Emmanuel Macron Could Be Trump’s Tony Blair

Serhan, The Atlantic, Apr 17, 2018

alliance-skeptical president turns to old allies in Syria.
Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron
in New York on September 18, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Ahead of
Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes against Syria’s chemical-weapons
program, the U.S. president signaled a desire to leave Syria altogether. His
advisers, based on their public pronouncements advocating leaving in place the
2,000 American troops there, likely tried to convince him otherwise. But then
another, unexpected source claimed credit for changing his mind—the president
of France.
“Ten days
ago, President Trump said the U.S. should withdrawal from Syria. We convinced
him it was necessary to stay,” Macron said
in a televised interview Sunday. “We also persuaded him that we needed to limit
the strikes to chemical weapons [sites], after things got a little carried away
over tweets.”
unusual to hear a claim that U.S. war policy is being made in France. But then
again, so is Macron and Trump’s relationship. Despite being diametrically
opposed on a number of policy fronts, the two leaders have managed to forge
something of a friendship over the past year. In the immediate aftermath of the
latest alleged chemical-weapons attack in Syria, it was Macron who was on the
phone with Trump coordinating “a strong,
joint response
” to what they both considered to be an unacceptable
crime by Assad. Less than a week later, both the U.S. and France ordered
military strikes on three Syrian government targets, including a research
center and two chemical-weapons storage facilities (the U.K., whose Prime
Minister Theresa May discussed the matter with Trump a full two days after
Macron did, also participated in the strike).
The White
House maintains that the “U.S. mission [in Syria] has not changed”—it remains
fighting the last remnants of ISIS. Monday night, Macron tried to resolve the
seeming disconnect, saying that France, too, holds this position, and that
other than the strikes on Assad’s chemical-weapons program, the military
engagement “is against [ISIS] and will finish the day the war on [ISIS] has
been completed.”
back-and-forth was emblematic of the broader relationship between Macron and
Trump, who seem to stand shoulder to shoulder while only occasionally seeing
eye to eye. And it stands out among Trump’s other relationships with European leaders,
who have chided him over issues from values
to intelligence
. “The friendship between our two nations and ourselves, I
might add, is unbreakable,” Trump said in a joint press conference with Macron
during his visit to Paris last July. It was a sentiment Macron seemed to share.
“Nothing will ever separate us,” he said during the visit.
And the
two leaders’ close coordination on controversial matters of war—even in the
face of skepticism from their publics—brings to mind another storied
trans-Atlantic relationship, that of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and
U.S. President George W. Bush, who were once dubbed “the odd couple.” Like
Blair, Macron is known for his liberally minded youthful energy and his desire
to transcend a left-right divide. The former premier’s spokesman, Alastair
Campbell, noted the resemblance in January, dubbing Macron the “real heir to
Tony Blair
.” And Macron’s facilitation of Trump’s impulse to
intervene against Assad—publicly blaming the Syrian regime for chemical attacks
even as other allies hesitated to do so—also brings to mind how Blair helped
Bush marshal international support for the Iraq war. A recent British
government inquiry into the background of that war called the Blair-Bush
relationship a “determining
” in shaping it.
is not quite the second coming of the Blair-Bush bromance. The Iraq War was a
far larger undertaking, and remains that way, than anything the United States
or its allies have done in Syria. “A night of limited cruise-missile strikes in
Syria is an order of a magnitude different than committing tens of thousands of
troops to an invasion, regime-change operation, and subsequent
counter-insurgency,” Jacob Parakilas, the deputy head of the U.S. and Americas
project at Chatham House, told me, adding that there’s also the matter of how
Blair and Macron presented their relationships to the president in public. “I
don’t think Blair ever claimed to have ‘convinced’ Bush to invade Iraq. He
offered basically uncritical support throughout.”
But Blair
did help make the case for the war in Iraq to Americans and others who might
have been skeptical of the Bush administration’s plans. And it was this
role—and the subsequent chaos in post-Saddam Iraq—that made Blair, once of the
U.K.’s most popular politicians, one of its most reviled. Given the limited
nature of the most recent Syria action, it seems unlikely Macron will suffer
the same fate. But he has been criticized by the far-right (represented by
Marine Le Pen) and the far-left (represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon) in France,
both of whom oppose military action in Syria. Moreover, Trump’s approval rating
in France stands at just 14 percent—which
points to the possibility that there may ultimately a domestic political cost
to Macron of standing by Trump.
Perhaps a
year ago, a relationship like this between Trump and any European ally looked
unlikely. After all, the “America First” president had called into question his
support for NATO, which he at one point determined to be “obsolete.”
When Trump decided that the U.S. would strike Syria over its use chemical
weapons in April 2017, he did so unilaterally. Macron had not yet won the
French presidency. Even after Macron ascended to the Élysée in May 2017, his
relationship to his American counterpart started out stiffly, with divergent
policy goals
and a series of awkward
somewhere between rebuking Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris
climate accord and hosting him for a massive military parade on Bastille Day,
Macron managed to charm the American president. And now, Macron isn’t just the
world leader Trump has chosen to host for his first formal state visit as
president next week—he’s also, admittedly by his own account, someone Trump
turns to for advice in a crisis, which is not necessarily something an
alliance-skeptical president would be expected to do.  
It’s not
as if Macron has much of a choice but to make nice to Trump, even if he doesn’t
need to support any particular policy. The United States is the dominant global
power. Trump’s popularity in France (or for that matter in the U.S.)
notwithstanding, he is still president of the United States. And as such, it is
in Macron’s interests cultivate him if Macron wants to keep the ability to
convince Trump how America should act in the world.