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Iraq: U.S., France Have Fundamental Differences Over Strategy Toward Baghdad

  • Joel Blocker

The French government appears convinced that there is no way of stopping a U.S.-led attack on Iraq in the coming weeks or months but says it will participate militarily only if the UN explicitly backs such action. Yet last week, President Jacques Chirac told his military commanders they must now be ready for any eventuality. RFE/RL speaks with French analysts to get a better understanding of France's position.

Paris, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The French government has said repeatedly over the past several weeks that it will not join any U.S.-led military coalition against Iraq unless the United Nations Security Council explicitly finds Baghdad in violation of a key resolution it passed in November.

Resolution 1441 called on Iraq to reveal all of its weapons of mass destruction -- chemical and biological, as well as nuclear weapons-- to a team of UN inspectors now on its soil and warned that any omissions or false statements would have serious consequences.

While the United States has repeatedly warned that it may take unilateral military action, France -- together with other Western European countries, including in recent days, Britain -- has urged that UN inspectors be given sufficient time to complete their work before any military retaliation is undertaken. France and other Western European countries also have pleaded that war against Iraq should be considered a last resort after all diplomatic efforts have failed.

French President Jacques Chirac repeated that sentiment yesterday after talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, saying a political solution to the Iraq crisis should be exhaustively pursued. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, meanwhile, told parliament yesterday that his government's opposition to war had not changed.

Jacques Beltran is an analyst of trans-Atlantic relations at the French Institute for International Research, known as IFRI. He described the differences between the United States and French positions as fundamental. "France's position has been rather consistent over the past several months. It holds that recourse to force is not excluded but that it must be the last possible solution. Above all, it must be a decision made by the Security Council and not in a unilateral, bilateral, or trilateral manner, but the result of a negotiation process within the council itself. Today, we are not certain the Americans consider war as the last possible option," Beltran said.

Recent weeks have seen a slight narrowing of differences between France and the United States -- both permanent members of the Security Council. Chirac urged France's military commanders last week to be ready for all eventualities, while the United States sent out some signals of greater flexibility. "I agree that there has been a change in the tone of American [official discourse on Iraq]. When the [U.S.] president and vice president indicated that voluntary disarmament by Iraq would constitute a change of regime in itself, that opened the door. If Iraq accepts disarmament, then there will not be the need for war. [As for Chirac's remarks to his military,] there was nothing unusual about the president telling his military to be ready. But if you listen carefully to what he said, we have to monitor Iraq's application of [UN] Resolution 1441. There's nothing different there from what he had said before: that force is not excluded, but it has to be the last option and an option decided by the Security Council," Beltran said.

Beltran also underlined what he considers to be the growing convergence of Western European views on how to deal with Iraq. He pointed, notably, to Britain's calls for what Prime Minister Tony Blair last week described as more "space and time" for the UN inspectors to complete their work in Iraq. And he noted, as have others, public-opinion polls that show that three out of four French citizens are against military intervention in Iraq. There is growing public opposition to a war with Iraq in Britain, as well, particularly among Blair's Labour Party adherents.

Another Paris-based analyst, Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research, also sees great differences between the U.S. and French positions on Iraq. "There is clearly a divergence now, even more clearly than in the past six months, between France on the one side and the U.K. and the U.S. on the other. The United Kingdom has sent, is sending, a very significant contingent of military forces, while France has not decided to do so.... My feeling is that President Chirac considers now that war is inevitable. He probably thought two or three months ago that war could still be avoided. He believes that the United States will decide to go to war over Iraq more or less irrespective of the actual findings of the UN [inspectors] and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]," Tertrais said.

However, Tertrais continued, France does not exclude participation in a future war. He noted that, in his remarks last week, Chirac again made French participation in a military action contingent on its being sanctioned by the UN. "I think that the minimum for France would be some kind of UN presidency statement or an officially agreed [statement of sanctions by the five permanent Security Council members,] interpreting existing resolutions. I don't think that the requirement of a [second] specific resolution is as strong as French authorities would like us to believe. But I do think, however, that, even though, perhaps, there would not be a second [UN] resolution, at least there would be some form of explicit UN authorization," Tertrais said.

Both Beltram and Tertrais agreed that, even if basic French and U.S. positions on Iraq remain far apart, there have been some smaller convergences of views in recent weeks. They say that could point to broader agreement in the near future.