By John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
WASHINGTON — French President Francois Hollande will find a reluctant partner in President Barack Obama when the two leaders meet Tuesday at the White House.
Lawmakers and experts expect Hollande will ask Obama to take new action against the Islamic State extremist group after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. But Obama has pledged to provide “whatever resources” France needs and defensively signaled he is not inclined to alter his strategy against the group.
Hollande is due to huddle with Obama on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to the Paris attacks. The French leader will not stay overnight, instead flying to Moscow for a similar meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During remarks on Nov. 16 in Turkey, Obama made clear he remains opposed to a large-scale military operation featuring tens of thousands — or more — U.S. ground forces in Iraq or Syria. Instead, he and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly predicted an “intensification” of airstrikes and other tactics already being employed.
That same day, Hollande delivered a much more hawkish address to a joint session of France’s parliament.
“That difference is striking,” said Jeffrey Lightfoot, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Based on the conversation I’ve had with them, the French are coming here with tempered expectations. They know Obama isn’t interested in changing the strategy very much. Hollande isn’t coming to rock the boat.”
For the first time in recent history, the French president is coming to Washington in a much more militaristic mood than his American counterpart. Here’s what Hollande likely will seek from Obama:
1. The enemy of my enemy. Since the Islamic State claimed it took down a Russian airliner in Egypt earlier this month, Russia has signaled a greater willingness to hit Islamic State targets in Syria. Previously, U.S. officials complained Russian airstrikes were mostly aimed at helping Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power.
“I think he’s going to ask, first off, for the United States to work more with Russia,” Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who serves on a House Armed Services subcommittee that monitors intelligence issues, told CQ Roll Call. The crux of Hollande’s expected request will be for both Obama and Putin — and their militaries — “to be more willing to cooperate.”
“I’m sure Obama and Hollande will want to talk about how operations in Syria will change the Vienna talks,” Lightfoot said, referring to ongoing multinational talks held in the Austrian city about Syria’s future.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, agreed that Russian involvement will give both leaders ample pause — and conversation fodder. “This is just as divisive an issue in France as it is in the United States,” he said. “We’re really not going for the same objectives. The Russians want to maintain their bases in Syria and keep their friend, Assad, in power.
2. Got intel, targets? The United States has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq since the summer of 2014. That means U.S. military and intelligence entities have been closely monitoring the group’s command and training centers, ammunition storehouses, oil transportation capabilities and other potential targets.
Hollande will be eager to degrade everything from the group’s leaders and rank-and-file fighters to its equipment to how it generates funding for its operations. U.S. officials provided some targets hit by French war planes during airstrikes that Hollande ordered two days after the Paris attacks. It is likely he will ask Obama to increase that kind of operational collaboration.
“I would expect greater intelligence sharing to be on the list,” House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said recently. “Sharing information, and at a greater rate, has proven successful in the past.
Lightfoot said he expects what the two leaders “will really focus on” is stepping up intelligence sharing and targeting. “I think the conversation will center around the question of, ‘How do we make the most of all the capabilities we have there?”
3. Arms for allies. Experts said it is unlikely Hollande would press Obama on sending U.S. and French ground troops into Syria and Iraq. That’s because Obama spent much of last week making clear he had no appetite for another large-scale U.S. military operation in the Middle East.
“Will Hollande urge Obama to use more troops? Maybe not,” Abrams said. “Or maybe he’ll tell Obama, ‘If we’re really serious, we need to put more boots on the ground.”
What’s more likely is the French leader will ask the U.S. to provide more weapons to local forces that have been fighting Islamic State in both countries. “Hollande very well could ask that the U.S. give more military support to the Kurds,” Abrams said. “We could give more weapons to the Iraqi Sunnis. We could give more to Syrian rebel forces.”
4. Obama’s demands. Experts agree that if Hollande is in a hawkish mood, he will find a tough audience in Obama. But no matter the French president’s mindset on Tuesday, the U.S. commander in chief likely will come armed with some demands of his own.
One will be to keep a close on eye on Putin, should Hollande determine he has to at least give greater counter-Islamic State cooperation a shot. Another could be a plea to take steps to limit civilian casualties in Syria, which the Obama administration in other theaters has warned can become recruiting tools for groups such as Islamic State.
Abrams predicts that if Obama presses Hollande to avoid striking some targets, “that won’t be received very well by the French.” Should that occur, he said the U.S. president should be prepared to “be reminded that the French have closely monitored civilian casualties caused by our drone strikes.”
Still, Lightfoot said “it seems the United States and France are moving the scale toward being more aggressive one what risk that are willing to take.” But the issue could become a sticking point for the duo, he warned, because “when the French take the gloves off, they really take them off.”
Photo: French President Francois Hollande addressing the world after the Paris attacks. REUTERS/Reuters TV/Pool