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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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.