Getting Paris on Board

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

October 18, 2002

As the Bush administration seeks international support and legitimacy for the possible use of military force against the Iraqi regime, it is becoming clear that France will play a key role. As a member of the United Nations Security Council with strong interests in Iraq, France—like Russia but for different reasons—is on the cusp between opposing and supporting (perhaps even participating in) American military intervention. French opposition to U.S. actions in Iraq is not inevitable; nor, however, is its support guaranteed. Whether France ultimately does sanction a war on Iraq will depend on the degree of Iraqi compliance with any new UN Security Council resolutions, the threshold set by the Bush administration for the use of force, and the degree to which France?s interests in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq will be protected. To the extent that Washington can control these factors, it will be up to the Bush administration to decide how much French support should be valued, and how much it should adapt its own positions to get France on board.

French Views of Iraq

French policy toward Iraq throughout the 1990s was driven by a number of factors whose relative importance is difficult to assess. One factor was the longstanding French view of Iraq as a secular bastion helpful in containing revolutionary Iran?s influence over the Muslim world and its threat to France?s traditional friends in the region. Another was a genuine belief, particularly strong among the French population, that economic sanctions were hurting Iraqi civilians far more than Saddam Hussein (who was profiting from them) and leading to hatred of the West in the Arab world, particularly given the simultaneous strong support for Israel by the United States. France?s economic interests in Iraq—some $5bn in debt accumulated over the years; potentially lucrative oil concessions that would be granted to French companies should sanctions be lifted; and contracts through the ?oil-for-food? program that for a while were going largely to France—also influenced Paris. (The commercial factor, however, should not be overstated: French imports from and exports to Iraq account for only 0.3% and 0.2% of overall French imports and exports, and France has fallen in recent years to no more than the 11th largest recipient of Iraqi oil-for-food contracts.) Finally, the French were probably also influenced by suspicions that the United States was not only interested in upholding UNSC resolutions and preserving international peace, but in promoting its own economic interests and seeking to impose its hegemony on the region.

Given these various motivations, the current U.S. threat of force to remove the Iraqi regime poses serious dilemmas for France. On one hand, after a decade of seeking to persuade Iraq to cooperate, France is itself fed up with Saddam Hussein, acknowledges that his regime and WMD programs constitute a threat to the region and to the world, and recognizes that something must be done. President Jacques Chirac, who as prime minister twenty-seven years ago had courted Saddam Hussein as an ally and economic partner, now calls him a ?threat to the region? who has ?taken his own people hostage.? France is also keenly aware that if it refuses to support a U.S.-led campaign to deal with Iraq, the Bush administration might act anyway, either alone or with support from other European allies. A successful US-led military intervention in Iraq in the absence of French support or UN authorization, would marginalize France in the region, undercut the authority of the Security Council, exclude France from Iraqi oil markets, and leave a legacy of resentment not only across the Atlantic but among members of the European Union as well.

At the same time, the French remain deeply concerned about the prospect of using force in Iraq, and highly skeptical that regime-change imposed from outside would lead to a stable, and disarmed regime. As a former colonial power that has experienced failed attempts to govern foreign countries from afar—at the cost of tens of thousands of French lives in Indochina (and many more Asian ones) between 1945-54 and some 30,000 French lives in Algeria (and hundreds of thousands of Algerian ones) between 1954-62—France is skeptical that the United States or anyone else can successfully govern Iraq with a large occupation force. On the other hand, the French fear that in the absence of such a force, a quick turnover of authority to a newly implanted Iraqi regime on the model of the American operation in Afghanistan could fail, leading to internal conflicts over resources, ethnic and clan reprisals, and intervention by any of a number of Iraq?s neighbors. The French also know that an intervention in Iraq, particularly if it led to widespread Arab civilian deaths or an Israeli intervention provoked by an Iraqi Scud attack, could have spillover effects in France—provoking unrest among France?s 4-6 million strong Muslim population (nearly 10% of the population) or even clashes between France?s Muslim and Jewish communities.

Finally, the French worry about the precedent that would be set by unauthorized intervention that could legitimize attempts at preventive war that might be launched in South Asia, the former Soviet Union or elsewhere in the Middle East. For all these reasons, Paris has a very strong preference for inspections—even if they cannot account for 100% of Iraq?s weapons of mass destruction—rather than moving on to regime change no matter what. The French seem more confident than many in the Bush administration that even an Iraq with WMD can be contained, especially if inspectors are present to hinder the production of nuclear weapons.

French Policy and the Endgame with Iraq

In an attempt to steer a careful course between the Scylla of a unilateral American intervention in Iraq that would leave France isolated and the Charybdis of having to support a war that would not further French interests, French policy took a significant turn in late summer 2002. In a speech to the conference of French Ambassadors held in August 2002, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin declared that Saddam Hussein?s defiance of the international community was ?not acceptable.? Villepin suggested more clearly than in the past that France would not necessarily oppose threatening the use of force to persuade Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations, so long as the decision on doing so remained in the hands of the United Nations. Two weeks later, President Chirac gave an interview to The New York Times that outlined a two-stage UN process, one that would demand Iraqi compliance with a more rigorous weapons inspection regime, and, failing compliance, another that would request that the Security Council take action to deal with the problem. Asked about the possible use of force, Chirac declared that ?Nothing is impossible, if it?s decided by the international community on the basis of indisputable proof.?

The emphasis on the Security Council?s role made sense for France. By hinting that, if Bush did go to the UN, France might support him, Chirac made unilateral action less likely and probably contributed to Bush?s decision to go to New York on September 12 to appeal for United Nations support. Making this multilateral approach viable thus helped to avoid the very real risk that Washington would simply act alone, undermining not only France?s interpretation of international law, but the authority of the Security Council itself, in which France has a particular interest. France also believed that a UN approach would enhance its own influence over the process, reducing the ability of hawks within the U.S. government to make demands on Iraq that it would be unlikely or unable to fulfill and thereby providing a pretext for war.

A key aspect of the French approach in New York has been an insistence that any new resolution on Iraqi disarmament and weapons inspections not contain an automatic recourse to force. From a French perspective, this approach has have several merits: it emphasizes the ultimate authority of the Security Council; denies the Americans the right to unilaterally declare Iraq in noncompliance and thus the ability to go to war over the slightest Iraqi misstep; and shows the French public and entire world that the international community was going the extra mile to avoid war. In exchange for agreement to withhold the automatic threat of force from the first resolution, France would agree to include in it more rigorous rules for the weapons inspection regime. While France still has problems with many aspects of the type of regime the Americans are proposing, it is difficult to imagine France blocking an agreement if it gets what it wants on the automatic trigger for force. With the U.S. Congressional votes out of the way and the likelihood of at least some Arab support even in the absence of new UNSCRs, the United States can credibly threaten to walk away from the talks if its does not get the sort of tough inspections regime it wants.

All of this means that the potential divergence between France and the United States is likely to come not over resolutions in New York, but rather over the threshold for compliance further down the road. The extreme cases on either end of the spectrum are easiest to consider. If Iraq?s initial ?full and final declaration? of its WMD capabilities is not even close to acknowledging what Western intelligence experts know it to have, or if Baghdad refuses outright to cooperate with UN inspectors, France would almost certainly support, and probably participate in, a war against Iraq. Equally, if Iraq surprises everyone and begins not only allowing unfettered inspections but actually turning over and destroying large stocks of prohibited weapons, France would almost certainly not go along with an American-led use of force for the purpose of regime change (or to enforce compliance with other UNSC resolutions unrelated to weapons of mass destruction). Thus the hard cases—and the most likely scenarios, given Saddam Hussein?s track record of carefully calibrated defiance—lie somewhere in between, and it is difficult to know precisely where the tipping point lies.

The more blatantly Iraq fails to cooperate with UN disarmament demands, the more difficult it will be for France to accept the risks of marginalization if it fails to support an American-led war. The more Iraq seems genuine in its commitment to disarm in the face of the threat of force, the less likely it is that France will be ready to support a war that neither its leaders nor its public believe is wise. American leaders will need to make a calculated guess as to just where France?s threshold lies, and a calculated decision as to how much they care.