An open letter to Sen. Gordon Smith:

Dear Senator:

Having just returned from an extended visit to France, I found your recent disparaging remarks about John Kerry and things French jarring and disappointing.

I always have thought of you as a statesman, someone who proudly represented his party while taking care to avoid extreme or knee-jerk positions on issues. Your work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and your cross-party collaboration with Sen. Wyden have inspired confidence in this regard.

That is why your statements about Sen. Kerry's "Frenchness," which trigger every cliched image about the French - arrogant, pompous, soft - are so dismaying. They put you in the same category as the know-nothing congressmen who boast of never having gotten a passport and President Bush, who took as a personal insult an American reporter's use of the French language with French President Chirac at a joint press conference in Paris.

Additionally, they suggest either ignorance or craven partisanship, both unworthy of a veteran student of international affairs such as yourself.

You spoke of French "appeasement" in your objections to France. I took that to mean you object to Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war. What did you expect Chirac to do? If you had a Muslim minority that could swing an election, a recent history of foreign interventions gone bad and a citizenry opposed to an elective war, can you honestly say that you would have gone out on a limb for President Bush? Chirac only reflects the sentiment of his electorate.

As for the other implications of "appeasement" - that the French are cowards - I would urge you to make a trip to Verdun next time you are in Europe. In 1916, the French army mounted a truly heroic defense of that crucial town against the German army, which had superior numbers and equipment. The eventual "victory" cost France half a million dead and many thousands more maimed - and the Great War had two bloody years to go then. Few nations have endured what French people have in the 20th century - World War I, the tragedy of Nazi occupation in World War II, their own ill-fated attempt at regime change in Vietnam. They have paid dearly for the right to oppose dubious foreign interventions, as you must know from your study of history.

And then you offered criticism of the French "social welfare state," which you term "socialism." It is true that French people have greater government involvement in their economy. Their tax rates are much higher than ours. However, as an American expatriot recently noted in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, no French senior is forced to choose between food or medical care, because citizens have many basic needs provided for.

Like most Americans, you are outspoken in your preference for lower taxes and small government. Even Kerry proclaims his belief in tax cuts. But why must you imply that the French system is bad or undesirable? Do you really believe that every nation must emulate the United States to be considered worthy?

Finally, you have alleged that John Kerry will kowtow to the French government, go to Chirac "with tin cup in hand." This is just nonsense.

It is true that France, like all of Europe, increasingly values unity and consensus in its conduct of foreign affairs. This is manifest in the creation of the European Union. By contrast, the United States has stood alone as the world's only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union in l991. What Kerry and others propose is simply that the United States acknowledge the direction that France and Europe have taken and show some consideration for their views and concerns.

If President Bush understood this, as his father certainly did prior to launching the first Iraq war, then perhaps U.S. taxpayers would not now be bearing the entire cost in blood and treasure of an apparently endless Iraq occupation.

One could argue that a cooperative approach to relations with France and the rest of the world is the only alternative given the nature of our current preoccupations. How do you propose to crush al-Qaida, since it apparently has cells in every major city worldwide?

Either we forge close relationships with governments and police in Europe, Asia and Africa, or we follow the Bush administration into an endless series of destructive, conventional wars on all three continents.

Senator, I hope that you will reconsider your flirtation with chauvinism and French-bashing and reconnect with your inner statesman. Your constituents and Senate colleagues will be much the better for it, and you will have the satisfaction of having taken the high road in this overheated political season. Considering the bipartisan nastiness to which we have already been subjected, that could be a real tour de force.


Brigit Farley, who was born and raised in Pendleton, is an associate professor of history at Washington State University. She moved back to Pendleton after years away at graduate school and a first teaching job at Baylor University.

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