The Magazine

Merci, M. de Villepin

ADVANCE COPY from the February 3, 2003 issue: Why we owe a debt to our friends the French.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LET US BE THE FIRST TO SAY IT: We owe a debt of gratitude to France, and particularly to its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin. He has clarified the present geopolitical situation and put an end to illusions. This week M. de Villepin cast aside months of diplomatic pretense and revealed hitherto unspoken truths about French foreign policy:

First, France does not, in fact, seek the disarmament of Iraq or even the elimination of Saddam Hussein's programs for producing weapons of mass destruction. M. de Villepin declared at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last Monday, "Already we know for a fact that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs are being largely blocked, even frozen." The French government thereby acknowledged that Saddam Hussein does indeed have such programs--but according to M. de Villepin France does not consider it necessary for Iraq to do away with them.

Second, it is now clear that the government of France does not, in fact, support implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which it helped negotiate this past November. That resolution stated that Iraq was being given "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations," obligations that Iraq had agreed to under the terms of the cease-fire ending the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and that it has failed to fulfill for the last dozen years. That resolution also declared that if Iraq failed to comply, it would face "serious consequences," understood by all Security Council members to mean war. Now France has declared that it will not insist on Iraqi compliance or on "serious consequences" for its failure to comply. As M. de Villepin told the Security Council this past Monday, "nothing justifies envisaging military action." Nothing.

Again, we thank M. de Villepin for his candor. It is likely to produce beneficial effects on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, France's provocation will have the effect of forcing European governments to choose sides between U.S.-sponsored action to disarm Iraq and French determination to protect Saddam Hussein from American power. We believe that is a healthy thing, in part because it will reveal that France in no way speaks for all European governments, perhaps not even for a majority of them. The United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and other European allies are already committed to supporting an American-led action, and more will join the coalition. An American invasion of Iraq will not be a unilateral action, not by a long shot.

What is more, while European discomfort with American power is a reality, there is discomfort, too, with the aggressive pacifism of Gerhard Schröder and, for now at least, of Jacques Chirac. Nor are all Europeans likely to be entirely comfortable with France's increasingly notable propensity to appease vicious dictators, not just Saddam but also Robert Mugabe, whom the French have just invited to Paris in apparent violation of a European Union travel ban. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raised a furor in Paris and Berlin last week when he contrasted the "old Europe" of France and Germany to the "new Europe" of Poland, the Czech Republic, and other recent entrants into the European Union. The sputtering outrage at Rumsfeld's remarks in Paris and Berlin is, we suspect, a sign of anxiety that the new entrants cannot be counted on to follow the Franco-German lead against the United States.

More important, however, is the clarifying effect that the French position will have on the American debate. For several months now, a great swath of the American foreign policy elite, both Democrats and Republicans, have been trying to finesse the question of what to do about Iraq. They have been insisting that any military action by the United States has to be undertaken with the authority of the U.N. Security Council. Those who hold this view have considered Secretary of State Colin Powell their great champion. And they considered Powell's negotiation of Security Council Resolution 1441 to be a great victory for the multilateralist approach, not only potentially providing the United States with the legitimacy of U.N. authorization for any war but also opening the possibility of achieving the disarmament of Iraq peacefully.

For months, proponents of this approach enjoyed the luxury of not having to choose between their professed devotion to a multilateralist foreign policy and their professed commitment to disarm Iraq. Their position allowed the appearance of toughness and resolve--"These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power," Senator Joe Biden declared last July--while also providing a good vantage point for attacking "hawks" and "unilateralists" and "neo-conservatives." Anyone who suggested that a new round of U.N. inspections would not work, as Vice President Dick Cheney did in August, was demonized as a warmonger. Anyone who suggested that the United States did not necessarily need Security Council authorization to legitimize the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, and who pointed out that the United States likely could not obtain such authorization, was denounced as a "unilateralist" determined to destroy world order. And for some there was another great advantage: Those who opposed war against Iraq under any circumstances, but who for political reasons did not want to admit it, could hide behind the demand for "multilateralism." If the French agreed, they argued, the United States could go to war. No one was forced to answer the question: What if, despite everything, the French did not agree?

The French have put an end to that game. It is now likely that U.N. Security Council authorization for war will be unobtainable, regardless of whether Saddam complies with Resolution 1441. Therefore, American politicians and the foreign policy elite will have to make clear, once and for all, whether or not they support the disarming of Iraq and the removal of Saddam's regime from power, by force, and without U.N. authorization. There can be no more obfuscation.

Most important perhaps, the faux-hawkish multilateralists will not be able to hide behind Colin Powell anymore. Secretary Powell has taken a clear stand. Having given Saddam one last chance to disarm peacefully, and having sincerely tried to work with the French, Powell is ready to move forward with the disarmament of Iraq by force and without a new U.N. authorization. In response to French and German demands to give more time to the inspectors, Powell last week insisted, "Inspections will not work." (We wonder if Powell will now suffer the same widespread condemnation that Cheney did when he said just this five months ago.)

As Powell argues, it would be ridiculous now to extend the time for inspections. If Saddam had intended to disarm he already would be doing so. Powell voiced appropriate skepticism about the real intentions of those who are asking that the inspectors be given more time. In an obvious reference to the French government, Powell wondered aloud "whether they're serious about bringing it to a conclusion at some time."

We wonder the same thing about some American politicians. For while Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, have reacted with consistency and integrity to the turn of events both in Baghdad and at the Security Council, some prominent leaders of what until now might have been called the Powell camp in Congress seem to have abandoned the secretary of state. Thus Senator Chuck Hagel is still pleading, à la française, for the inspectors to be given more time. "Let's wait and give the inspectors an opportunity to work this through," Hagel argued this past week, without even bothering to hint at how much more time they should be given. And Hagel went on to argue that it would be "a huge mistake if the president went forward without the support of our allies and the consent of the United Nations."

The funny thing is, Hagel professed to have a different view back in September. Then he argued that "if we run the diplomatic track . . . and in the end we cannot get a Security Council resolution, then the United States has exhausted all the means, diplomatic means and channels, and then we'll make a call. And if, in fact, we find at the end of the day that the Brits and the Turks and others are with us, then we'll have the option to do that." Four months later, the Bush administration, under Powell's lead, has done precisely what Hagel demanded. And, indeed, "the Brits and the Turks and others are with us," just as Hagel suggested. But lo and behold, now it is not enough for Hagel after all. He still opposes war without "the consent of the United Nations," a consent everyone knows will probably not be forthcoming. Wouldn't it be simpler if Hagel, and others who share his view, simply dropped the pretense? For them, as for the French, it isn't about disarming Saddam. They just oppose the war.

And it isn't even about multilateralism. As Powell points out, and as we and others have pointed out many times, with or without a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the United States will not "go it alone" in Iraq. When the president announces that the United States is going to war, and the attack begins, the United States will have many allies indeed: in addition to the nations already mentioned, Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and probably others. Australia has already begun sending troops, even though the Australians live thousands of miles away from the zone of crisis.

We would prefer it if France and Germany also joined forces with the United States in common defense of international security. We would prefer it if the U.N. Security Council supported war against Saddam. But most of all we want to see the United States and a coalition of willing partners take the action necessary to defend and preserve international security. The international situation has clarified. The case against Saddam is clear-cut. The Bush administration is, finally, united around the need for military action. Now the president, who has led us to this point, can give the word.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol

FLASHBACK: In November 2002, Kristol and Kagan warned of The U.N. Trap.