The U.S. And its allies: Reading through the French and the American positions

In fact, what is really the difference between the American official position toward Iraq, as expressed by Mr Bush in his speech to the United Nations, and the European or say for example the French? The importance of the question stems from the ambiguity that is currently surrounding the issue. It is said almost everywhere that the allies who had formerly compounded the international coalition against Saddam- when it became clear that the Iraqi army will not leave Kuwait without fighting-, are no longer agreeing on a single scheme with the USA. The Arabs, Saudi Arabia and Egypt included, launched repeated signs of disagreement to Washington, if the option of armed intervention to topple the Iraqi regime is still seriously considered. Would the USA be left to act unilaterally then?

The French position in this context is interesting to study, because as a Western middle power, as a Mediterranean state, and as an ally of the USA through its membership in the NATO, France has a mass of interests both beyond the Atlantic and beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, each time the Arab states é or some of them é have been at odds with the USA over issues concerning peace and war, they traditionally sought in the European position é particularly the French- some counter-weight to balance the pressures. That has been é and maybe is still é the case implicating the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and more specifically Yasser Arafat. It is not sure however that Paris could handle any case efficiently without the implicit or explicit green light from Washington. Anyway, the French government has always emphasized the absolute necessity of discussing these problems with its Western allies, either they are Europeans or Americans.

In a recent interview with Mr. Jacques Chirac, published on The New York Times, the French president said about the French-American controversy that the Americans ” should not confound friends and sycophants”. As to his position regarding the American doctrine of preventive action, pledged by Mr Bush, he said, ” it is a dangerous doctrine if applied by one country without the backing of the United Nations.” Otherwise, Mr. Chirac would actually agree on preventive action if Mr. Bush succeeds in obtaining the support of the members of the Security Council. Mr. Chirac made sure that in what concerns the Iraqi question, he is against unilateralism, although he condemns the same regime for all the harm it caused to the region and to its own people. Translated into more simple words, this sophisticated rhetoric, says: Why should America hasten to hit Saddam alone when we are all here and ready to help, if only we reach an agreement in the United Nations? To be more practical, Chirac even suggests that the UN renews its demand concerning the resumption of the inspectors’ work in Iraq, giving Saddam a delay of two or three weeks. In case his reply is still negative, then it would be easier to arrange an armed intervention with the full backing of the Security Council and maybe even of the recalcitrant Arab allies.

Here lay all the subtlety of the French mind. The message Chirac tried to make clear to the allies says simply: Don’t give Saddam the opportunity to obtain more support from the Arabs. We have succeeded to ” put him in a box”, according to Clinton’s famous expression. Now, why should we make of him a victim, when he is not a victim? If you martyr Saddam, you will not have the Arabs backing you, but on your back. To avoid such a situation, we need to be not only more in tune with international law, but also defending a just cause.

Still, should we wonder about the adequacy of such a cause. Would it be freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people for instance? Here, the French President backed away from what he judged to be an adventurous behaviour. He said, “When Saddam is a danger to the outside, we have to act. But if he is not a danger, and he is only Iraq’s problem, then it is not our problem.”

An Iraqi opponent would notice that this is rather a hypocritical stance. In effect, why should the West é especially France here- that praises itself as the defender of Human rights and freedom and democracy, shut its eyes about what is happening in Iraq? Why did the West wage war on Milosevic when it was clear also that it was a domestic problem concerning former Yugoslavia? On which grounds did the West interfere in this country since the beginning of the civil war if we have to consider “what is our problem and what is not”, according to Mr Chirac’s view? And if necessary, the French president would be reminded of the long list of Western é particularly French indeed- interventions in Africa and in the Asian continent…

Yet, it is perhaps these very experiences, some of which resulted in bitter routs for the “defender of the just causes”, that made Chirac more cautious. And if we recall the tensions that stemmed from the Gulf War inside France itself, where an important part of the population is Arab and Muslim, we can understand the reasons for Mr Chirac’s vigilance.

As a matter of fact, the weight of the Arabs and the Muslims inside France, – considering their proportion to the population and the proportion of the population to the geographic size of the country, – is much more important than any alike connection in the USA. It is logical then that the French president worries. He said that he was “worried like all the Europeans about the rise of anti-Western sentiments around the world, in the poor countries and in the emerging countries”. That’s why he advocated the launch of a new dialogue with these countries through the UNESCO. But what Chirac did not say é what we should read between the lines- concerns his worries about the rise of such hostile sentiments in his own country.

The interviewer had of course asked him about some problems caused by the Muslim population. And his answer made sure that it was “only social problems” é so not political é with the “beurs” (: the new generation of French Muslims from Arab descent). But one may still wonder why these “social” problems took the aspect of attacks targeting the Jews. Otherwise, why should the young unemployed “beur” try to resolve his “social” problem in attacking a synagogue or a Jewish school, as it actually happened?

The fact that everybody knows here is that the Arabs living in France are very concerned by the Middle East conflict. How some of them react to its evolvement is another problem, but it remains that they are also much concerned by the manner the French government handles these issues. Anyway, this is a sociological phenomenon that we may observe everywhere in the Western world. Some countries are however more sensitive than others, according to the number of Arabs and Muslims and their proportion relatively to the population. In this context, we can also notice how the French have always criticized the British “laissez-aller” as regards the groups of radical Islamists living in Britain. But aside from the fact that France and Great Britain have not had a similar colonial history é despite the appearances-, that they had not had thereby the same legacy in the post-colonial era, nor had they even negotiated the independence issues the same way, it is clear that they have not the same proportions of Arab-Muslim population relatively to the geographical size of the country. Thereupon, they have neither the same pressures, nor the same priorities in what concerns this question.

Now after this little “incursion” inside the French political and social landscape, let’s come back to our question: what is actually the difference with the US view?

The speech delivered by Mr Bush in the United Nations on September 12, may give us some clues for an answer.

To begin with, the mere fact that the American president went to the UN to deliver his message from its podium, prior to any action é unilateral or multilateral é seems pointing to the need for acting with the support of the international community. This is a first common principle shared with France and the Europeans, which has been emphasized by Mr. Bush all along this speech.

Yet, the “commitment ” of the US to the UN goals, as underlined in the speech, does not hamper its seeking “more efficiency”. This is in Mr Bush’s own terms the purpose for creating the Security Council.

Then paving the way for the upcoming propositions, Mr Bush announced the imminent return of the USA to the Unesco, after this institution has been reformed. That was not the less important announcement in this speech, for it seemed here that Bush was giving Mr Chirac a reply for his suggestion emphasizing the role of the Unesco in the newly proposed dialogue with the emerging countries. And once again, we can say that this is a second common principle shared by the two allies.

To bet only on “war as a way of pursuing politics” é Clausewitz- would not be of much wisdom, particularly when one is addressing a speech to diplomats from the UN podium. That’s why Mr Bush claimed that he was still committed to a peaceful vision of two free states living side by side in the Middle East, and he emphasized that “ there can be no peace for either side without freedom for both sides.”

Would he go so far as to propose a deal to the Arabs? A state for the Palestinians in return for assistance in toppling the Iraqi regime? That was a step the American president did not risk. Neither did he wonder what might be currently the priority for his Arab allies? Helping him to bring down the Iraqi regime, or facing the dangerous surge of violence caused by the deadlock between Palestinians and Israelis?

These questions will remain unanswered. However, where Mr. Bush joins Mr. Chirac another time is when he begins himself to wonder about the possible reaction of the Iraqi regime, or more precisely to challenge it for acting according to what the UN expects. Here, the six propositions Mr. Bush made have all the appearance of a veritable challenge:

– ” If the Iraqi regime wishes peace”, he began, ” it will immediately and unconditionally”:

Disclose and destroy weapons: thus allow the return of the inspectors.

End support to terrorism: in this speech, Bush unveils for example, that some Al-Qaeda leaders are known to be in Iraq after escaping Afghanistan.

Cease persecution of populations: Kurds, Shiites, Turkmen, etc are in fact part of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam. But some of them have been also working with the Iraqi government.

Account for the damages of the Gulf war: otherwise, answer positively the Kuwaiti claims.

End illicit trade: otherwise accept the restrictions of the “oil for food” program that has been agreed on with the UN.

Finally, ” If all these steps are taken, it will signal a new openness and accountability in Iraq. And it could open the prospect of the United Nations helping to build a government that represents all Iraqis é a government based on respect for human rights, economic liberty and internationally supervised elections.”

I have summarized the propositions, but it is certainly worthwhile to read them in the text to full understand their dimension and their expected impact. Now, if we except the sixth proposition that the current Iraqi government will never accept, since it is the claim of the opposition; and it means actually the end of Saddam’s regime, we will have four conditions already claimed by the United Nations, and the one concerning terrorism, which is quite new.

It should be noticed however that while uttering these propositions, Mr Bush made sure to end them all by the leitmotiv ” as required by the Security Council resolutions”. The emphasis was important for the balance of the speech. Thus, the challenge he actually launched to Saddam through the above mentioned propositions, has been well weighed and compounded in a rhetoric that would make easier its identification with the United Nations requirements. And here is again the common principle shared with the allies.

Yet, with this diplomatic offensive, the US government still keeps the options open. It is not by coincidence that the speech was made a day after the sad anniversary of September 11. It is not by chance either that Mr Bush talked about an Iraqi involvement with terrorism.

Another wink to the reluctant allies was expressed in the conclusion of the speech. Thus, Mr Bush seemed to hear the French call. He announced that the US ” will work with the UN security council on a new resolution to meet our common challenge. If Iraq’s regime defies us again, the world must move deliberately and decisively to hold Iraq to account.”

The French president, for example, does not intend it in another way. So, if as it is expected, the Iraqi government would reject this last warning, Mr. Bush seems closer to his goal than ever.

Remain the Arab allies. Would they join the Western alliance in case the Security Council backs Mr. Bush?

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.