ASK FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER Dominique "Sandbag" de Villepin what his country had in mind when it supported the "serious consequences" threatened in U.N. Resolution 1441 for continued Iraqi noncompliance, and he'd likely utter two words: more inspections.
De Villepin's reaction to Colin Powell's case today at the United Nations was as comically incoherent as possible in a discussion of terrorism and deadly weapons. Listening to Villepin after Powell's presentation, I wondered if he had actually understood anything that Powell had said in the previous 80 minutes. Was the little white thing hooked to his ear playing Saint-Saens rather than Powell?
I'm eagerly awaiting the official transcript of Villepin's remarks in English, because each time I reread his comments I become less confident of my notes.
Did he really claim that "UNMOVIC and IAEA [inspections] are working"? Even after Powell played the intercepted communications proving Iraqi deception?
Did he honestly recommend that Baghdad could demonstrate its intent to cooperate by "by adopting legislation prohibiting the manufacture weapons of mass destruction?" (Yup, he did--I checked the transcript.)
The important moment--to the extent France still has important moments in world affairs--came when Villepin said that military means to disarm Saddam Hussein are still on the table. "We will not rule out anything, including use of force, as we have said all along." (It's tempting here to quibble with the last part of that claim. Villepin himself told the Security Council two weeks ago that "nothing justifies envisaging military action.")
By refusing to rule out force, the Foreign Minister may well have signaled France's coming retreat.
Villepin spent most of his time, however, arguing for a beefed-up inspection regime. He called for "double, triple" the number of inspectors currently on the ground in Iraq and pledged France's unwavering support for such reinforcements.
Given France's recent history on inspections, this too, is rather humorous. In 1999, when the Security Council took up the measure that would reconstitute a U.N. weapons-inspection regime after the previous inspectors were sent packing in 1998, the French abstained. Get that? The French--who convinced the Chinese, the Russians, and the Malaysians also to abstain--refused even to create the new inspection team once the old one was disbanded.
The Associated Press at the time described the abstentions as "a major blow to U.S. and British efforts to send Baghdad a united signal that the Security Council would stand for nothing less than full compliance with its demands."
What was France's reasoning? They wanted Iraqi sanctions lifted the moment inspectors returned to Baghdad. Not once Iraq complied with previous resolutions and disarmed, mind you, but as soon as inspectors were in Iraq.
Then-foreign minister Hubert Vedrine explained. "We think it may give rise to an interpretation allowing some countries to keep on forever saying that the cooperation hasn't taken place." But in the eight years of inspections to that point, cooperation really hadn't ever taken place.
The French abstention came after the Chirac government spent weeks extracting compromises from Security Council members, on behalf of the Iraqis, about the make-up and the authority of the new inspection team.
Peter van Walsum, the Dutch ambassador, was bitter. "Never have so many concessions gone so unrewarded."
It's a shame to spend so much time on the French after such an exceptional presentation. But Powell's case speaks for itself. Anyone who is not now convinced, never will be. So, let's move on.
But before we do it's worth noting one thing Powell said that was particularly compelling. In his discussion of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda collaborator who has conspired with Iraq, Powell claimed that we now know that "nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money, and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months."
And the French want to continue inspections?
Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer for The Weekly Standard.