The French Connection
Ayman El-Amir* believes that a war on Iraq is not inevitable
The mixed progress report on the disarmament of Iraq that was submitted to the United Nations Security Council on Monday by chief inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed El-Baradei has provided a tactical victory for the anti-war coalition. As a result, a majority of Security Council members, led by France, which holds the rotating Presidency of the Council for the month of January, is now leaning towards allocating more time for the inspectors to complete their work. More importantly, the report marked the failure of the public relations campaign that the Bush administration, with the backing of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, had launched in the hope of winning international support for war against Iraq. This dichotomy points to a shift in interests and alliances across the Atlantic, between the United States and some leading members of the European Union, with regard to the Middle East, and makes the building of a credible pro-war coalition more difficult for Washington.
What should be expected in the coming weeks is a combination of pressure and persuasion by the US on members of the Security Council and key allies. This would be required to extract some semblance of a guilty verdict against Iraq for non-compliance with the Council's resolutions. This would then be interpreted as a mandate for military action. But while Washington has a lot of diplomatic persuading to do, time seems to be running out for it to prove its case to the growing anti-war international coalition and to an increasingly sceptical American public.
If the inspection reports have left the US with a more difficult task, both domestically and among its traditional European allies, it is owing to the work of French diplomacy. France saw in the threat of war against Iraq what Washington tried to conceal: unbridled US hegemony over the Middle East and its oil resources. Despite US assurances, France did not buy the argument that once Saddam Hussein is removed, the US would hold the Iraqi oil "in trust" for those with vested interests -- meaning France and Russia. France believes that a devastating war, and its chaotic aftermath, would breed instability, with tens of thousands of refugees drifting to Europe.
France has used multilateralism to its advantage. It is concerned about dragging Europe into a war that would be damaging to its interests and might conceivably trigger a new bout of terrorism. The US, in anticipation of the inspectors' reports, is trying to promote a unilateralist military campaign against Iraq, with or without international consensus. France, on the other hand, is building bridges with other EU allies, especially Germany, in order to isolate not only the US but also Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is increasingly being perceived as Washington's Trojan horse in Europe, much to the embarrassment of his own countrymen. Two-thirds of Britons remain unconvinced of his case for war against Iraq and are baffled by the extreme lengths to which he has gone in turning his back on Europe to win Washington's favour. The recent Franco-German reconciliation and their projected unity on the situation in Iraq has ostracised Britain for risking European interests and sounded the alarm on US ambitions in a historically sensitive region. Meanwhile, on the eve of President Bush's State of the Union address, the American public is evenly divided on who should be trusted with the war-against-Iraq decision, with 47 per cent with President Bush and 47 per cent wanting the decision to be left to the UN.
Blix's progress report, more than El- Baradei's, has been quite critical of Iraq. It has faulted Baghdad for a failure to genuinely accept the requirements for disarmament. It has pointed to gaps in Iraq's accounting for chemical and biological weapons production. Furthermore, it has criticised Iraq's provision of inadequate information on missile manufacturing and testing ranges, the extent of its cooperation in allowing aerial surveillance and the freedom to interview Iraqi scientists in private. The report gave Washington powerful, but temporary ammunition for its case against Iraq.
Russia, Germany and France, on the other hand, saw in both reports a persuasive argument for the continuation of inspections and called for Iraqi cooperation. The French Permanent Representative to the UN, and outgoing President of the Security Council, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said after the Blix-Baradei briefing that the mechanism set up by resolution 1441, "is producing results". In a clear rift with Washington, he added that the resolution contained "no time-limit" on the work of the inspectors -- a rejection of the "time is running out" declaration. President Jacques Chirac said he would do everything possible to avoid war and the EU has formally endorsed France's position for the continuation of inspections. So, where does this leave Iraq, the US and the international community?
The US knows it does not command a majority in the Security Council for a vote authorising military action. Should it opt for the ragtag "coalition of the willing" that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been suggesting? This would probably lead to the US suffering unprecedented isolation in the international arena.
The US has no choice but to continue to build its case more forcefully within the international community, particularly with its European allies, even while it holds a Democlean sword over everyone's head. This would be the purpose of the Security Council's consultations that have begun on Wednesday. The US will need more than the carrot-and-stick approach that has been the hallmark of its diplomacy for decades; it will need to build a position of moral credibility, not of a brutal superpower.
Iraq remains the central piece in the jigsaw puzzle. In the eyes of the international community, it is neither guilty until proven innocent, nor innocent until proven guilty; it simply has the benefit of doubt. How it will use this privilege in the weeks to come will determine whether it has a defensible case that the anti-war coalition, in the Security Council and beyond, can fight for.
* The writer is a former director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.