As U.S. President George W. Bush says time is running out for Saddam Hussein to disarm or face war, opinion in several key European capitals is hardening against the U.S. position. This week, top French, German, and Russian officials called for giving UN weapons inspectors more time to disarm Iraq peacefully, with some saying their countries will not support unilateral action by the United States and Britain. RFE/RL looks at the widening divide among Western countries over how to handle the Iraq crisis.
Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- France's foreign minister went straight to the heart of the increasingly blunt debate among Western states over Iraq when he said this week that Paris cannot support unilateral action against Baghdad. Dominique de Villepin, speaking yesterday, said, "We see no justification...for [military] intervention, since the [UN] inspectors are able to do their work."
That statement summed up a growing impatience in several key European capitals with repeated warnings from Washington and London that time is running out for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to prove he has no weapons of mass destruction or face a U.S.-led assault.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday he does not share Washington's sense that peaceful strategies for disarming Iraq are not working. "Most countries believe that opportunities for a diplomatic solution are far from exhausted," Ivanov said.
And in Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder ruled out support for any U.S. and British effort to gain UN Security Council approval for an attack on Baghdad. "Do not expect [that] Germany will agree to a resolution that legitimizes war," he said.
Analysts say the strong statements reflect a growing divide between France, Germany, and Russia, on one side, and the United States and Britain, on the other, over how long UN arms inspectors should be allowed to work in Iraq before any decisions are reached regarding military action.
The inspectors' return in November was widely seen as a victory for diplomacy that provided a peaceful alternative to war. Now, the continental European leaders question why time for that alternative is running out just some two months later.
Jean Pascal Zanders, an arms-control expert at the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research in Sweden, said many Europeans are convinced the inspection process is just getting under way. "In terms of time needed for the inspectors, this is a process that is going to take many months, perhaps even a year or more, to go through. It is an extremely complex process. The two months or so that the inspectors have now been going through Iraq is much, much, much too short for the size of the country, the extent of the various programs [Baghdad] had, and the need to establish a long-term monitoring system inside the country," Zanders said.
But Zanders said the inspection process is also characterized by a history of Iraqi deception that makes many, particularly in Washington and London, doubt whether inspectors will ever uncover any weapons that may have been carefully hidden by Iraqi authorities. "Of course, one gets the political context, in the sense that inspectors [were] going in for eight years in the 1990s, and there was persistent misleading, obstruction, and concealment going on. So, in the current climate, there is very little trust in whatever the Iraqi authorities declare and that, of course, characterizes much of the present situation," Zanders said.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage yesterday underlined U.S. impatience with what Washington says is continued Iraqi deception, warning that "the next few days or weeks" will determine whether the United States will go to war.
But UN weapons inspectors have repeatedly called not for weeks but months more to work with Iraq. Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday that "quite a few more months" are needed to complete the search for any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
UN arms inspectors are due to present their first full report on the progress of the inspections process at the UN on 27 January.
Zanders said the deepening differences between continental Europe on the one hand and the United States and Britain on the other may be due to the very different perspectives they have of the Iraq crisis in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
He said continental Europeans view Iraq as a political problem, while Washington -- with its closest ally, Britain -- has largely cast it as a moral struggle that is part of the wider war on terrorism. "I also think that the continental countries do not take such a moralistic approach to a conflict [with Iraq]," Zanders said. "They see a conflict for what it is, they consider a variety of options, and there is also a tendency to gain a deeper understanding of the grievances of the other side. And then one must consider China and Russia, where there are some deeper concerns about interfering in domestic affairs, impact on sovereignty, and so forth [, which could rebound against them in the future]."
He said that in Britain, "and especially now in the United States, because of a very moralistic approach to the whole issue, things become rather simplified. It is being framed in terms of good versus evil."
U.S. President George W. Bush has said that Iraq must be disarmed partly to prevent any possibility it would provide weapons of mass destruction to global terrorist groups menacing U.S. and Western security.
Now, with key states like France, Russia, and Germany calling for continued diplomatic efforts to solve the Iraqi crisis, the biggest question in the coming weeks may be whether Washington and London will be forced to proceed unilaterally against Baghdad without the kind of UN approval many countries consider necessary for using force.
Paris and Moscow are permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power over any war resolution the United States and Britain might seek. Germany assumes the rotating chairmanship of the full 15-member Security Council next month. Several other Security Council members, including China, Chile, and Syria, also have said inspectors need more time to work before one can consider war.