France’s attempt to sell warships to Russia is both a “sell the rope to hang themselves” moment and a comment on U.S. stature these days.

German chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday. (Bernd Wuestneck/Associated Press via DPA)

The New York Times:

In a closed-door meeting in February 2010, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged his French counterpart not to proceed with the sale of two amphibious assault ships to Russia because it “would send the wrong message to Russia and to our allies in Central and East Europe.”

The French official, Hervé Morin, acknowledged that each of the ships — so-called Mistral-class vessels built for the French Navy to carry troops, landing craft, and helicopters — was “indeed a warship for power projection,” according to a confidential diplomatic cable on the meeting, which was made public by WikiLeaks. But Mr. Morin “asked rhetorically how we can tell Russia we desire partnership but then not trust them,” the cable added

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and some 40,000 Russian troops deployed near Ukraine, Western officials are no longer putting their trust in Russia’s intentions. But despite American objections, the sale is still on track, and the first ship is scheduled for delivery late this year.

On one level it is remarkable that even before President Obama’s calamities in Syria and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (but after its invasion and occupation of part of Georgia), our European allies were contemptuous of our wishes. And it is even more remarkable that after Russia’s invasion and endless discussion on sanctions, the French still seem committed to going forward.

Germany is no better, of course. Out of deference to German business interests, Chancellor Angela Merkel has resisted serious sanctions on sectors of Russia’s economy. Reports suggest France and Germany are finally prepared to do more, but  given their track record, don’t get your hopes up.

This is yet one more bit of evidence that when the United States fails to lead there is no substitute to counter international aggression. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, calling the French sale “a slap in Washington’s face,” observed via e-mail, “The Obama administration has always labored under the illusion that when it retreats from the world, the Frances and the Germanys would step up.  And the answer is that they will – they’ll step up to sell anything to anyone at any time, even as they mouth condemnations of Washington’s failure to lead.” When the United States appears unsteady, unwilling to draw definitive lines, then our allies go their own way, looking out for what they perceive as in their immediate self-interests.

European powers aren’t going to act against Russia on their own own, and maybe not even in concert with us. Why stick their necks out when support from the United States, if Russia retaliates, is uncertain at best? France is selling warships to Russia. Sunni Arab states threaten to go nuclear if they see Iran become a threshold national state. It is every man for himself and, ironically, multilateral and bilateral alliances crumble without strong direction from the United States.

Obama who chastised the Bush administration for insufficient consultation with allies, is now at odds with European allies, looked on as untrustworthy by Asian friends and deemed unreliable by Middle East allies for taking military action if need be against Iran. Once U.S. credibility is shot, things go downhill. Fast.