Twenty years have passed since Charles de Gaulle faded from the scene—for old soldiers, as is well-known, never die. No one can therefore say just how he would have responded to the present crisis in the Persian Gulf But if there is one thing, in this highly mobile situation, that can be said with a certain degree of accuracy, it is that the general’s present-day successor, François Mitterrand, initially assumed an essentially Gaullist attitude, more marked by verbal panache than military muscle.

On August 2, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, as on the fateful August 13, 1961, when the East Germans began erecting the Berlin Wall, most French cabinet ministers were away from Paris on summer vacations. Prime Minister Michel Rocard was off yachting in the Adriatic, while Jean-Pierre Chevénement, the minister of defense, was enjoying a tour of Tuscany. Not until August 9, a full week after the military occupation of Kuwait, did President Mitterrand, more determined than ever to direct his country’s foreign and military policies, see fit to convene a small cabinet meeting at the Elyse’e Palace to discuss what should be done.

Two practical measures were finally decided on, in a belated effort to offset an impression of French irresolution—what the French aptly call a flottement (floating wobbliness). The first was the dispatch to a number of North African and Middle Eastern capitals of 14 French politicians, including several from non-Socialist opposition parties, whose mission it was to explain the Paris government’s “point of view”—a typical public relations gimmick in this age of media “spectaculars” intended to persuade the world and, not least of all, domestic opinion at home, that France had and was determined to pursue a definite policy of its own and that it was not going to fall obediently into step with President Bush’s “hard line.” Underlying this neo-Gaullist attitude was the old familiar fear, which has so bedevilled Franco-American and even British-American relations, that the Americans were about to “go off half-cocked” (the words once used by General Sir Rohan Delacombe, the British commandant in West Berlin, to describe American behavior when General Lucius Clay had U.S. Army tanks move up to “Checkpoint Charlie” in mid-October of 1961).

The second practical measure, decided upon after a good deal of handwringing on the part of the notoriously pro-Arabic Jean-Pierre Chevénement, was an order for the aircraft carrier Clemenceau to leave the naval base at Toulon and to head for the Middle East. Few orders in modern naval history have been more nonchalantly carried out. It took all of ten days to prepare and to load the Clemenceau with its cargo of 40 rocket-armed helicopter gunships designed for antitank warfare, and ten more days were willfully lost at Djibouti, on the Somali coast, supposedly to permit pilots, crew, and 120 infantrymen to accustom themselves to the sultry heat of the Middle East. Most curious of all, in view of the French government’s claim to be pursuing an independent policy, was the decision to send the Clemenceau to the Gulf of Oman without any of the carrier’s usual complement of fighter planes—which meant that if the crisis had escalated into’a shooting war, its captain and crew would have been in the humiliating position of having to rely on an American aerial “umbrella.”

It would have made more military and diplomatic sense, as François Fillon, the leading military expert of Jacques Chirac’s RPR (Rassemblement pour la Republique) pointed out in early September, to have promptly dispatched France’s other aircraft carrier, Foch, to the Eastern Mediterranean with its complement of Super-Etendard fighter-bombers (capable of hitting Iraq), and to have had several squadrons of Mirage 2000 or F-1 fighter-bombers flown directly to Abou Dhabi. For the predictable results of this military procrastination was to expose France to grumblings in the U.S. Congress about French “tokenism” and to encourage Saddam Hussein in the belief that François Mitterrand’s bark was more impressive than his bite. Indeed, if Defense Minister Chevénement had actually wanted to sabotage his government’s “tough” stance, he could hardly have done better than he did by warning his compatriots that a war in the Persian Gulf would cost one hundred thousand lives.

The case of Jean-Pierre Chevénement is particularly interesting because it points up the French Socialist Party’s acute ideological dilemma in reacting to the Gulf crisis. An emphatically nationalistic and anti-NATO socialist who for years headed a radically left-wing “think tank” (a group calling itself the CERES), Chevénement has never felt much sympathy for reactionary sheiks and emirs—precisely those whom the left-wing weekly Nouvel Observateur castigated’ in a trenchant cover story (“These Princes Who Finance Islamic Fundamentalism”) just six days before the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Indeed, up until the moment of the invasion, Chevénement felt a certain admiration for Saddam Hussein, the kind of “progressive” Arab leader it was possible to live with. For socialist “purists” like Chevénement nothing could be more ideologically galling than having to turn against a once friendly and relatively “progressive” country (where women, for example, are no longer veiled) in order to protect others, and above all Saudi Arabia, which they regard as feudal anachronisms artificially preserved by Western capitalists.

One of the great ironies of the present situation is that it was precisely such capitalists who, by favoring Iraq, helped to develop the military muscles of this Middle Eastern Frankenstein. France’s close ties with Iraq go back a long way—at least as far back as the mid-1950’s, when the irascible Iranian premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, was sending shock waves through the Middle East by nationalizing his country’s petroleum industry. With the American Arabian Oil Company’s virtual monopoly on the Arabian peninsula, and while the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was the big boy in Iran, the directors of the relatively small but ambitious Compagnie Française des Pétrolels decided to place their bets on the oil fields of Mossul and Basra. Thus was born a commercial association that grew steadily bigger until, almost imperceptibly, it was transformed into an informal military alliance in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

One of the persons who helped to strengthen this Paris-Baghdad axis was the man whom President Georges Pompidou picked to head the Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionnage, the French equivalent of our CIA, in the autumn of 1970. A burly ex-cavalryman weighing more than two hundred pounds—whence his nickname of “Porthos”—Count Alexandre de Marenches was and remains one of those freewheeling and unorthodox aristocrats who, over the centuries, have added so much dash and color to the history of France. Not long after the German occupation of Vichy, France, in December 1942, he had crossed the Pyrenees in order to reach North Africa, and had later served in Italy and France under General Alphonse Juin, whose aide-decamp he became at the young age of 23. His fluent knowledge of German and English (his mother was American), his earthy shrewdness and common sense, his phenomenal memory and mordant wit and talent for pithy formulations, and his rugged independence and stubborn refusal to compromise on fundamental issues all combined with a whimsical sangfroid and the courteous urbanity of a grand seigneur to win him the respect of many influential Allied officers, beginning with Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.

During his close to eleven-year tenure—the CIA during the same 1970-1981 period had no less than six different bosses—Alexandre de Marenches transformed an over-politicized and faction-ridden secret service into one of the most efficient intelligence agencies in the world. (One of his major coups was a warning, sent to the Vatican three months prior to the event, that an attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II was being planned by East European agents.) During this period he established exceptionally cordial relations not only with British, West German, and other European intelligence chiefs, but also with the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

It would be grossly unfair to suggest that Marenches, in his talks with Sadoun Shaker, who then headed Iraq’s secret services before becoming the country’s minister of the interior, and with Saddam Hussein himself, helped to stimulate the megalomania that has since overtaken the “strong man” of Iraq. But it is nevertheless true that in his efforts to persuade the Iraqi leaders to be less dependent on Moscow and to become respectable members of the international community by abandoning their support of terrorist groups in the West, Marenches used an argument that may well have made their heads swell with pride. “Today,” he told Sadoun Shaker,

your country is the only one in the Arab-Moslem world, and even beyond it, which has both water and petroleum. Fate—or, if you prefer. Excellency, Allah—has seen to it that countries that have water have no oil, and vice versa. It’s a curious thing, but that’s how it is. You are the exception. Thanks to the very large rivers that flow down from the Caucasus—the Taurus, the Tigris, and the Euphrates—you have water in abundance and you have, so everyone assures me, fabulous petroleum and mineral resources. Some go as far as to say that you are a second Saudi Arabia. And yet, while this is so, what are you doing? . . . What are you doing, between this prestigious past of yours [a reference to ancient Babylon and the glorious Baghdad of Harun-al-Rashid] and a future which might yet be? You are practising basic terrorism.

These words were uttered and doubtless repeated more than fifteen years ago. They were later recorded in conversations with the French TV journalist Christine Ockrent that were published in 1986. In the same book, an overnight best-seller in France but still unpublished in the United States, Marenches pointed out that Saddam Hussein’s crazy assault on the oil-rich Iranian province of Khouzistan in 1980 was due to faulty intelligence and to the erroneous belief that when the Iraqis invaded, the local inhabitants of “Arabistan” would rise up as one man to welcome their “liberators.” This did not happen. Instead, the Iranians reacted violently and the result was a war that dragged on for eight years and cost one million lives. This “frightful misunderstanding,” as Marenches put it, was essentially due to the fact that the head of the Iraqi secret intelligence services was no longer Sadoun Shaker (“an exceptional . . . young man, attractive, intelligent, and friendly”) but Saddam Hussein’s halfbrother, Barzan Ibrahim el Takriti, who lacked the subtle flair and requisite abilities for this kind of often thankless work. Thankless because, among other things, intelligence gathering and analysis call for sober truthfulness and a total avoidance of flattery, that bane of “authoritarian regimes. If the big boss makes a mistake, the consequences are incalculable.”

Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade and to annex Kuwait—that Monte Carlo of the Persian Gulf—was clearly the second mistake of its kind, again due to faulty intelligence, not only as regards the reaction of the Kuwaitis but even more as regards the probable reactions of the United States. It is indeed sobering to be reminded that, in this age of spy satellites that are able to pick out a tennis ball from an altitude of miles above Earth, momentous moves can depend on motivations that cannot be photographed or even anticipated with any degree of certainty.

The present crisis has also brought home another bitter truth: that Europe (again in Marenches’ words), though “physically a giant, is a political dwarf whose castrato voice is barely heard.” When the crunch came, no European country was able to respond rapidly to a vital challenge to its interests with any truly effective show of force. No matter what happens during the coming months and years, this is a glaring weakness that will have to be remedied.

Although few Gaullists today would be willing to admit it, this is the price that France must now pay for the general’s force de frappe. The cost of developing nuclear weapons, along with the silos and submarines for launching them, proved too expensive for France also to maintain a large number of highly mobile ground forces for rapid deployment overseas.

In December 1959, when the question of a French atomic bomb first came up for discussion at a cabinet meeting in the Elysée Palace, one of France’s canniest politicians, Antoine Pinay, who was then minister of finance, argued against the construction of a French nuclear bomb on the grounds that even if France could do it, all that would prove was that the French had produced a bomb “that is twenty years behind those produced in the United States.” Within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance a French nuclear arms effort would be wastefully redundant, Pinay held, and would entail the sacrifice of France’s conventional military forces.

For reasons of international prestige De Gaulle chose to disregard his finance minister and to press ahead with a totally independent force de frappe. Perhaps this was inevitable, given France’s, and not least of all De Gaulle’s, wartime humiliations. But events are now claiming their implacable tribute. And it is indeed a cruel irony that, having spent so much money on developing an atomic strike force that has never been and probably never will be used, France, in trying to defend its interests in the Middle East, now finds itself more than ever in the position of a “satellite” and poor relation, dependent militarily on the Big Brother from across the sea.