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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.