November 28, 2017
Former Foundation President talks defense
After a full career in the U.S. Army, retiring as a Brigadier General, Anthony A. Smith served as President of the French-American Foundation from 2001-2005.
He has also served as Chairman of the Board of the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation, Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and Vice President for the Otis Elevator Company, a division of the United Technologies Corporation. During his military career, he spent ten years in Europe in several positions, including Executive to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, in Belgium, and principal military officer responsible for European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Smith is an Officer of the French National Order of Merit and Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. A West Point graduate, he also earned graduate degrees with honors at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris and a Ph.D. in International Relations at American University.
Tony, we are delighted to have you share your insights on a number of subjects with us. You have an enduring involvement in the French-American Foundation’s initiatives, starting as a participant in the Young Leaders program in the early 1980s. You served as Foundation President from 2001-2005, served as a senior adviser for the French-American Defense Symposium on African Stability and Security in 2010, as well as a number of past Defense Symposia, and continue to serve on the Board of Directors of the Foundation today.
As a retired Brigadier General with the United States Army and having worked closely with European forces and NATO operations, we’d be pleased to hear your views on some of the key security and defense issues in a transatlantic context.
Let’s begin with some of the military issues facing France and the United States currently and in the recent past.
French forces reacted swiftly to a dramatically deteriorating security situation in Mali in January as jihadists linked to al-Qaeda threatened to take over the country. What are your thoughts on the French intervention and its efficacy?
I have been very impressed, and totally unsurprised, by the French armed forces in their operations in Mali to date. President Hollande acted decisively in the decision to inject French forces. Once the decision was made to intervene, the French Army wasted no time in mounting a very successful operation first to halt the rebels’ advance and then to roll it back. Without this decisive and effective unilateral intervention on the part of the French military, I believe it is quite likely that Bamako would have fallen to the jihadists in a matter of a few days.
Why do you say you were “totally unsurprised” by the French intervention?
Good question, let me elaborate. First, on the political level, it has always been clear that, regardless of the political party in power in France, France believes it bears a special responsibility for the security of its former colonies. For that reason, I was confident that the French armed forces would intervene once the threat of the impending fall of Bamako became a reality. On a military level, the French Army has demonstrated once again its professionalism and competence. France’s professional army is well-trained and well-led. In my experience, they have always acquitted themselves militarily with great distinction.
Does your praise of the French military extend to their operations alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan?
Absolutely! All the reports I have heard from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan – and I have heard many – stress the professional competence of the French Army. I was able during my couple of decades of military service to work occasionally with the French military and to observe their operations. Since that time, I have stayed informed through U.S. officers of French operations in the Gulf War and then in Afghanistan. Every American commander I know who has worked with the French found the experience to be very positive. We are lucky to have them as allies.
So you see the French deployment to Mali to be totally successful?
So far. However, as the United States has learned, and seems to be doomed to relearn every few decades, the easier part of these operations against a non-conventional enemy is getting in. Extricating one’s forces while leaving behind a successful result is another question. Militarily, it will be a hard slog for the French military as they take on an elusive enemy in the deserted, mountainous terrain of northern Mali. Politically, I have no doubt that the French public will tire of hearing of French casualties in a long drawn-out campaign, just as the U.S. public has grown weary of the loss of American lives in Afghanistan. The hope in Mali is that the African forces that are now fighting alongside the French forces will be able to operate independently and that the Malian army can be re-trained to be an effective force against the insurgency. In my view, the jury is out on both questions.
What about the United States in all this? Not only have French forces led the international intervention in Mali, but they also took the lead alongside British forces in the military intervention in Libya. The United States has been content to serve in a support role for each of these military efforts. Has global military power shifted away from the United States? Does French leadership in these international efforts signify a new era?
“New era” may overstate the shift, but it is clear that the United States has found itself in an unaccustomed supporting role in each of these interventions. The political reasons for this are rather obvious. As we wind down our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public, and hence its president, has little stomach for putting boots on the ground in yet additional operations in Africa and the Middle East. To my thinking, however, this is a desirable trend. For as long as I can remember in the NATO world, the United States has preached about the need for a more balanced sharing of the defense burden among the Atlantic allies. I see no reason not to welcome the recent French and British initiatives, first in Libya, and then in Mali.
Is cooperation between the French, European, and U.S. militaries stronger or weaker today than in the past? Why?
In point of fact, military-to-military cooperation between France and the United States has always been strong. Even in the most intense periods of the occasional political disagreements between our two nations, the military of both countries have continued their quiet cooperation. During the time that France had withdrawn from formal military activity within NATO, the U.S. general who was the NATO Supreme Allied Commander met regularly with the French Chef de l’Etat-Major des Armées where the most sensitive topics were discussed. I was privileged to sit in on some of those meetings, and I can assure you that these top commanders did not let political differences hinder their cooperation.
You were a key contributor in coordinating the 2010 Defense Symposium on Security and Stability in Africa. Much of the conflict that was once associated with the Middle East has shifted westward, as questions of terrorism, Islamism, al Qaeda, and regional instability seem to face a number of African nations. Since the 2010 Symposium, the Arab Spring shook the power dynamic in North Africa, and many security issues have resulted from these events. Were these events and the current concerns in this region foreseeable? Could NATO, U.N., European, and U.S. governments and military forces have prevented the wave of instability now being faced in nations such as Mali?
I have to congratulate the French-American Foundation for its prescient selection of topics for the Defense Symposia over the years. The 2010 Symposium that focused on Africa did indeed foresee the threat of instability resulting from the migration of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) southward to countries where the authority of the state is weak; in fact, northern Mali is cited in the symposium’s quite remarkable final report as a safe haven. The threat was well known by 2010 and before. The United States organized a separate Africa Command (AFRICOM) to deal with the threat, and France published a White Paper in 2008 that was intended to shift the focus of French defense efforts to an “arc of instability” that embraced these regions. Vigorous efforts were made by both nations to buttress the capabilities of the political regimes and local forces in the region. The problem is that, first, unfortunately, the enemy gets a vote in how events turn out, and, second, that building reliable, stable nations in these regions is a daunting task under the best of circumstances.
Anything else you’d like to say about Mali, the region, or French operations?
Only that the to-date very successful deployments to Mali have underscored several weaknesses in the array of French military capabilities. The United States was able to supply military air transport for the French Army, aerial refueling for French warplanes, and intelligence from drones deployed to overfly the area of operations. Without the U.S. support, French operations in Mali would have been severely hampered. These are capabilities that the French would do well to develop in their own right.
It would be great if you could tell us a bit about your experience with the French-American Foundation and your relationship with France in general.
You were among the first classes of participants in the French-American Foundation’s Young Leaders program. What was your most noteworthy or valuable experience as a Young Leader? Do you remain in contact with fellow participants? How did the program affect your life – professionally or personally?
I am unabashedly enthusiastic about the Young Leaders program. I was privileged when I was selected to join a group of terrific French Young Leaders. In my promotion were such potential notables as Alain Juppé (later Foreign Minister and Prime Minister), Michel Bon (later CEO of Carrefour and France Télécom), Alain Richard (later Minister of Defense) and many others. I did stay in touch with many of them for many years. To be sure, I benefitted professionally. Obviously, it was great to be able to call upon my Young Leader camarades de promo for help and to participate in programs when I was FAF president. Perhaps the coolest accomplishment was when Alain Richard and I sat down one-on-one in his spacious and beautifully appointed office on the Boulevard St-Germain when he was Minister of Defense. He and I hatched a plan that resulted in a company of West Point cadets leading the Bastille Day parade down the Champs-Elysées and the graduating class from St-Cyr marching in the Graduation Parade at West Point in 2002 – the bicentennial year for both these famous institutions. I wish I had stayed in closer contact with the Young Leaders I have known over the years, and I urge the current classes to do so. It’s easier now with the Internet communications available than it was in the Dark Ages when I was in the program.
As a former President of the Foundation, what do you see as the key role of the French-American Foundation?
The French-American Foundation can play a vital role in illuminating the key issues that face both nations, in trading ideas and best practices as to how to deal with these issues, and in bringing together leaders, both current and potential, in forums that promote mutual understanding between the two countries. The Foundation can dispel the myths that discourage close relations between France and the United States and reinforce the ties that bind our two nations.
Why France? What inspired your personal interest in France?
As with most things in life, historical accident. I first went to France as a teenager kicking and screaming when my Dad was part of the first group of officers who went over with Eisenhower to start NATO. I told my father, with all the wisdom that teenagers unfailingly possess, that he could make me go but I would not like the country, the people, or the language. Naturally, I was wrong on all counts and fell in love with France. The love affair has never abated. In my next re-incarnation, I want to go back to Paris as an American teenager in the 1950s.
Why is it important for the United States and France to maintain close relations?
France occupies a special place in its relations with the United States. It is, on the one hand, a proud, independent nation that makes its own judgments about the policies it should follow. Not all of our allies stake out their independence so fiercely. On the other hand, it is a nation firmly in the Western tradition that shares most values with the United States. In addition, the two nations have a rich history together, matched by few other countries. France’s support was invaluable as the United States was built; America’s assistance was essential to France’s survival in the great wars of the first half of the 20th century. The divergent, yet in many ways similar, nature of our respective societies and our special historical ties offer avenues of cooperation between France and the United States that are unique. Americans should value the perspectives of the nation that is our oldest ally but at the same time provides an independent point of view regarding the issues that both nations must face in their domestic affairs and their foreign relations. We have an immense amount to learn from each other, and the French-American Foundation has an important role to play in facilitating this learning.