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guillaume parmentier
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He is director of the French Center on the U.S. at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. He formerly was head of external relations at NATO and prepared a French Ministry of Defense study on the future of the Atlantic alliance. In this interview, he discusses the misunderstandings and fractures in the U.S.-French relationship in the months leading up to the Iraq war, noting in particular the rift that developed between Colin Powell and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Parmentier also explains the reasons behind France's opposition to the war and President Chirac's personal motivation in taking a determined anti-war stance. This interview was conducted on March 13, 2003.

When did the French-American relationship start to go wrong?

On Sept. 12, 2001, the NATO nations decided to invoke Article V of the NATO treaty. It is a sort of Three Musketeers article -- "one for all, all for one." And it was the first time in NATO history that it had been invoked. It had been meant to make sure that the Americans were coming to the rescue of the Europeans, but in fact it was invoked [following Sept. 11] for the first time for America by the Europeans.

Of course, the U.S. has, on the whole, benevolent intentions. But power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is true in the domestic field. It is true in the international field.

America's reaction to this, instead of being welcoming, was fairly dismissive, and in fact, sometimes close to contemptuous. The reason for that was Kosovo.

In Kosovo, what happened was that the Americans had drawn the conclusion that NATO was too multilateral, and the Europeans had drawn the conclusion that NATO was too unilateral, that the military planning was done entirely by the Americans. The Americans realized that the political bodies of the alliance, the NATO council, tried to micromanage the military operations themselves.

The Americans were very worried that NATO would make their campaign in Afghanistan too politically controlled. Therefore, instead of being sort of thankful [for the invocation of Article V], saying, "No, thank you, we'd rather do that ourselves; we've been attacked." They were fairly openly contemptuous of the ability of the Europeans to help. Of course, that was difficult to take for the leaders of European countries.

So I think this was a bad signal, and clearly it played a role in what happened after that.

Sept. 12, 2002, the following year, George Bush makes his speech on the Iraq threat at the U.N. How was that received here?

The speech given by President Bush was very well received in France, because it seemed to indicate that the American administration had understood that in order to pursue its goals of disarmament against Iraq, it had to go through the proper processes of international community. In France, that is of great importance.


We think that it is conducive to good behavior worldwide, that countries are not going to decide that this or that of their neighbors is doing badly and therefore has to be punished, which would create a lot of disorder and indeed war. But also because France, being a permanent member of the Security Council, has a national interest in the Security Council being taken seriously.

There were then protracted negotiations over Resolution 1441. What was the basic French goal in those negotiations?

Dominique de Villepin and President Chirac made a conscious decision to support Colin Powell in these negotiations against the hard-liners in the U.S. administration, who didn't want to go through the United Nations. The idea was to try and make sure that there was no automatic trigger, but that the aim of disarmament was pursued in earnest.

France has always been serious about disarming Iraq. We indeed complained that we were not participating enough in the inspections between 1991 and 1998. The idea being that it gave a certain amount of balance to the inspection teams, and also that it made it less difficult politically for Saddam Hussein to yield when there were French and Russian inspectors than when the inspections were dominated by Americans and Brits.

Was Resolution 1441 a victory for the French?

I think the French press represented it in this way. I think that that was not really very helpful. It was a victory for international law. It was a victory for the kind of international system that France [and] also the U.S. wants -- a system that is managed by a certain number of responsible countries and not dominated by a single country.

Some Americans, of course, would prefer the international system to be dominated by a single country, but that was not the case for Colin Powell. Colin Powell has drawn from his Gulf War experience the conclusion that coalitions are more effective than a single country, and he's stuck to that, at least until mid-January.

What's your understanding of what happens on Jan. 20, 2003?

That day we have a meeting of the Security Council, which is supposed to be dealing with terrorism. January 20 is also Martin Luther King Day and it is therefore a day when Colin Powell was expected to do the rounds in the United States. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who at the time enjoyed a very good relationship with Colin Powell, prevailed upon Colin Powell to participate in the Security Council meeting on terrorism at the ministerial level.

Many principals in the U.S. administration didn't want him to participate because they felt that terrorism was something that they could handle themselves and the Security Council should not be too involved. ... But Colin Powell, having trusted Dominique de Villepin, decides that he should go.

He goes. The meeting is chaired by Dominique de Villepin. And Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, decides to move the subject from terrorism to Iraq and launches, apparently, a sort of tirade against the United States on Iraq.

Now, this is in a context where the impression in Paris and in Berlin [at that time] is that Colin Powell has joined the war camp. He's got fed up with the international negotiations and decided that the only way to disarm Iraq is to go through military means. That takes place around mid-January [a time when] the French are a little annoyed, because the language of the United States concerning the military buildup in the Gulf changes around mid-January.

Before that, it was described as strengthening the hand of the international community and of the U.S. in forcing Saddam Hussein to disarm, which is a perfectly reasonable thing. After mid-January, it is described as making war inevitable. ...

That, of course, doesn't go down well in Paris. We remember that justifying war by military buildup is what started the First World War -- not a particularly good omen -- and therefore Paris gets a little annoyed. Therefore, the idea that one needs to support Colin Powell, come what may, is weaker than was the case before.

[So], Dominique de Villepin allows the meeting to develop with that basis. After the meeting there is a press conference organized by the Quai d'Orsay for the delegation to the U.N., the French foreign minister and there, in his rather flamboyant way, Villepin talks about Iraq and criticizes the United States. That doesn't go down well with Colin Powell, who has the impression that he has been -- to use the expression that many Americans use -- "sandbagged," or that he fell into a trap.

That certainly was not Villepin's intention. There's no question about that. He wanted the meeting to deal with terrorism, even though, of course, allusions to Iraq could be made, especially since the Americans are trying to establish a link between the two -- a link that we do not believe in. So that created a much more difficult relationship between the two men, unquestionably.

What's your instinct? Do you think that Powell became a hawk as a result of that meeting? Or do you think that meeting went that way because he'd already become a hawk?

Well, I think that he had become a hawk before. But he was less inclined after the meeting to listen to the French and other arguments in favor of moderation than he was before because he felt that he had fallen into a trap.

What drives the French government's opposition to this war?

The key point is a point of principle. These operations should not be done by a single country, otherwise this or that country will try and take advantage of what the Americans have done, probably with less benevolent intentions -- to put an end to the regime of the country next door, or whatever -- and that is very dangerous.

Second reason is that we have a real concern for the fate of the greater Middle East, including North Africa. We have historical relations with that part of the world for a very, very long time. France has traditionally been the protectors of the Christians in the Middle East for more than 1,000 years. So clearly we have a feeling that we can't let this part of the world become even more unstable than it is today.

The key issue as far as this is concerned is not Iraq. Most of the Arabs don't care a straw about Saddam Hussein. They know perfectly well how bad he is. I mean, that's not a great discovery. They care about the fact that there is a very different attitude towards Israel, [which] has thwarted many U.N. Security Council resolutions, and [towards] Iraq, [which] has thwarted many Security Council resolutions as well.

They want a bit of balance. The attitude of the present American administration that has clamored that Mr. Sharon was a man of peace -- which must have surprised not only many people, but also Mr. Sharon himself, who I think believes that he is a man of war, not a man of peace -- this attitude has been very unhelpful in this respect.

So if you add to that [this perception] in the Arab world, rightly or wrongly, of a lopsided attitude towards an Arab leader, however bad he might be, then you run the risk of creating a backlash against the United States, but also against the West. We take this very seriously, especially because the Middle East is part of us. We also have a large North African community here, which has behaved very impeccably during the Gulf War. But this time things may be a little different -- not because of Iraq -- because of intifada, because of the rather sorry state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In France, there's no question that the Palestinians are seen as being the injured party, the David against the Israeli Goliath. I know that, of course, in the U.S., it's seen the other way round. But certainly there is a discrepancy between the French and indeed European attitude on this and the American attitude.

Does President Chirac have personal motives, a view of himself, his own place in history and so on?

I think that's difficult to say. Clearly, President Chirac's first mandate was difficult. The first two years were difficult because of the social upheaval. The five years that followed were difficult because his prime minister didn't agree with him politically.

So clearly his re-election gives him a chance to make a mark. I don't think, frankly, this is the reason why he's doing this. He's doing this because he has a genuine concern for the Middle East. He's always had that; that is not new. He sees this as a make-or-break event for the international system. If the international system becomes one where countries can, without reference to the United Nations Security Council, decide on this or that political structure in neighboring countries and other countries, life would become very dangerous.

I mean, we are no longer in a perfect system of Westphalia, the system which established the nation states. But still the idea that we can interfere in other countries' domestic politics without an emergency, especially a humanitarian emergency, is something which would be exceedingly dangerous and that we have to be very wary of.

As the moment of truth looms in January and as the buildup in the Gulf intensifies, did you expect Chirac to cave ultimately? I think it's certainly true that was a general perception, is it not?

No. That was the perception in the English-speaking press. But I don't think there was any chance of his giving in. The reality was that if the inspectors had come in with a report saying that the inspections were not working satisfactorily, France would have gone to war. There's no question about that. That is the correct interpretation of Resolution 1441, and France would have implemented Resolution 1441. I have no doubt about that.

But given the fact that the inspectors not only think that the inspections can work but have given themselves and have given the Security Council a program of inspections which they say will bring Iraqi disarmament, [we] believe that this is a better method than going to war early.

But that's the other big American point of frustration, isn't it? The alternative policy on Iraq was containment, and the U.S. argument is that it was France and Russia who undermined containment.

I don't think France ever undermined containment. We sometimes had different viewpoints from that of the Americans, no question about it. But having been associated with some of the inspections and I can tell you that France was taking its role very seriously, even though sometimes we disagreed with the United States, which, after all, is not something that is morally unacceptable.

Do you understand American frustration at all? Their sense is they're always the ones that have to come and sort out the world, and the Europeans are merely obstacles.

Traditionally the Americans had a conception of foreign policy that was based upon conviction before coercion. They were always ready to use coercion, and that's entirely legitimate and normal. But their great strength historically was that they were able to convince other countries that it was in their interest to follow the Americans.

What they're losing today is this ability to convince. What is happening today is that the Americans haven't tried to convince the leaders of Europe. They've just said, "Well, you're not reasonable. You're not useful. We're not interested. We want to get rid of this problem, and we will, in whatever way."

Until the end of the fall of 2002, the Americans were I think taking their role seriously in trying to create a genuine coalition. After mid-January, I'm afraid that they have lost all hope or desire to build a serious international coalition, except one that obeys American orders come what may -- and that's not a coalition.

Are you essentially saying that this now is really not about Iraq but about America? Is it the fear that we're moving towards the situation of an American empire?

On the one hand, it's about America. On the other, it's about the Middle East. I agree with you that Iraq should not be handled separately. Iraq is an epi-phenomenon. It's important, but there are many other important issues, including in the field of proliferation. Countries such as Pakistan, Iran -- North Korea to a lesser extent, but a serious extent -- are every bit as serious and in fact, much more serious than Iraq in this respect. Iraq is essentially a spent force. It was a very dangerous country in the early 1990s, when we were all helping it. Especially since the inspections between 1991 and 1998, it has become a spent force. So we should not take it separately. In fact, I think we should look at the future of Iraq.

In my book, no serious, genuine, bona fide leader of Iraq will want to abandon weapons of mass destruction, because Iran has them, Israel has them, Pakistan, which is not that far away, has them and spreads them and sells them to all and sundry. Therefore a reasonable leader of Iraq will find it very difficult to relinquish these weapons. I'm not saying that this is right. What I'm saying is that if we want to handle this issue, we want to handle it much more globally and regionally than just looking at Iraq. So that's a serious issue.

Second issue is that of the United States. Of course the United States has, on the whole, benevolent intentions. But you know, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is true in the domestic field. It is true in the international field.

And the Americans have developed through their constitution a way of organizing checks and balances on the domestic level. They have developed, through internationalism, a way of organizing checks and balances on the international scale. This is what gave them incredible strength, because it allowed people to adhere to the American model, to become, in a sense, partners, friends of America, without needing to be coerced into becoming so. Well, that's what the United States runs a serious risk of losing in the present circumstances by being so heavy-handed, so unilateralist, so, if I may say, nationalistic.

Would President Chirac have maintained his position and stood firm in the way he has if he hadn't had Germany with him?

That's impossible to tell, but it would have been more difficult unquestionably if Germany had been less critical of the U.S. Germany was more critical of the U.S. than France was. I mean, Germany refused to envisage any recourse to war. In fact, it refused to envisage even voting for a resolution authorizing force, which France never did. France was always ready to go to war, as long as it was proven that other means had failed.

So it is clear that this provided France, so to speak, with an extremist country that was even further away from the U.S. What is interesting is that Germany is less criticized than France in the United States, even though its position was much more critical of the United States and far less compatible with that of the United States. But still I think that the French would not have been in a position to pursue this if it hadn't been for the very strong support that Germany gave the French position.

Final question. Where does this whole thing leave NATO and the U.N.?

NATO was badly damaged by the Kosovo war -- the idea that NATO was too multilateral for the Americans, too unilateral for the Europeans. The idea that NATO's American military bodies were trying to do a political job, and the NATO political bodies were trying to do the military job -- all of this meant that this organization wasn't working. It's a great pity, in fact, that advantage was not taken of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact to reorganize NATO in a way that would really put it on a sound basis to organize a transatlantic relationship out of the Cold War. Many people are responsible for that. But I think that NATO really has a very, very difficult future ahead of it.

And the fact that Article V was not even taken seriously by the Americans is a very serious issue for NATO. It's an existential question.

The U.N. is in a difficult position. If the U.S. refuses to use the U.N. Security Council when crises are forthcoming, then it will create a serious problem for the system that the Americans created. I think frankly that the Americans, by dividing NATO deeply, perhaps irretrievably, by weakening the U.N. Security Council, and by dividing the E.U., have weakened the three international institutions upon which they had built their foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.

A very heavy price to pay for putting an end to a tin pot dictator in a far-off part of the world who could be contained by other means.



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posted april 3, 2003

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