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Leadership? Paris Is Playing a Perilous Game

Authors: Benn Steil, Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics, and Reinhard Wolf
March 7, 2003
International Herald Tribune

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NEW YORK If Iraq were a game about advancing or obstructing U.S. war plans, France had a pretty good February. Sadly, though, Iraq is not a game, and, for the sake of peace and security in the Gulf and beyond, France must stop treating it like one.

Only one of us (the American) finds the case for an imminent war more compelling than the case against. Yet we are equally concerned that the French position is undermining not only the prospects for a peaceful disarming of Iraq but also the cohesiveness of the European Union, the effectiveness of NATO and the credibility of the United Nations.

Any responsible alternative to disarming Iraq by force must have either voluntary Iraqi disarmament or effective containment of its military as its centerpiece. France's memorandum to the UN Security Council, in contrast, encourages continued Iraqi noncompliance with Resolution 1441 while remaining wholly silent on the alternative of containment.

The French memorandum, backed by Germany, Russia and China, directly contradicts 1441, transferring the burden of Iraqi disarmament from Iraq to inspectors. Given the volume of deadly Iraqi VX, anthrax and nerve agent that remains unaccounted for, this plan is clearly not intended to disarm Iraq.

The plan, in fact, is meant to mark time. According to the memorandum, at least four months time, after which inspectors would be required yet again to report on their progress. As the costs to the United States of maintaining 150,000 troops in the desert through the summer and beyond would be unsustainable, they would have to be withdrawn. But at that point, all pressure on Saddam Hussein to cooperate will be off, and the burden must therefore be put wholly on the French to establish that inspections, on their own, or sanctions, which France has long wanted removed, can disarm Iraq after 12 years without ultimate success.

The only serious alternative to disarmament is containment. But containment means putting in place a threat of military action credible enough that Saddam will know that an attack against his neighbors would risk the immediate annihilation of his regime. Without thousands of Western troops on the Iraqi border, and with the prospect of yet more Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this means France supporting the extension of nuclear deterrence to the Gulf.

Is such deterrence on the cards? We doubt it. It is therefore time for France to spell out for the world precisely how its policies can credibly lead either to Iraqi disarmament or long-term containment. If France is not forthcoming, then the world is simply obliged to conclude that there are ulterior motives behind its insistence on "peaceful solutions." Such motives would appear to be demonstrating its independence from the United States, reactivating its claim for European leadership, protecting French oil and other commercial interests in the Gulf, and placating its own Muslim population.

The costs and risks of France's current policies are enormous. First, France publicly wedded itself to the German chancellor's pacifist election strategy as a substitute for persuading its EU partners. This has led to a deep and potentially long-lasting split in the EU, compounded by alienation of the central and eastern European accession countries, which felt compelled to respond with public support for U.S. policy.

Second, France's refusal to support NATO moves to defend Turkey has provoked one of the gravest crises in NATO history, at a time when trans-Atlantic relations are already seriously strained.

Third, France is on the verge of scoring the ultimate political own-goal by pushing the United States to act outside the United Nations, which is the most important institution through which France can still constrain and direct U.S. behavior.

The current U.S. policy may prove to be the only one that addresses the issue of Iraqi disarmament directly. Although it is fraught with great costs and risks, merely obstructing it does not constitute a responsible alternative.

Peace is always a noble cause. But as such it is not yet a political strategy. True European leadership requires far more than grandstanding at the United Nations' last hurrah or proclaiming solidarity with peace rallies. It requires presenting a serious alternative whose likely consequences can be thoroughly weighed against a forceful implementation of 1441. It is time for France to offer such leadership or to step aside.

Benn Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York. Reinhard Wolf is a professor of international relations at the University of Greifswald, Germany.