The Game Is Over

America Can Beat Iraq. But Can It Vanquish France?


"Let's wait for the report of the inspectors," [French] Ambassador [Jean-David] Levitte said, referring to the report next Friday [February 14]. He said that if they said they were at a "dead end," a decision on using force would be discussed.
— The New York Times, February 8, 2003

Discussed? Continuing Iraqi defiance will lead, at long last, to discussions of force? Casting one's mind way back to November, one dimly recalls the United Nations Security Council giving Iraq a "final opportunity" to disarm and thus to avoid the "serious consequences" of which the council has so often warned—consequences presumably more serious than the further discussion of serious consequences. Maybe Monsieur Levitte missed his morning paper that day.

War with Iraq is no one's idea of fun, but what would life be like if the Bush administration backed down, if inspections and arguments over inspections proceeded indefinitely, and if Iraq were continuously threatened with "discussions" of the use of force? In other words, how would the French plan work? By way of an answer, consider the events of 1999.

As the year begins, Iraq has locked out weapons inspectors and refuses any cooperation until economic sanctions are lifted or greatly eased. The inspectors report that Iraq is "still actively trying to conceal past and present illegal weapons programs." America and Britain, in Operation Desert Fox, have bombed Iraq as punishment.

Support for economic sanctions is crumbling. France and Russia want to declare Iraq disarmed and lift the sanctions, provided that Iraq agrees to a new plan that replaces intrusive weapons inspections with a program of mostly passive monitoring. France says (reports the New York Times) that "the reality of the situation was that the present United Nations Special Commission was never going to go back," so the U.N. might as well face facts and offer Baghdad a deal it might accept. Britain and the United States counter with a plan to lift sanctions, but only partially, and only after Iraq cooperates with renewed inspections.

Iraq says it won't play ball. It will cooperate with nothing until it receives total or extensive relief from sanctions. It denounces Arab leaders who are critical of Saddam Hussein and issues vague threats against Kuwait. Negotiations ensue among Security Council members. The negotiations drag on for months. They drag on so long that some of the council's nonpermanent members—not a hasty bunch—tell the permanent five (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) to stop stalling. "For over a year the council has failed in its responsibility to deal effectively with the Iraq problem," says Canada's representative. Argentina, Brazil, and Gambia (yes, Gambia) agree.

France, however, argues that unity is essential for making any plan stick. It and Russia urge America and Britain to water down the U.N.'s demands so that a consensus can be reached. America and Britain will not do as much watering-down as France and Russia would like, but they agree to measures that many experts believe might undermine the weapons inspectors' independence.

By now it is December. The Iraqis threaten France with retaliation against its diplomats and oil companies if it supports the emerging Security Council resolution, which offers Baghdad relief from sanctions if it cooperates with renewed inspections. France first holds up the vote and then abstains, as do Russia, China, and Malaysia. Iraq rejects the offer flatly, as it had promised to do from the start. It turns out—surprise!—that the Security Council had been negotiating all along with itself, not with Iraq. Sanctions stay on, inspectors stay out. The only result is a yearlong display of discord.

Oh, well. Better luck next time.

As far as France is concerned, not much has changed since 1999. In a speech to the United Nations on February 5, Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, said that Iraq policy "rests on three fundamental points: a clear objective on which we cannot compromise, the disarmament of Iraq; an effort, a rigorous system of inspections, requiring of Iraq active cooperation and which affirms at each stage the central role of the Security Council; a requirement, finally, that of our unity, it gave full force to the message that we unanimously addressed to Baghdad." Disarmament, inspections, unity. Note what was missing from that statement: force.

France has always treated weapons inspections as an end rather than a means. Inspectors, the French argue, would prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, or at least nuclear weapons, and thus would suffice to contain him. Their argument was reasonable in 1999, and it still has force today; but its force is weakened by the recent example of North Korea, which successfully carried on a full-scale uranium-enrichment program under the noses of nonproliferation monitors. And, of course, Iraq can always admit inspectors today and obstruct or evict them tomorrow, after the United States has stood down militarily and the Security Council has moved on. It worked nicely in 1998.

Consistently, France's approach has been to offer Iraq pre-emptive concessions in hopes of spurring cooperation. Appeasement, as that approach is called, is a perfectly legitimate strategy, provided, crucially, that the appeaser has something the appeasee wants. Appeasement failed in 1999 because the Security Council's carrot was the lifting of sanctions, but Saddam didn't care about lifting sanctions. He preferred weapons. He still does.

Today the U.N. has just one thing to offer that Saddam Hussein values: his survival in power, as opposed to his forcible removal. But France helps Saddam believe that the U.N. will leave him in power anyway. Villepin says, "Our moral and political duty is first to direct all of our energy to the disarmament of Iraq in peace." The trouble, of course, is that Saddam cooperates only under threat of force. By forswearing force pending a last resort that never comes, France undercuts the goal it claims to support.

Similarly, throughout the 1990s, France argued that economic sanctions starved ordinary Iraqis while doing nothing to weaken Saddam Hussein. The French said, "We think the embargo is a crude and cruel tool that hurts civilians"; they added, not generously, that "the United States is insensitive to the human catastrophe under way in Iraq." Well, embargoes are indeed crude tools that hurt civilians, but by calling for the U.N. to back down, France encouraged Saddam to hold out. By the end of the last decade, a kind of French-Iraqi codependency had evolved. France's demands for concessions encouraged Iraqi defiance, and Iraqi defiance brought more French demands for concessions.

Faced with this rather obvious criticism, the French have always replied with the same one-word answer: unity. Unity can contain Saddam Hussein. Without unity, all is lost. Etc., etc. As Villepin said on February 5, "France is convinced that we can succeed on this demanding path [peaceful disarmament of Iraq] if we maintain our unity and our cohesion." Or again, French President Jacques Chirac, in December 1999: "We have to find a solution that in some way forces Saddam to accept a resumption of inspections. And the only possibility of doing this would be a resolution adopted unanimously by the Security Council." Or yet again, the French foreign ministry in a 1999 policy document: "The return of inspectors cannot be imposed by military action. It will be obtained only through the restored unity and authority of the Security Council."

So there you have it. The plan is to threaten Saddam Hussein not with force but with "unity"—specifically, unity behind France's determination not to use force. Neither Saddam nor my 3-year-old niece would feel scared of that threat. Moreover, "unity," on closer inspection, turns out to mean agreement with France. In 1999, when the French were in the minority, they walked away and said it was a shame that the Security Council had failed to achieve unity.

There is, clearly, nothing new about France's self-defeating, free-riding line. What is new is that the Bush administration and, increasingly, the world are not buying it. As I write these words, the administration appears to have a shot at isolating France or forcing it to cave in. Either outcome would be a good thing, because either could reduce or even break France's disproportionate power in both the Security Council and the European Union.

France is a great country and, I firmly believe, a good one. But its influence is excessive, and its worldview is incoherent, and enough is enough. President Bush said on February 6, "The game is over." Not just Iraq's, perhaps, but France's as well.