A French-American Victory

Justin Vaïsse and
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 12, 2002

The French-American agreement that paved the way to UN Security Council resolution 1441 gives cause for some satisfaction. Ambassadors Jean-David Lévitte and John Negroponte and their delegations deserve praise for their impressive work toward a result that was balanced and acceptable to the entire Security Council. This experience demonstrates once again that France and the United States, when they work together, can reach better and more legitimate solutions to problems than those initially proposed by either country alone.

What are the lessons of this agreement and what are the most likely future scenarios?

It is necessary to keep in mind the tradeoffs that resulted in the final text of resolution 1441. On one hand, part of the Bush administration wanted a resolution so tough that Baghdad would be certain to reject it, thus giving the United States a pretext for an automatic military intervention. On the other hand, the French seemed to be trying to soften up the inspections regime so much, and making the threat of force so ambiguous, that they risked giving Saddam Hussein cover to pursue his nuclear and biological weapons programs.

The text that was finally agreed provides a real chance for inspections to work by calling for an inspections regime that, while devoid of gratuitous provocations to Saddam, is tough enough to be effective.

France also preserved the authority of the Security Council (by blocking an automatic authority for military action) without diluting the effects of the threat.

As Paris congratulates itself on its diplomatic success, it must recognize that the positions it took at the Security Council were only tenable because they were close to the positions of a large number of other countries, for whom France quite skillfully made itself the spokesman. Germany?s refusal to consider military action alongside the Americans also served French interests, making France seem more moderate, or at least open to dialogue. Moreover, a number of U.S. allies, including some critical ones in the region, had declared that they would only support a military action—or give their silent support—if the United States obtained a multilateral mandate and tried to give inspections one last try.

The main winner in all this is the UN Security Council, which, despite its faults and the fact that it is far from a perfect reflection of the international balance of power, emerges with its role as an international legitimizer reinforced. From this point of view, France played an essential role—but one that benefits itself most of all—in letting it be known last summer that a European-American deal could be done, so long as it were done at the United Nations. By doing so, France reinforced those in the Bush administration who rejected the idea of going around the UN and who, ultimately, won out by persuading the President to make his UN speech on September 12 rather than acting unilaterally.

Bush, after all—as even French diplomats would accept—did not need a new round of negotiations at the UN. He could have acted on a legal basis (including UNSCR 687) that was stronger, for example, than the one the international community used to justify bombing Serbia in 1999. Resolution 1441 thus reinforces the multilateral wing of the U.S. administration.

Paradoxically, if one is to be really honest, the mobilization of the international community was in fact due to the unilateralist wing—Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz. It was their threat to act without consulting the UN that made it possible to reach an agreement on inspections, just as it is the credibility of their threat to go to war that today makes such inspections credible.

Without this threat to end his regime, Saddam Hussein will never agree to abide by international commitments. This, in the end, explains the vote of a number of Senate Democrats on October 11, who argued that the best way to guarantee successful inspections, and thus peace, was to support Bush?s power to make war.

Still, it would be wrong to predict this as the most likely scenario. Saddam Hussein has for years demonstrated the importance he attaches to his nuclear and biological programs. Rather than abandon them and have sanctions lifted, he has chosen to deprive himself—and his people—of more than $150bn in oil revenues, and he knows that his power would be gradually undermined by serious inspections. Thus a second scenario—a clear rejection of the resolution—remains possible.

But it is the third scenario, whereby Saddam pretends to accept inspections and plays a double game, which is the most probable. It is also the one that will be the greatest test for the international community, whose credibility—including that of the UN—has been staked by resolution 1441. The United States will certainly not have the same threshold of tolerance toward the Iraqi dictator?s games than France and other countries will. If Baghdad refuses to allow inspectors to interview an Iraqi scientist, or, for example, declares 15 biological labs whereas Western intelligence agencies are aware of 18, will the Security Council authorize war for a single scientist or 3 labs?

In short, whereas a big step was taken in New York on November 8, and the ball is in Saddam Hussein?s court, the months to come will be difficult. The United States and France are going to have to maintain the spirit of cooperation just shown at the UN so that the international community can be more united—and more effective.