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Richburg has been The Washington Post's Paris bureau chief since the fall of 2000. In this interview, he discusses the French view that it was their "aggressive diplomacy" -- and not Tony Blair's efforts -- that led President Bush to seek a U.N. resolution for going to war in Iraq. Richburg also talks about the weaknesses in Resolution 1441, offers an example of Bush's diplomatic blundering, and lists the reasons for France's opposition to the Iraq war. This interview was conducted on March 13, 2003.

In terms of the growing drumbeat from the United States on the Iraq threat, what was the first alarm bell for the French?

This real drumbeat on Iraq started around the summer of the year 2002. People here really couldn't [understand] the shift in the Bush administration from war on terrorism now meaning that we have to turn our attention to Baghdad. People here in France just couldn't quite understand what the link was. Secondly, people sort of thought Saddam Hussein and Baghdad was an old problem that had been solved. Sure, the weapons inspectors had been thrown out; that was kind of a big problem. They hadn't disarmed. But nobody thought Saddam Hussein was threatening anyone.

A lot of institutions are going to be weakened by this. The Americans have driven this issue just incredibly hard and driven a wedge into NATO and the EU.

At the same time -- and I think this is really important to keep in mind -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was probably in its hottest moment. I think probably in the States, at least from what I see on television news, it doesn't really get the same kind of attention in the States that it gets here. Every time there is an Israeli raid on a Palestinian refugee camp and Palestinians are killed, that is front-page news here. It is really what people are talking about. It is really seen as a huge, huge problem.

People here really were thinking, why is America suddenly talking about Saddam Hussein as a threat when the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli problem, which is not being solved? That was a huge question mark.

But on Saddam, the great American defense is, "Look, the alternative was containment back in the 1990s. But containment unraveled because of the French."

Well, that's right. The heart of the debate here is, is Saddam Hussein really a threat to anyone now? The French would say after 12 years of on-again, off-again sanctions, and on-again, off-again weapons inspections, his regime is basically bankrupt. They really don't have the capability of hitting anyone with a missile any more. Most of their weapons, if not all, were probably destroyed through the protection and inspection regime, and he's just not really a threat.

 
 

So there was really just a lack of comprehension as to why this was seen as suddenly a problem.

Do you remember Dick Cheney's speech on August 26, 2002, where he is sort of attacking the idea of sending weapons inspectors back in and so on? What was the reaction here to that?

That was when you first started to see real hostility developing towards the American position. The thinking was, "Well, wait a minute. Are you talking about a problem of disarmament, of weapons of mass destruction? Or are you talking about trying to change the regime?"

I think it was around that time that we heard the word "regime change." That touched a raw nerve here. The French don't like the idea of going around and picking governments, probably more so than the United States. They always say, "We don't recognize governments; we recognize countries."

I remember they started using this term "rogue states" for certain countries. I remember the then-French foreign minister kind of sneering when I asked him about this, saying, "Oh, we don't say there are any such thing as rogue states. There's either states, or there's not states. But there's no such thing as a rogue state."

So all of a sudden you've got this idea [in the U.S.] that there are certain states out there that we need to change their regime, and that really kind of rankled here. I remember French academics here when I would talk about this, telling me, "We tried that in Africa years ago, when we would go in and try to change regimes. But it doesn't work. You just deal with whoever's there. That's the way the modern world works."

It's kind of a real hardheaded, realpolitik attitude towards the world.

On September 12, 2002, George Bush goes to the U.N. and makes it clear he's going to take a multilateral route. What was the reaction here to that?

That was actually seen here as a victory for the French and a victory for President Jacques Chirac. It was Jacques Chirac who first suggested that there should be a two-step resolution. At first, if you recall, the Americans and the Bush administration were looking for a straight-out U.N. resolution that would say Saddam Hussein hasn't disarmed and we should be able to go to war.

Jacques Chirac gave an interview with The New York Times in which he suggested we should have a two-step approach -- first a resolution with period of time to get the inspectors back, and then a short window, just a few months, to come back again and ascertain whether or not he's cooperating. And it really was a big surprise that that resolution passed unanimously.

But France took credit for it. This is really important. France took credit for getting America back into the multilateral framework again, for getting George Bush to go to the United Nations. It really seemed a big victory here for President Chirac. Suddenly, because of what they considered French diplomacy, they got America back into the U.N. framework, and they got U.N. inspectors back.

I think that's really the basis of the problem now, which is, for the French, getting the inspectors back in was the end of the Iraq problem. For the Americans, it was the beginning of the Iraq problem.

Interesting, because in Britain, they take credit for drawing America into the U.N. process.

That's right. Tony Blair takes credit for being the bridge between the European so-called pacifists and the American so-called warriors. In France, it was really seen as aggressive French diplomacy that got the Americans finger off the trigger [and] saved this whole process from going out of control.

But Resolution 1441 became terribly confusing, of course, because America now uses 1441 as the justification for what's happening now. ...

The problem with 1441 was, it's sort of a little something for everybody. You could tell because of the fact it was passed unanimously. Any time something passes unanimously, it usually means it's so vaguely worded that nobody really knows what it means.

What did 1441 say? It said, "Well, Saddam Hussein has not complied. He's in material breach. He's got some period of time to comply, and if he doesn't, there will be serious consequences." Well, it sounds like it makes perfect sense if you're an American -- "serious consequences" means military action. Well, to the French, "serious consequences" means you go back to the Security Council and they will once again decide what to do. That was the first point of contention.

There are all kinds of other vague points. For example, 1441 said Saddam Hussein had to come up on Dec. 8 with a listing of everything that he had, and anything he didn't declare would constitute another material breach; that automatically would be a trigger for war. The French were saying, "Well, no, that doesn't really mean anything. That only means he has to report."

I remember that being a big issue two weeks after 1441 was passed. If he put in a statement saying he had no weapons of mass destruction, would that automatically mean that he had lied? The Americans said, "Yes, because we have intelligence saying that he does have these weapons," or "He's got stocks of anthrax," etc. The French were saying, "Well, no, just because one member of the Security Council claims he has these things is not proof. This so-called proof has to be put before the council. We have to examine it, and it's up to the weapons inspectors."

So that became another big question -- who decided whether there was a material breach? Who decided whether Saddam Hussein was cooperating? So 1441 was this kind of catch-all -- something for everybody. You could read into it what you will, which is the only reason it passed unanimously.

The American logic is that, to be innocent, Saddam had to admit he was guilty.

Well, the American logic shifted several times. It shifted in President Bush's speeches. It shifted in the statements of Colin Powell at the United Nations.

I was at the French Foreign Ministry when Dominique de Villepin was giving a statement, and I was talking to one of his aides afterwards. This aide said to me, "The problem we have with the American position is that on Monday, it is to disarm Saddam Hussein. On Tuesday, it is because he's linked to Al Qaeda and terrorism. On Wednesday, it's because you want to make Iraq into a democracy. On Thursday, it's because you want to make the entire Middle East into a democracy. On Friday, it's because you want to jumpstart the Arab-Israeli talks, you know."

Where's the consistent logic in all of this? If the real goal was to disarm him and get rid of his weapons, why not stick to the weapons inspection regime? That's the French position. If your real goal was regime change -- and don't forget this is what Dick Cheney was saying before they went to the United Nations -- if your real goal was regime change, then all you're really doing is using the weapons inspections as some kind of a tripwire, an excuse to go in and topple his regime, That means you don't really care about weapons of mass destruction; you're using that as an excuse. So that's the French position -- be consistent in your argument.

Do you think, therefore, with 1441 that the Americans were out-maneuvered then basically by the French?

I don't think they were out-maneuvered. I mean, the Americans would see 1441 as a victory of sorts because of the vagueness of the language. Even to this day to be able to say that 1441 once said, "Saddam Hussein faces serious consequences," to the Americans, that gives them all the opening they need to start a war.

So it was not what they wanted. They wanted one straight-up resolution that says, "Saddam has a deadline to disarm; if not, we can attack." They did not get that. [But] out-maneuvered? I think, at that time, they thought it was probably better.

There's another point, too. Resolution 1441 was passed in November. The Americans didn't mind having this long period of time -- long in their minds -- for the inspectors to come back and give new reports in January, another report in February, because the American troops weren't in the field yet.

Did the Americans miscalculate the French resolve?

I think the Americans miscalculated the French position. But I also think the French position changed. The French position was actually fairly strong in the beginning. I remember when Saddam Hussein put out in December a declaration saying that he didn't really have any weapons; [everything] had already been accounted for. It was the French who came out and said, "That statement is a lie. He's already violated Resolution 1441 because he lied."

This was in December. One month later, in January, I remember President Jacques Chirac reviewed the troops for [New Year's], and he gave a pretty strong speech saying, "You must be ready for any contingency. You might be called upon to go to war, you know. You have to be ready." Around that same time, the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean.

France looked like it was about ready to join in American-led coalition, so something changed in the French position. I think the Americans at the time were counting on France to be there along with Britain. France wanted the U.N. resolution. They wanted it to be a U.N. process, not an American unilateral process. But something really started to change in the French position.

Why do you think that was? Why did it happen?

Well, no one is quite sure. It was around the time that the German position became quite hard -- no war at any time -- and around the time of the anniversary, the 40th anniversary of the [Elysee] Treaty. That was basically the treaty between Germany and France at the end of World War Two. Chancellor Schröder of Germany came here and then Jacques Chirac went to Berlin. The two of them gave these kind of rousing pep rallies together, when they started saying, "There's no distance between us. Our positions on Iraq are exactly the same."

Well, that wasn't true; their positions were actually quite different. The Germans were saying "no war under any circumstances," and the French were saying, "Well, let's give this resolution a chance to work and see if Saddam Hussein complies." But it was at that point that the rhetoric kind of overtook the reality.

Around that same time that you have this meeting at the Security Council where Colin Powell was, in the American view, ambushed by de Villepin. ... What happened basically is still a bit of a mystery but de Villepin ... didn't really say anything in the meeting that wasn't already known. But he basically restated the French position -- that we need to wait for the inspectors to finish their course.

The problem came when de Villepin gave a press conference later, and he was quite emotional. He kind of picked up this anti-war rhetoric, or anti-war line, that some of the pacifist Europeans were using at the time. The Americans felt that Colin Powell was really just ambushed. The French position was kind of hardening into an anti-war position, when in fact it was still a bit nuanced at that point.

What do you think is driving the French government's opposition to this war?

It's hard to give you a one-sentence answer, or one answer. There's a list of things and they all kind of coalesce into an anti-war position. First of all, there's a fear of terrorism. Every time I pick up the phone and call a French government official and mention, "Why are you opposing this American-led war against Saddam Hussein?" they said, "It's only going to make terrorism worse." They are really, really fearful -- and I think that's not too strong a word -- of bombs going off on the streets of Paris. They've had this before with Algerian terrorism. They don't like it. They want to keep it away.

Number two, and this is closely linked. There's a very large Muslim population here. Nobody knows the number exactly. But 4 million or 5 million Muslims, mostly from North Africa, live in France, concentrated in the large cities -- Paris, Marseilles. You know they're obviously going to be opposed to a war against a Muslim country, and France is really concerned about this kind of reaction. We saw during the French presidential campaign here, just before the campaign, a lot of anti-Semitic incidents -- bombs, little firebombs thrown at synagogues, Jews being beaten up by North African youth. They really see this kind of exploding if there is a war in the Middle East.

Number three. France has a lot of interest in the Middle East. President Chirac just came back from Algeria. He tours there often, but he's been around for a long time, you know. Chirac's been mayor of Paris, prime minister, foreign minister, since the 1970s. He thinks he knows the Middle East. He's traveled to Baghdad; he's traveled around that region. Also there are links in the Middle East or with the Palestinian side, with the Palestinian Authority.

It's a part of the world he thinks he knows. He's a man now in his seventies, and he thinks he's been dealing with this issue for 25, 30 years. He knows the area. They've got an economic interest there. His question is, "Why are we going to inflame the Middle East by launching what will look like a Christian, Western-led war against a Muslim country? Why should this be containing Saddam Hussein and not trying to overthrow his regime?" So that's a really big worry here.

Another fourth reason: public opinion. You've got 75-80 percent of the French people solidly against the war. In America, it is seen that Chirac and the French government is taking some wacky, off-the-wall position. But really he's actually following what his public opinion is saying. ...

And then you add in sort of this idea that it's a geopolitical idea -- [that] France doesn't like the idea that America is the cowboy in the world calling the shots, being the world's policeman, going around deciding which regimes to overthrow, which regimes to leave in place.

I was talking to a Foreign Ministry official the other day. He said, "We don't give a damn about Iraq; this isn't about Iraq. This is about the post-Cold War order -- who decides what regimes stay in place, who decides who keeps the order. Is it going to be America, acting alone as a superpower, ... or is it going to be the Security Council -- all nations sitting together on the Security Council with five permanent members, deciding?" And don't forget, France is a permanent member. As long as these decisions go through the Security Council, France has a veto power, or at least France has a say. If it's America alone deciding with the coalition of the willing, France could be cut out, France doesn't have so much of a say.

So it's really a battle over what the world's going to look like.

But for Dominique de Villepin, in particular, it becomes almost a romantic vision of a multipolar world, isn't it?

Yes, he is a remarkable man. He's a poet, he's an intellectual man and he really sees this as a battle over what the world is going to look like in the future.

The other thing is, this is a battle over what the Bush administration put out in the international Security Council memorandum, talking about their pre-emptive policy. Wherever they see a threat in the world after Sept. 11, they're not going to wait for the threat to materialize; they're going to go and act, even if means overthrowing a regime.

The French were outraged when this was announced, and this is a battle to stop that from becoming reality. Iraq is really the test case for the Bush administration policy of pre-emption. Will the United States be able to go around the world deciding that a country or countries are a threat, and act against it? Or will they have to go through some kind of a multilateral system?

You know, if you look at it in a broader context, Europe and France have spent the last decade basically giving up some of their sovereignty to this institution called the European Union. The French are being told that their budget's out of line, they've got to get it in line. The French are being told how they have to put their cheese in refrigerators, what kind of products they can sell. They're basically giving away some of their sovereign rights, some of their sovereign decision-making, for this thing called the European Union. They even gave away their French franc, so their financial independence is now being dictated by Brussels really, because they're a member of the Euro zone. So being part of a multilateral structure is something that is now deeply ingrained into the culture here.

America, on the other hand, has this sort of attitude that "We can do what we want." I watched President Bush's press conference recently where he said, "We don't need anybody's permission." That would be a complete anathema to Europeans, who have been getting permission from Brussels to do things in their own countries now for many years.

So it really is like one of the American policy thinkers, Robert Kagan, said recently, "Europeans are from Mars, and Americans are from Venus." They're really seeing things in completely different ways."

There are personal factors as well. Chirac has a view to history, doesn't he?

Chirac has a view to history. I've written a couple of stories about Chirac, trying to understand where his thinking is. He's in his last term as president. He's in his seventies. He's been around for a really long time. Somebody pointed out to me, "You know, Chirac was prime minister when Nixon was president of the United States. He made his first trip to Baghdad around 1974. Chirac's been around before George Bush ever dreamt of going into politics."

So he really sees himself as an elder statesman. To compare him with others in their forties and fifties, Chirac really sees himself as the grand old man; he understands the Middle East; he's been dealing with their leaders for 30 years. I think he really wants to be deferred to on some of these issues.

The other thing is, Germany now is in a pretty weakened position. Their economy is weak. Chancellor Schröder is in a weakened position, so Chirac is the elder statesman in his second term. He's looking to history. He sees himself as a kind of de Gaulle-like figure. He was flattered recently about the comparison to de Gaulle. He really sees himself as somebody who can sort of speak for Europe.

It's been a bit difficult now, because as [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, Europe has expanded. It's expanding eastwards, and a lot of these new countries look more to America than they look to France and they look to Germany. So that's been a real problem.

There's something else people mention -- the Samuel Huntington thesis on the clash of civilizations. Is that something that comes up when you talk to French people?

It is something that the French have spoken to me about several times. They see this clash of civilizations occurring on French soil. France has a very large Muslim population. Islam is the second largest religion in France and they really, really don't want to see this clash occurring.

One person described Chirac as being obsessed with this thesis.

De Villepin and Chirac are really concerned about the battle between Christianity and Islam. They don't want to see it happen on the streets of Paris. We had a very, very minor taste of it. We saw various incidents occurring here in mosques, and synagogues were being attacked. They don't really want to see this happening, and they see this as a huge problem.

The whole question of admitting Turkey into the European Union has kind of touched on this question -- can Islam be compatible with Christianity in the structure of the European Union? There is a real, real fear here that the European Union will be seen as a Christian fortress, posed against an Islamic world .

What they fear is that this coalition that the Americans are putting together -- America, Britain, Australia, other like-minded countries in Eastern Europe -- will be seen as Western Christian countries attacking a Muslim country. That's why Turkey is really important, That's why I think the Americans would love to have Turkey on board; they would love to be able to use Turkey as part of a coalition because Turkey is a Muslim country. Turkey is a large country; it's in NATO, and that would kind of blank this argument that it's Western Christian countries going against Third World Islamic countries.

Now Richard Perle [former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board] says it's all much simpler than this. France has vested interests in Iraq, it has done its oil deal.

I think that's complete nonsense for a variety of reasons. Number one, America is the largest buyer of Iraqi oil. Number two, which government is it that's surrounded by people from the oil industry? President Bush was in the oil industry. Dick Cheney was in the oil industry.

Thirdly, France's economic interest with Iraq is about 0.01 percent of its economy. Its economic interest with the United States are immeasurable, so why would France risk its economic interest in America for a tiny country about the size of Texas?

Finally, it makes no sense, on its face. If France were only interested in oil contracts, their easiest way of doing that would be to join the American-led coalition, go to war, kick out Saddam Hussein, and then be first in line to get contracts.

Tell me a little bit more about that European summit meeting in Copenhagen and the flap that resulted. Bush called Chirac, wasn't it?

Bush called Chirac. He called the prime minister of Denmark, who was then chairing the summit. He called a couple of leaders, basically pushing the case that Turkey belonged in the European Union. I remember the reaction among the French especially was absolutely livid. They said, "Well, maybe we should call Bush and say that we think Mexico should be a state in the United States. How dare he interfere in something that's no business of the United States, and in a very politically sensitive issue?" Because once President Bush made that call lobbying personally on the behalf of Turkey, it would really raise the hopes of the Turks. It would make the Turks think, "We've got Bush on our side, therefore, we're going to get in." And it would make the blow even harder when they were given a date pretty far in the future.

I remember people were on the record saying, "This is an outrage. It shows the ignorance of America towards the European Union," and off the record, they say even stronger things. One thing that the French pointed out was the European Union is not some club that can let in any member. Members have to subscribe to a certain series of conditions -- economic conditions, human rights conditions, etc. It's a pretty objective criteria that has to be met, and to just say, "Let Turkey in because we like the Turks," just showed, in the view of the French, a complete ignorance of what the European Union is. And it was interfering in the internal affairs of Europe, which presidents really shouldn't do.

Where is this whole crisis, regardless of what happens, going to leave all the great institutions -- NATO, the E.U., and the U.N.?

It is sad to say, but being here in Europe, you're really starting to see a huge split develop. If you'd asked me a year ago, I would say it was all nonsense -- talking about anti-Americanism in Europe. But I'm starting to really see open hostility towards the American government, not American people, and really starting to see a big split develop. It really is as if these institutions are going to be hurt -- I wouldn't say beyond repair, that's a bit strong -- but it's going to take a lot of work.

A lot of it is going to depend on how the Iraq crisis resolves itself. If it's a quick and successful war, a lot of this might be forgotten sooner. If there are big spillover problems in other countries in the Middle East, if there is an increase in terrorism, if France and other countries are hit, they're going to see a lot of hostility towards the United States for opening this Pandora's box.

But at the moment I think this has really damaged the trans-Atlantic relationship. I don't think things are ever going to be the same after this. I think people blame the Bush administration for dragging this dead cat out and throwing it in the middle of the table and forcing people to choose sides. ... You have this tirade by Jacques Chirac against the Eastern European members saying they should learn to shut up; you've had this Group of Eight signing a letter; you've the France-German peace axis; and the European Union is badly, badly split. I think the biggest casualty in all of this is the European Union's attempt to find a common ground in defense policy. That's not going to happen now, and this issue has proven that.

This whole question of Europe, if they form a new constitution that calls for a European president, Tony Blair was in the running for that job. [Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria] Aznar, in his second term, was in the running for that job. Not now. You're talking about leaders who have gone against the opinions of 75 percent, 80 percent of the European population. Their futures in Europe seem over now.

So it really seems that a lot of reputations have been shattered by this. A lot of institutions are going to be weakened by this, all because the Americans have driven this issue just incredibly hard and driven a wedge into a lot of these institutions like NATO and the E.U. It is going to take a long time to repair the damage from this, even if it is a short successful war.

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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