unlikely to be under any illusions on the subject of whether they have any real prospect of material involvement in the post-war environment. All that’s going on, is that they object to picking up the tab.
1Who, remaining on the topic, appear to have removed a reference to France in their post on EU agricultural subsidies but declined to publish the comment I made on their “moderated” board explaining why it was ignorant, thanks guys.
Update: Yer man from the ASI has just got in touch and reasonably fairly pointed out that the comment would have looked pretty weird once they’d changed the offending passage. He also informs me that I am the only person to have had a comment blackballed by the ASI blog so far! How badass is that?