The Magazine

Saddam Hussein's French Kiss

A desire to stick it to the U.S. has led Paris to embrace the Iraqi dictator

Oct 16, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 05 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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WHEN RICHARD BUTLER once shared with the United Nations Security Council a series of high-altitude photographs of some 130 heavy Republican Guard trucks gathering at an isolated spot in the desert -- they had just fled an inspection site as Butler and his arms inspection team were approaching -- French U.N. ambassador Alain Dejammet mocked the evidence. Dejammet speculated that perhaps it was just "a truckers' picnic."

It's stunning, the degree to which a misguided and deeply cynical policy run by Paris has managed over the last four years to rally much of the world against the United States -- and in support of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime. Of course, give a weak American president his due. American fecklessness breeds contempt, even among our allies. But the French deserve special credit.

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 687. According to the resolution, Iraq gives up its weapons of mass destruction. In exchange, the international community gives up its sanctions against Iraq. Straightforward. Iraq's oil minister, General Amer Rashid, claims today that Iraq has been "in compliance with 687 since the end of 1991." Equally straightforward. The Iraqis practice the Big Lie.

UNSCOM -- the U.N. commission charged with removing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- has not been permitted by Baghdad to operate in Iraq since late 1998. Even "son-of-UNSCOM," the softer, more politicized version known as UNMOVIC (the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission), run by former Swedish foreign minister Hans Blix, has not been allowed in. "We are happy without the inspections," says Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. No doubt.

While still operating in Iraq, UNSCOM found a consistent pattern of flagrant cheating and concealment by the Iraqis. In one instance, one of UNSCOM's senior biological inspectors seized a briefcase from two Iraqi officers running out the back door of a laboratory. The briefcase contained materials for testing biological warfare agents such as anthrax and botulinim toxin. In another, Tariq Aziz, brazen and defiant, told UNSCOM's chairman Butler that the regime needed to retain its weapons of mass destruction for the Persians (Iranians) and the Jews (Israelis)!

Saddam's weapons programs continue. According to recent German press reports, Germany's intelligence has located a new secret missile factory some 40 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. The factory reportedly employs 250 engineers and is working on plans for missiles with a range of 3,000 miles, far longer that the missiles Iraq recently tested. How many truckers' picnics would we find today if the international community were able to conduct inspections inside Iraq?

So what's the French posture? Since coming to office in 1995, President Jacques Chirac has pursued doggedly a policy aimed at ending sanctions and returning Saddam's regime to the family of respected nations ("Iraq is not a defeated nation!" French diplomats declare). The French approach to helping Saddam has not been a very creative one, mind you. Paris simply follows Baghdad.

At first, this meant discrediting Richard Butler as an agent of the Americans. Yes, Butler, the center-left Australian diplomat who has spent his career in arms control and disarmament issues -- often on the opposite side from the United States. Go figure. Still, when Butler told the New York Times in 1998 that Iraq possessed enough anthrax to "blow away Tel Aviv," Iraq beat the drum about U.S.-Zionist conspiracies -- and the French kept pace. Foreign minister Hubert Vedrine suggested that Butler was "over-stepping his prerogatives." France's interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, called Butler's comments "ridiculous" (Chevenement had resigned as defense minister over the Gulf War).

Paris also followed Saddam's line by discrediting the work of UNSCOM more generally, suggesting that the enterprise itself was a tool of the Americans. After all, it conducted "endless checks," complained Le Monde, led by a "preponderance" of Americans. But this, too, flew in the face of all evidence. UNSCOM's work was led by scientific experts. What's more, the highest percentage of Americans that ever served among UNSCOM's team of technical experts was 17 percent. The head of the missile team was a Russian, as was the deputy head of the chemical weapons unit. A Frenchman served as the photo interpreter for U-2 imagery -- until his government recalled him in 1997 because, according to one former UNSCOM official, his work led him to stray from Paris's overtly political line.