France, the United States & Iraq

France, the United States & Iraq

Sharp criticism doesn’t mean dislike.


The rift between France and the United States that emerged during the run-up to the war in Iraq persists, despite various recent overtures from France. Even though the campaign of anti-French calumnies has ended, France’s reputation in the United States has been damaged, and the French position on Iraq is still widely misunderstood. As the exclusion of France and other opponents of the war from postwar reconstruction contracts has shown, those who, in Washington, considered that the French had doubly betrayed the United States–by opposing a war that the “senior ally” deemed in its national interest, and by courting votes at the Security Council of the United Nations (as if the United States hadn’t been seeking them too)–do not seem to be ready to forgive.

There are two stories here. One is about the way French dissent was treated in Washington. In the days of General de Gaulle, his attempt to dissuade the Johnson Administration from getting into a quagmire in Vietnam and failing as badly as the French had when they spent eight bloody years (1946-54) fighting Vietnamese nationalism was interpreted by American officials as evidence of the general’s malevolence and anti-Americanism. His suggestions for a settlement were dismissed–and eight years of American war followed, despite the original conviction that the Americans would be welcome as protectors against Communism, untainted by colonialism. But this reaction was not accompanied by any general assault on France. De Gaulle’s position in France, in Europe and in much of the Third World was just too strong, and the general’s support of the United States during the Cuban missile crisis had been impressive.

This time, despite France’s support of and active participation in the war against the Taliban after September 11, there was no such restraint in Washington. Indeed, there was a well-orchestrated campaign of innuendoes, distortions and lies aimed not only at discrediting French arguments but France itself. The campaign only stopped after the French ambassador, a patient man, finally listed the biggest lies (for instance, about French material interests in Iraq, or recent weapons shipments to Iraq) and sent the list to the White House. What was said about France’s fundamental unwillingness to support any war against Saddam Hussein was false. What was not said was that, in fact, the French had informed the United States that they would contribute forces if there was evidence of Saddam’s terminal unwillingness to get rid of his remaining weapons of mass destruction. Nor was it said that, shortly before the war began, the French had made a compromise offer that would have allowed the United States to interpret the unanimous (and ambiguous) Resolution 1441 of November 2002 as a basis for war, and the French (and their supporters) to disagree, without a divisive vote in the Security Council on a second resolution–the famous second resolution that Bush had promised to Blair, that would oblige all members of the Security Council to show whether they were “with us or against us.” The French had predicted that the United States would not win in the Council unless it made concessions, and Washington had, in the end, withdrawn the resolution anyhow for lack of votes.

The Bush Administration also made much of a “hardening” of the French position in mid-January, without revealing that the US representative at the UN had just informed his French counterpart that the United States had decided to go to war very soon–at a moment when the French still hoped for a prolongation of UN inspections. Colin Powell himself, in mid-March, interpreted a statement by President Jacques Chirac asserting that France would not support the second resolution drafted by the United States “under any circumstances” as showing that France would never go to war. Washington was so furious at the French for having rallied enough support on the Security Council to deprive the United States of the legitimation it sought that it encouraged an American boycott of French products, choosing to ignore Germany and remain friendly with Russia (both of which had sided with France), but to punish the French.

The second, and ultimately more important, story is that of the French position itself. The French disagreed with the American case for several reasons, some of which they held in common with American critics of the neoconservative push for war. They did not believe that Iraq, weakened by its defeat in 1991 and by seven years of UN inspections, posed a “clear and present danger” to the United States, and that deterrence of Iraqi aggression against its neighbors or Israel was no longer a valid policy (after all, the United States had deterred the Soviets, a far more powerful adversary than Iraq, for forty years). The French (like Gen. Brent Scowcroft) feared that war against Iraq would both deprive the war on terrorism of attention and resources and attract terrorists to Iraq. Above all, the French emphasized the importance of international law and of such institutions as the UN, NATO and the European Union in an interdependent world where no power can, by itself, get its own way, a position dismissed by the hard-liners in the Bush Administration, who had only contempt for international norms, the UN, and established alliances, and proclaimed the virtues of unilateralism and of “coalitions of the [handpicked] willing,” fished out of such alliances.

The French preference for a return, and toughening, of UN inspections over immediate war had three components. One was faith in the ability of these inspections (which did indeed discover, just before the war began, Iraqi missiles that exceeded the limits fixed in 1991–and got the regime of Saddam Hussein to destroy them). The French had full confidence in Hans Blix, whom Washington tried to discredit despite his obvious objectivity and toughness.

A second component was France’s reluctance to wage a war for regime change. The French had no more enthusiasm than anyone else did for Saddam Hussein, although they (along with the United States) had provided him with help at the time of his war against Iran. But on the one hand, they thought that removing a government from power should not be done by one country, or a small group of countries, without broader legitimacy, a formula for world chaos. Also, there was no recent evidence of spectacular violations of human rights (of the kind Saddam Hussein had inflicted on rebellious Kurds and Shiites in 1991), and there was little chance that the UN would endorse such a move–too many skeletons rattled in too many members’ closets, including Russia and China. On the other hand, they thought the American objective of democratizing Iraq (and of using Iraq as a lever for spreading democracy throughout the Middle East) was far too simple-minded, that the “liberated” Iraqis would be resentful of foreign occupation and that, indeed, the American habit of both discounting the importance of nationalism abroad and of equating democracy and moderation was unrealistic (they remembered the democratic elections in Algeria in 1991, which gave a majority to the Islamists). Chirac, in his youth, fought in the Algerian war, and saw the strength of Arab nationalism.

Thirdly, the French–with 5 or 6 million Muslims in France, and long experience of terrorism on French soil–were eager to avoid provoking a real “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West. They thought an attack on an Arab country that could not be justified in terms of self-defense (unlike the war on the Taliban) or in terms of complicity with terrorism would fuel anti-American hatreds and increase, especially among the young and the poor, the influence of Islamist extremists both in the Muslim world and in France (the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France, mainly committed by Arab immigrants, has deeply alarmed Chirac). Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, a passionate believer in the complementarity of cultures (and a man born in Morocco), has been particularly worried about further turmoil in the Middle East, the spread of terrorism across borders there and a rise of anti-Western feelings. As the French saw it, priority ought to have been given to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the American priority of the war against Iraq and of the war on terrorism could only help the policies of Ariel Sharon.

Of course, the story of the Iraqi adventure is not over, but so far–despite the capture of Saddam Hussein–the French have been more right than the Bush Administration. Nor have the French been isolated, despite the best efforts of Washington to sideline NATO (where the French have a veto) and to divide the European Union. In Europe, the Franco-German alliance is tighter than ever, and more determined to push ahead for a stronger European defense system with all those other members of the EU that are willing to take part in such an enterprise. At this point, it is the British who are isolated–devoid of real influence in Washington, weakened, on the European continent, in their effort to make sure that the developing common European diplomacy and defense do not go too far in seeking autonomy from Washington, as well as hurt by the lengths to which Blair has gone in aligning himself with Bush. In many countries of the developing world, including in the Middle East, the French position has been popular–not to mention among opponents of the war in the United States.

Having predicted the troubles that would afflict a foreign occupation of Iraq, the French wasted no time in proposing a radical shift in policy. Having concluded, with both sound reasoning and solid evidence, that it was the occupation itself that provoked resistance and violence, they have suggested replacing the “logic of security” with a “logic of sovereignty.” They do not deny the seriousness of insecurity and the trouble it causes for the political and material reconstruction of the country. But they believe the way of dealing with it is to restore Iraqi sovereignty as swiftly as possible, to put the US-commanded occupation forces at the service of the Iraqis while they reform their institutions and to grant to the UN–with its long experience in peacekeeping and nation-building–a general supervising role both over the military operations and over the political transition. They are clearly concerned that the members of any Iraqi temporary authority entrusted with sovereignty be both capable of coping with the immense ethnic, religious and political tensions of the country, and as immune as possible from the charge of being stooges of the American occupiers.

Washington’s reaction was, at first, predictably derisive and hostile–the French plan, according to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, was thoroughly unrealistic. But since the escalation of attacks on American and other targets in Iraq, the United States has abruptly changed course and is talking of an “Iraqization” that would, in fact, rapidly transfer authority to an Iraqi government, without waiting for a general election and a new constitution. Differences with French proposals still exist: The speed promised by Washington is still not as great as Villepin had argued for, the length of the military occupation of Iraq is a likely bone of contention, and a genuine increasein the role of the UN is still anathema to the Bush Administration. The way in which Saddam will be tried is another potential subject of disagreement. But the fact that the Security Council agreed unanimously in October to the American draft resolution outlining, even in rather vague terms, a transformation of the occupation, showed that the French were quite capable of pragmatism, once the direction set was no longer the opposite of what they deemed the right one.

Differences between France and the United States in foreign affairs will remain. They have many origins. In international politics the United States seeks to preserve and extend its hegemony (and will undoubtedly continue to do so even if it should rediscover the necessity of multilateralism as the way of making hegemony effective and acceptable). The French, who do not mean by “multipolarity” a return to the balance-of-power politics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (as Americans often do), think that American might and hubris need to be restrained by other powers, and that in fact it is only in the military area that the world is unipolar; as my friend and colleague Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, points out, economic power is not an American monopoly, and what he calls soft power–the power to attract, to persuade and to influence–is very widely distributed (and the Bush Administration has reduced America’s soft power drastically). French ambitions for the EU are not aimed at making it a rival of the United States (or the euro a rival of the dollar) but, quite simply, at making it a force of its own, and not a satellite, often alongside the United States.

A more fundamental source of irritation is the fact that the United States and France are the two democracies whose revolutionary heritage has convinced them that they are exceptional by having universally valid values. These are not identical (the main difference resides in the French experience of, and attachment to, a strong state, in the importance the French give to economic and social rights, and in French dislike of uncontrolled capitalism); also, the French don’t have the might to propagate these values by force if necessary. But Americans are irritated by the pretension of (as John F. Kennedy said) a country the size of Texas to “grandeur” and universal relevance. A difference in values between the two countries recently emerged over the question of sovereignty: In the United States, and not only on the right, a kind of legal exceptionalism reluctant to accept the superiority of international norms is still pervasive, whereas in France, for so long a champion of national sovereignty, the notion of shared or pooled sovereignty has become the basis of European integration and the essence of a new world order.

A third source of American annoyance has to do with the French style in foreign affairs (which is well analyzed in a book by Charles Cogan, just published by the US Institute of Peace). The French believe in being assertive, forceful and articulate in their defense of what they deem right. The contrast with British (though not Blairish) understatement or German contemporary mildness could not be greater. The man who is largely responsible for this style is General de Gaulle. It was both an expression of his formidable personality and a major part of his pedagogy, aimed at restoring French pride and influence after the decadence of the interwar period and the disastrous years of occupation by, and official collaboration with, the Nazis. Considered in this historical context, the recent debate in France on French decline is not very significant–it is largely the outcry of a few intellectuals who want faster economic and social reforms that would unfetter the economy for more free enterprise and fewer social protections than would probably be tolerated by the beneficiaries of the welfare state. These critics want France not only to follow the American social model but the American lead in world affairs. The fear of decline has been present ever since France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871, but it’s clear that political elites and bureaucrats have absorbed, consciously or not, the message of de Gaulle: “Be yourselves.”

Of course, France does face serious domestic challenges. Reforming the educational system and social security would be difficult, given the opposition of the people who would be affected. The left is fractured and leaderless, like the current US Democratic Party. Above all, the integration of the Muslim population remains a divisive issue–even within the government and its majority.

None of this should worry Americans. Their popularity as a people remains high in France, where distinguishing between a nation and its government is an ability honed during France’s own turbulent history. The Chirac administration, during the recent storm, deliberately refrained from attacking American motives in the way the Bush Administration savaged France’s. Not every critic of US actions is anti-American, any more than critics of Sharon’s moves are all anti-Semitic. And sometimes, it is the sharpest critics who have the most foresight.

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