This summer I visited my brother-in-law Chuck at his home on the Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia. Each time he drove his boat past the mouth of the York River -- where the French navy vitally blockaded British forces during America's Revolutionary War -- he'd throw up his arms and yell: "Vive La France!"
I was reminded of Chuck when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave a shout-out to the French in his speech on Syria last week. He called France "our oldest ally," praise not heard since at least 2003, when the French tried to prevent the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The way in which Europe's big countries have switched roles since Iraq in their support for a potential U.S.-led intervention against Syria is striking. So are the reasons, which are different for each country.
The U.K., a stalwart in the Iraq War, has voted against getting involved in Syria. France, the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" of 2003 are now more hawkish on Syria than the U.S. Turkey was against intervening in Iraq, but is for it in Syria. And Germany, which in 2003 was shoulder-to-shoulder with the French and Russians against the U.S. and U.K., is now for intervention -- though not so much for it that they're willing to send troops. Russia, of course, has been consistent in its "nyet."
This European reshuffle is about governments, not public opinion. Pre-Iraq War opinion polls showed high percentages against the invasion across Europe, ranging from the high 60s in the U.K., to about 80 percent in Germany. Public opposition to a potential war in Syria is similarly universal.
So why the flipping? One answer in the U.K. is that the approach of the country's executive hasn't changed at all: Prime Minister David Cameron argued as passionately to persuade the U.K. Parliament to back missile strikes against Syria as Tony Blair did for Iraq (though Cameron was probably more accurate with his marshaling of facts). The difference is that Cameron lost. Read the debate and it seems clear that the decisive factor was the determination of Labour Party leadership to put as much distance as it could between itself and Blair's support for the war in Iraq. This was backlash from Iraq and a tactical move by Labour to gain political advantage over Cameron's Conservatives.
There also seems to be a general awareness that Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the capacities of the U.K.'s military, and a weariness with being cast as wingman to the world's policeman. We'll find out in coming years how lasting this British retreat from great power ambitions is, and whether Labor leader Ed Miliband will gain or lose from it politically. Others see a historic moment, a turn toward isolationism and end of empire in the U.K. I'm not certain. There was a lot of talk about French retreat and imperial fatigue in 2003, too. No more.
France's Socialist-led government has no such sense of guilt or hurt to bury over Iraq. The French feel confident that they were right to resist. In addition, Syria, a former French colony to which France has important ties, is different from Iraq, a former British colony to which France had few connections. In Syria and neighboring Lebanon, French interests and credibility are on the line. It also doesn't hurt to patch up the relationship with the U.S., which in 2003 looked broken beyond repair.
Turkey is interesting, too. In 2003, the newly elected Justice and Development Party wanted to cozy-up to the U.S. It put a motion before the parliament to let U.S. forces use Turkish territory for the Iraq invasion and, like Cameron, lost the vote. Turks remembered the first Gulf War, where they had joined the coalition and paid a high price for the disruption in terms of the lost trade with Iraq and flood of refugees that followed. They didn't want to repeat that experience.
In 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deeply unhappy with the U.S., yet he wants action in Syria. The disrupted trade and flood of refugees has already happened. The mainly Sunni rebels, whom Erdogan backed, aren't winning. He wants the U.S. to rescue him from a disastrous Syria policy, though for that reason he may end up with another tight vote in parliament as his political opponents seek advantage.
And then there is Germany. By coincidence, the Iraq and Syria decisions have both come in the midst of German election campaigns. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder used opposition to the Iraq War to get elected. Chancellor Angela Merkel won't. She is by instinct pro-American and still feeling burned by Germany's decision to abstain from the United Nations Security Council's 2011 resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Germany then found itself lined up with Russia and China, against its European and U.S. allies. Damage was done, and Germany's diplomats are determined not to repeat that mistake.
A secondary, but not irrelevant issue, is that Germany invented nerve gas. It also used a poison gas to commit a crime of unimagined proportions during the Holocaust. So in the rear of the German government's calculations there surely lies a desire not to be seen as resisting an effort (supported by Israel) to deter the use of sarin.
Finally, the facts are different. Iraq was a war the U.S. chose to fight out of a belief that it could change the Middle East, using thin intelligence evidence that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction as a pretext. Syria is a call for limited missile strikes after the Obama administration has shown convincingly that it has zero desire to get involved in Syria's civil war and believes the U.S. has minimal capacity to shape the region. Plus, not only do we know for certain that Syria has large stocks of weapons of mass destruction, we also know they have just been used against civilians (even if the evidence as to who used them remains largely circumstantial).
As a result, the divide among America's European allies is more pragmatic than ideological. Only Russia -- not a U.S. ally -- is trying to block action. For the U.K., Germany and others, the issue isn't how to prevent the U.S. from launching cruise missiles against Assad's military assets. It isn't about American unilateralism. It's just whether to take part.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)