GWEN IFILL: Joining me to discuss what's behind France's latest move, and what it may mean for any possible Bush administration plans for war in Iraq, we turn to Charles Kupchan, a former director for European affairs on the National Security Council under Preident Clinton. He's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. And Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration. He now practices law in Washington.
Mr. Kupchan, maybe you can help us with this. What is the significance of what France decided to do?
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think in the first instance, it makes clear that there is a broad difference in how the U.S. is approaching the process of the U.N. and how the French are going about it. I think for the U.S. there is a decision probably last summer that said we need to go to war against Iraq. And then the Bush administration said let's go to the U.N. to build support for it.
I think the French said, let's go to the U.N. and see if we can find a way to avoid war. War is a last resort. It may come. We will be there if the proof of weapons of mass destruction is there. But we don't see that proof yet. I think in terms of the timing of the French move, it was very much a... an attempt to get ready for January 27 when the report will come in from Hans Blix; and also to say, look, the U.S. is building more and more forces. The British just sent 26,000. It looks like they're edging up to the point of launching an attack. We need to draw a line in the sand before it's too late.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babbin, was this a line in the sand and was it significant?
JED BABBIN: Well, it's not significant at all. Frankly it's merely a repeat of what the French and the Chinese and the Russians did in 1998 when with Kofi Annan they agreed to basically block the effectiveness of the inspections that were going on at this time. The process of the U.N., the president is right, has a finite amount of time. It would be tremendously ironic to see a nation like France, which has really no other voice in the world other than its vote on the Security Council, to have this sort of an effect and basically deprive the U.N. of legitimacy in the future because that is what they are really approaching if they veto a resolution that we present for military action against Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: So we should not be concerned at all about France's criticism.
JED BABBIN: It really is of no import. France has nothing other than economic interest there. Russia, which will also criticize us, has an $8 billion debt from Saddam. And the other nations that are also participating and lining up on this really have no effect on the international stage. All they are, are economic trading partners. It is important in a way to have backing if we can get it. But no one ever proposed that the United Nations or particularly France would be either the commander in chief or the decision-maker for when the United States asserts its national security interest.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kupchan, what do you think about that, what France's influence as well as its ability to attract support from other European nations?
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think Mr. Babbin is right but only in a narrow technical sense in that the U.S. in Resolution 1441 has agreed to come back to the U.N. for discussions but not said that it will necessarily seek a second resolution. In that sense if the U.S. wants to go to war, it will say that it has the leeway to do so.
I think the bigger picture though is much, much different than the one we just heard in the sense that most Security Council members are lining up behind France, not with the United States. World opinion is generally saying we want more evidence that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Even Americans are saying President Bush has yet to make the case.
And so I think if the U.S. goes down this route without broader support at the U.N. not just the French but other key members in the Security Council, it will essentially be... to say we are putting ourselves above the law and I think that what we will see is a real undermining of the sense of multilateralism of shared interests that has held the west together over the last few decades.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babbin, your response.
JED BABBIN: Well, frankly multilateralism is what got us into this pickle to start with. We listened to our so-called multi-lateral partners in 1991 and did not remove Saddam then. There is no requirement under the law. In fact, Mr. Kupchan is absolutely 180 degrees out. The fact is that international law would support us removing Saddam right this minute. Yes we agreed to go back to the United Nations. Yes, we do not have to go back to the United Nations. There is no significance other than what we choose to give France's actions to those actions. The European Union, Greece and the others who have come out against us today, are really not in a position to voice any control other than what they have at the United Nations.
This is not an issue of multilateralism. This is an issue of a direct threat. I also wanted to remark mainly Mr. Kupchan is saying there is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. On the contrary, there is enormous evidence, and if Mr. Blix had made a serious inspection in the places where we have good reason to believe that the bad stuff is, he would have found things.
GWEN IFILL: What evidence are you referring to because the administration has been loath to provide those details.
JED BABBIN: There are specific references to specific places. Saddam has a roughly 100 so- called palaces around Iraq. In the palace - in the Baghdad presidential complex -- there is a lab called ElTalhadi where biological weapons are made; the Jabul Makul palace near Samara is really where they have the uranium enrichment project. If Mr. Blix were serious, if the United States were serious, which they are not, they would have already visited these places over the past two months.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Let's come back for a moment to the discussion about unilateralism versus multilateralism. One of the things that Monsieur De Villepin, the French foreign minister, mentioned was that he thought the U.S. actions regarding, that is, where they would go it alone without the support of allies like France or Greece or others that we've mentioned, that would be a benchmark for what they considered to be U.S. intent on other... in other areas of the world like North Korea, like the Middle East where they could conceivably be seeking the U.N. to help with their diplomatic efforts. Mr. Kupchan.
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think part of the problem is that this issue over Iraq is related to a whole host of other diplomatic issues that have come up in the past year. The Kyoto protocol on climate change, the international criminal court, the anti-ballistic missile treaty -- and the United States in each of these cases has tended to back away from these multilateral commitments.
There is a real sense abroad, not just in France, but in South Korea we're seeing growing concerns, that the United States is simply not a team player anymore. And we're seeing public opinion polls, the Pew report, for example, that shows very significant increases in anti-American sentiment. People are beginning to question American intentions and how America will be using its power in the years ahead.
So rather than this being a case where we are... we bear no cost s if we go it alone, I think this really is an historical turning point. I would like to see the Bush administration come out with the evidence that my colleague is referring to. I think if he does, world opinion and American opinion will likely go with the United States. I think the French would be prepared to go to war. But in the absence of that kind of evidence, compelling evidence that reasonable would agree says this guy has got to go, I think the United States has to be very careful about losing its international legitimacy.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babbin, do you think that in the face of adverse public opinion at home and abroad that if the United States did this on its own or with the willing coalition that the president refers to that people would just get on board afterwards?
JED BABBIN: Yes I think they would. They would very quickly in fact. The fact is that multilateralism over the past eight years, nine years, has again gotten us into the situation we're in now. Multilateralism only works if someone is willing to lead and others are willing to follow. We cannot surrender our national security interests to the United Nations. The president is absolutely correct in saying we have a right to act independently. In fact, we have an obligation to do so.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babbin, is Britain our last staunch ally and does it matter?
JED BABBIN: It matters a great deal, yes. Britain is a very staunch ally. They are really the only country... well, I shouldn't say that. There are others, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, basically the old commonwealth nations that are still will to go pay a price in blood and treasure for freedom.
GWEN IFILL: I guess my question is does it matter that they are our only staunch ally?
JED BABBIN: Not really. At this point who else really could matter? The others don't have the forces. They do not have the influence, even the economic influence to really try to shape matters. We need to proceed as our interests dictate.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kupchan.
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think another piece to the story here that's getting less attention is what's happening inside Europe. And the French position is in part motivated to close the distance between Paris and Berlin. Chancellor Schroeder has been saying don't want to go to war, don't want to pay for war.
And the French and the Germans have been somewhat apart on this. Beneath the surface there is an ongoing constitutional convention taking place in Europe about Europe's future, joint military forces, a single foreign minister for Europe. So I think right now the French and the Germans are trying to come together especially because Germany now has a rotating seat on the Security Council.
So in contrast to Mr. Babbin who thinks none of these countries matter, I think the Europeans are coming together. They will increasingly be able to dig in their heels and act as a counterweight to the United States. I think the United States would be very short sighted if it goes after Saddam Hussein and essentially scuttles the Atlantic alliance in doing so.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Babbin, a final response.
JED BABBIN: Well, that certainly would not scuttle the Atlantic alliance. The Atlantic alliance is very well and strong. It exists between London and Washington. The rest simply are irrelevant to our calculation.
GWEN IFILL: Jed Babbin and Charles Kupchan, thank you very much for joining us.
CHARLES KUPCHAN: Thank you.
JED BABBIN: Thank you.