January 24, 2008 -- IF all goes well, a small French military base some 3,000 miles from Paris will soon make history.
It will be in the Mussandam Peninsula in the United Arab Emirates - the first base France has opened outside its territory since the late 1960s and the first permanent French military presence near the strategic Strait of Hormuz in more than 200 years.
The last time the French had such a presence in the Persian Gulf was in the 1800s, when Gen. Gaspard-Amédée Gardanne headed a military mission to the court of Iran.
At a time when some Americans regard maintaining any such bases as a grievous sin, the prospect of a mid-ranking Western European power opening one may seem bizarre.
Remarkably, however, President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement provoked little debate and almost no negative French reaction. Even the caviar-and-champagne left (which misses no opportunity to denounce the United Sates for having bases anywhere) has greeted the news with cynical silence.
The base is unlikely to alter the military balance of power in the region. French sources tell me it will house 400 to 600 military personnel, who'll train local soldiers to operate the French hardware that the UAE has purchased, maintain and repair that equipment - while also serving as an observation post against "hostile powers" that might threaten France's regional allies, including the UAE itself.
In a sense, the decision is an attempt to legalize a de facto reality. Since the first Gulf War in 1991-92, France has maintained hundreds of military personnel in the region, bivouacked either in US bases or in military installations maintained by France's local partners. The French navy has regularly visited the Persian Gulf since the 1960s; French arms sales to the region date back to the 1950s.
The real importance of Sarkozy's decision is political: It provides the latest sign of Sarkozy's determination to reshape French foreign policy by sending a message - that the Persian Gulf is of vital national interest and that France is determined to defend it.
The Sarkozy policy that has taken shape these last eight months seems to assume that France can no longer hide behind anti-American gesticulations.
For the last half-century, successive French governments (with rare exceptions) have tried to portray France as a major player on the international scene by thumbing their noses at Washington.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle asked America to close its bases in France (which the US promptly did), then withdrew France from the military part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These moves had little effect on the European balance of power or the basic issues of the Cold War - but they helped the French feel good about themselves.
His two immediate successors continued his policy by pursuing an illusory triangle in which Paris stood halfway between Washington and Moscow. President Francois Mitterrand, a socialist, toned down anti-Americanism, supporting President Ronald Reagan's decision to counter the Soviet missile buildup in Europe and then joining President George H.W. Bush in flushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. After 1995, Mitterrand's successor, the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, revived the anti-American gesticulations in their crudest form. But now Sarkozy is trying to develop a policy that reflects today's realities and tomorrow's dangers.
His major predecessors started with the assumption that, when it came to international issues, America was either the problem or the solution. Sarkozy starts with a different assumption: that America isn't involved, either as a problem or as a solution.
Imagine there's no America: Would radical Islamism still threaten the European nations? Would the European Union still depend on oil and gas from the Middle East? Would the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran be good or bad for France and the European Union? Wouldn't Europe be safer if Afghanistan and Iraq turned into friendly democracies rather than terrorist safe havens?
Sarkozy then asks: Regardless of whatever anyone else might say or do, what can France and the EU do to protect and further their interests?
Only after he has established an analytical framework does Sarkozy proceed to his third question: How could we harmonize policy with the United States, which, as a major democracy and a global leader, is our strategic ally?
The Sarkozy method may show areas of difference between the European Union and the United States - but mostly it will show that the Western democracies' broadest interests coincide.
Sarkozy refuses to define French policy in systematic opposition to the United States. Neither does he want to keep French policy in suspension until America - whose domestic political system makes foreign-policy decision-making difficult and unpredictable - comes out with a position.
It's too early to tell if his method will work. Sarkozy railroaded the new European Union treaty into agreement without waiting for Washington to come out with a clear position. He took the initiative on Darfur, again without waiting for the Americans to sort out their ambiguities on the issue.
* While Washington frets over how far to accommodate the Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy, Sarkozy has unrolled the red carpet for him in Paris and swallowed the flak.
* While congressional Democrats calculate the number of votes and/or campaign contributions they might gain or lose by offering nuclear technology to Middle Eastern allies, Sarkozy has signed nuclear agreements with half a dozen of them. He has assured them that they won't fall behind Iran in any race for acquiring civilian nuclear technology.
* On Iran, Sarkozy has come out with a range of punitive measures against the Islamic Republic that go beyond United Nations' Security Council sanctions.
Sarkozy is no Chirac - but he is no Mitterrand, either. He seems determined to avoid their mistakes. But he's sure to make some of his own.