War: Who is to blame

Bulletin article
Pierre Hassner
01 April 2003

The French President has employed scorn and threats to insult sovereign European states, in a style reminiscent of comments made by Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle about France and Germany. Chirac's intervention confirmed that Franco-American co-operation is functioning marvellously. Washington and Paris have together succeeded in undermining NATO and the UN. At the same time, they have managed to destroy both western unity and hopes for peace in the Middle East and beyond.

Two years of US aggressive unilateralism and imperialist rhetoric have done Saddam Hussein the favour of making him look like the first victim of a risky enterprise. France returned the favour to the US unilateralists by sticking to its inflexible position on the second Security Council resolution. France's behaviour has allowed the US to look faithful to the multilateral route, and it has furnished the hawks with an alibi for resorting to war without a UN mandate.

Tony Blair influenced the UN's agreement on Resolution 1441. But the passage of the resolution resulted from a constructive negotiation between France and the US, and a positive relationship between the two countries' foreign ministers, Dominique de Villepin and Colin Powell. The resolution brought all sides together, but at the price of introducing ambiguities which are now provoking the conflict that it avoided five months ago. France and the US agreed that 1441's objective should be the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, and that its means should be the return of the UN inspectors.

In doing so, each country downgraded its main objective for Washington that was regime change, and for Paris it was maintaining peace. If Saddam Hussein presented the inspectors with his weapons of mass destruction and proceeded to dismantle them, the US would be denied its war. The American hawks would then crow that they had been right to denounce Bush and Powell for having fallen into a French trap. But if Saddam Hussein did not renounce his projects and his power, France would find itself in an unwanted war. France's left-wing opposition and pacifists lost no time in pointing this out.

France insisted on the necessity of a new Security Council resolution last autumn. But by March this year, the positions were reversed: the US tried to push through a new resolution with Britain that France judged to be futile or dangerous. In the meantime, negotiation and compromise were replaced by confrontation.

The US and France are both responsible for this deplorable situation. The primary responsibility lies with America's imperial style and ambiguous objectives. But de Villepin and Chirac are largely responsible in the last phase of the Iraq crisis for the serious deterioration in NATO, UN and European relations as well as the prospects for peace.
Washington's case has solid elements, but it has been ruined by the Bush administration's support for Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and its insensitivity to the situation of the Palestinians and the reaction of the Arab world. The American position is also undermined by its unclear and risky view of what happens after Saddam is gone. Will there be a prolonged military occupation? Will there be a succession of military campaigns against the other countries in the 'axis of evil'? Will the Arab regimes currently in power all be removed in order to promote democracy?

France, for its part, was right to affirm the impossibility of leaving the US as the sole judge of good and evil, of war and peace. France chose the middle way between the unconditional support (at least in public) of Tony Blair and the unconditional opposition (at least in words) of Gerhard Schröder. But France's flexible position of conditional support for disarming Saddam became rigid, like Germany's position.

On January 20th, France cut itself off from its only interlocutor and ally at the heart of the Bush administration, Colin Powell, through its badly timed threat of a veto in the Security Council and its resounding 'no' to war. This change in position resulted from a Franco-German declaration that was made in the name of Europe, but without any consultation with their other European partners. Then there were France's barely credible proposals for the disarmament of Saddam Hussein by increasing the number of inspectors.

De Villepin's UN speech was greeted with applause and it was in line with the massive opposition to war among the European public which comforted France's leaders that their policy was serving transatlantic relations, the emergence of a European policy on Iraq, the UN and peace. Let's ignore the first of these presumptions as a sick joke. On the second, all the evidence suggests that France and Germany's presumption to speak for all of Europe led to the opposite result. France spoke from on high to its partners and from even higher to the small countries. It crushed the future members of the EU with insults, humiliating and threatening them publicly when their stance did not agree with its own. With each display of arrogance, France's behaviour is bound to make them prefer American hegemony, which is both more powerful and more flattering to them. And it creates more divisions within Europe.

It was hardly in France's interest to block the Security Council and further boost the American hawks who mock Powell's belief in co-operation and multilateralism. The hawks had already triumphed, and needed only a French veto to rid themselves of both the UN and NATO.

War is always deplorable, but removing Saddam Hussein from power is a just cause. The presence of the UN and of Europe might just limit the risks and damage after the event. The United Nations and Europe could encourage negotiation and reconciliation (above all between Israelis and Palestinians) instead of imperial domination and indefinite confrontation.

Even this modest role would be better played by a unified Europe than by France or the Franco-German partnership acting alone. We must have no illusions. The United States, after having supported European unity, and then having had doubts about it, is now doing everything to divide the Europeans. That is yet another reason not to play their game. There will be no Europe without reconciliation with Tony Blair, who remains the most European of British leaders. We must also unite with Central Europe and the Balkans, with Turkey, and with the US after Bush. But our leaders might well prefer rhetoric to action.

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