Salad Without French Dressing

France's Role in the Iraq War


Lt. Gen. Eric A. Vas [Retd]


The US wanted UN's approval before disarming Iraq by force.  After six months of procrastination, America could count on no more than three Security Council's 14 other members to back a last resolution opening way to war.  The world's super-power felt let down.  How did this extraordinary reverse come about?

Many perceived America's attitude towards Iraq as arrogance.  This alienated allies.  But that can's be the whole story for the simple reason that it did not stop Colin Powell, the secretary of state, gaining the Security Council's unanimous approval of Resolution 1441 three years earlier.  President Bush, in his speech to the UN on 12 September couched a case against Saddam Hussein in terms of international law: he argued that the UN, for its own credibility, needed to enforce resolutions as well as pass them.   So what went wrong?

It is obvious that France's refusal to go along with the American could not by itself be the sole reason and that a fuller explanation must acknowledge both America's inept diplomacy and wider circumstances.  It is nevertheless interesting to ask, why did France take the stand she did?

Many believe that France took its stand on moral grounds; on the principle that no war should be entered into lightly.  No one will disagree with that principle. 
Resolution 1441 of 1991 was an attempt to avoid war by using persuasion and containment to foce Sadam Hussein disclose and destroy his weapons of mass destruction [WMD].   12 years passed and the effort failed.  Some say that  America has WMD and so have Pakistan and India. Why should Saddam be singled out?  The answer given is that WMD are much more dangerous when in the hands of dangerous people.  Saddam has used his WMD against Iran and against his own people.  It would be reckless to assume that he would not use these in the future.  He must be prevented from doing so.

If the case was so strong, why then did the Security Council find it so difficult to agree?  In reality, the division was not all that wide.  Both France and the US agreed that Saddam is a terrible man and must be disarmed.  They disagreed about how.  The US made two major diplomatic blunders. Technically, America did not need to provide clear evidence that Iraq still possessed WMD; Resolution 1441 laid the burden of proof on Iraq.  But politically, the Americans needed to do this, especially to convince public opinion and to help other governments to support them openly.  They failed to provide this proof.  Their second blunder was to leave all in doubt about what they might do in other parts of the world after removing Saddam in Iraq.  This combined with loose talk of "pre-emptive" strikes, left many governments worried that a war in Iraq was just a prelude to many.  Fearing this, they felt that they should oppose the Iraq war so as not to encourage US unilateralism.

These fears are associated with the popular misconception that the end of the cold War ushered in an era of peace and this was being destablised by the US, which has picked up fights with Afghanistan, North Korea, Iraq and Islam itself.    In fact, after the Cold War there has been little peace. Europe, with the aid of America, has had to do a bloody cleaning up in the Balkans.  In the 1990s, Afghanistan under the Taliban turned into a base from where the al-Qaeda plotted its attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon.  North Korea signed an agreement forswearing nuclear weapons that it went on secretly to break.  Saddam Hussein ignored UN resolutions.  On all these issues, America had little choice but to take up the challenge.

America's contention is that it wants to follow the path of peace but is being forced to fight because members of the Security Council are failing to back their resolutions with force.   As soon as Saddam began digging his heels in firmly against further inspections in 1995 and 1996, the Security Council split.  Russia and China wanted sanctions lifted to that they could recover past debts from the Iraqi government, and return to oil business as usual.  They therefore resisted the use of force.  France, keen that Russia should not scoop up all the oil contracts, eventually did the same.  In 1998 the UN Inspectors, increasingly frustrated in their task, withdrew.  Bearing all these factors in mind, it is difficult to accept that France's opposition to American policy is based on high moral principles.

Some believe that the Muslim factor influenced French policy.  12 percent of France's population is Muslim.  This represents a total, which is large enough to be a permanent issue in French domestic politics.  France's President, Jacques Chirac, has listed Islam as "the second religion of France".  He has said the he is "concerned about the harm an American-led attack on Iraq would do to relations with the Arab and Muslim world.  George Bush, he implied, "needed saving from the folly of his own actions." However, wiser councils in Paris have warned the President not to overdo his role as "champion of all the oppressed of the earth…applause on the streets of Khartoum or Tripoli should not constitute a measure of France's success."

Historians recall that during the Suez crisis, it was Britain and France that launched a military action aimed at toppling dictator Nasser of Egypt- and it was the US that worried about legality and the international impact of intervention without a wider mandate.  At that time, the American Secretary of State argued that the use of force against Nasser "would make bitter enemies of the entire population of the Middle-East.  Then, Britain and France were cast in the role of today's American hawks.  They were "bent on intervention and increasingly impatient of the time-wasting pantomime at the UN, obviously aimed at a diplomatic settlement."  They abandoned the UN process and went to war.

Franco-British intervention in Suez failed because, faced with a run on the pound, Britain was unable to resist American economic pressure to pull back.  Once Britain got over its shock and anger at America's "betrayal" it drew a simple conclusion: in future British foreign policy should always be carefully aligned with America's global objectives.  France drew the opposite lesson.  It denounced America as an unreliable ally and came to the conclusion that it was essential to build the European Union [EU] as a counter to America and create a multi-polar world so that the EU could face down the USA.

Both these views have their adherents in Europe.  It is striking that with the exception Germany, the strongest support for the French opposition over Iraq has come from outside the EU, from Russia and from the Islamic world.  There was even talk that France, Russia and China might form a coalition to counter the apparent ambitions of the super-power.  Undoubtedly, both France and Britain fear America's overwhelming power.   France believes that the Gaullist approach is the best way to challenge the US.  The British Prime Minister believes that Britain can hope to achieve what it wants not by challenging the US but by harnessing American power for benign purposes.  Without American power and the willingness to use it, there could have been no tolerable good outcomes in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.  

Thus, going to the UN before the war was bound to fail because America and France had fundamentally different objectives.  France treated the Iraq issue chiefly as part of the wider argument about the need to restrain American power.  It claimed that it was open to negotiations but made no attempt to negotiate its differences with America.  It rejected the suggested second resolution even before Iraq did.  For Mr Chirac, the issue was not the best means to disarm Iraq [hence his desire to put the onus for this on the inspectors,] but the best way to clip the wings of powerful America.  France by threatening its veto in the broad way it did, made the Iraq issue a test of wills with America.  In contrast, both America and Britain saw the unfolding drama at the UN as a test of the Security Council's resolve to enforce its own repeated resolutions against a serial offender who showed every determination to resist.  They asked, "What is the lesson for the next rogue country that has WMD if the Security Council backs down this time?"   Historians recalled that Bismarck, the man who succeeded in unifying Germany in the 19th Century, made his famous brutal comment about the decisiveness of "iron and blood" in international affairs as a rebuke to the conventioneers who had put their faith in "fine speeches and the votes of majorities".

Whatever be the reasons, to America, the French threat to veto any new resolution "no matter what the circumstance" strengthened the resolve of waverers in the Security Council and undermined American policy.  This stand infuriated a large number of American citizens.  Restaurants and fast food outlets, responding to public reluctance to use the word "French" have deleted the F---- word from their menus and replaced this with the word "Freedom".  Americans, whilst ordering their favourite fast food now ask for "hamburger and freedom fries".