The Magazine

A Beautiful Friendship?

What France sees in Iraq.

Oct 28, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 07 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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MODERN FRANCE'S love affair with Iraq was fleetingly foreshadowed in the year 803, when Harun ar-Rashid, legendary Abbassid caliph of Baghdad, sent an embassy to the equally famous emperor Charlemagne, ruler of the Franks. It seemed a promising beginning: The caliph's gifts to the emperor included unbreakable Damascene swords, a clepsydra, and an elephant. Nevertheless, many centuries would pass before the two countries came into regular contact. In the meantime, the Mongol invaders of the 13th century would burn Iraq's ancient cities, ruin the irrigation system along the Tigris and Euphrates, and put 90 percent of its people to the sword. Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the French were active in many Arab lands--the Maghreb, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon--they stayed out of Iraq, an Ottoman province and preserve of the Germans until 1917, when it fell into the hands of the British as a nominally independent Hashemite monarchy. Only after the Iraqi republican revolution of 1958, the most brutal and bloody coup ever carried out in an Arab country, did the relationship change. The Soviet Union replaced Britain as the most influential foreign power in Baghdad, and France came close behind it.

Two men saw to this. The first was President Charles de Gaulle. Leader of the Resistance during World War II, General de Gaulle had made a political comeback in 1958 and set up the Fifth Republic, dedicated to the rebirth of France as a great power. That entailed modernizing the economy at home and challenging the postwar division of the world between the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union--in particular, challenging the United States as the paramount Western power.

One way to advance both goals was to support Third World nationalism. In less than four years, de Gaulle transformed the old colonial empire in Africa into a loose constellation of client-states, making possible new links with other countries, notably in the Arab world. To a Conservative member of the National Assembly who lamented the transfer of the oil-rich Sahara to independent Algeria in 1962, de Gaulle retorted: "Don't you see we have traded Grandpa's empire for the much broader empire of the future, and the limited oil of the Sahara for the much more plentiful oil of Arabia?"

There was some logic to this, except that the richest Arab or Islamic oil countries--from Libya to Saudi Arabia to Iran, monarchies all--remained very much under Anglo-Saxon influence. Iraq, however, seemed to present an opportunity. The revolutionary regime had started to expropriate the assets of the former colonial oil company, the largely Anglo-American Iraq Petroleum Company. Could Iraq be brought into the French orbit? De Gaulle was confident that even the Americans would not object, eager as they were to prevent a Soviet takeover. But then, who was in charge in Baghdad? The new regime was ridden with coups and intrigues. Kassem, the first republican leader, was overthrown and put to death in 1963. There was a succession of further nationalist rulers, either followers of Nasser or supporters of the more dogmatic Baath party--hardly the strong and stable leadership that France would need to deal with.

THE MAN WHO CAME to de Gaulle's aid at this juncture was the historian and military expert Jacques Benoist-Méchin. A most unlikely go-between, Benoist-Méchin was ostensibly de Gaulle's very opposite. During World War II, he had not merely sided with Marshall Philippe Pétain's Vichy régime over de Gaulle's Free French, but had explicitly supported Hitler's New Order in Europe. He would even report in his "Memoirs" that he had warned Hitler, in the course of an interview in Berlin in 1942, about some of his strategic decisions; and commented that the Fuhrer had "unfortunately" not heeded his advice. De Gaulle, however, was not one to classify people by conventional criteria. Above all, he admired Benoist-Méchin's great "History of the German Army Since the Armistice," first published in 1938, which explained how the Reichswehr, the Weimar Republic's rump-army, had been turned into an elite corps paving the way for Hitler's Wehrmacht. In fact, de Gaulle's first order, upon taking over the Ministry of War as head of the National Liberation Government of France in 1944, had been to have the book reissued and distributed to the officers of the resurrected French army. As for its author, de Gaulle could not spare him some measure of punishment, but made sure he would survive. Benoist-Méchin was sentenced to death for treason by France's High Court of Justice in June 1947, only to be reprieved almost at once and sent back to his studies.