The parallel histories of French and US diplomacy have gone from periods of grace to spates of mutual rejection followed by reconciliation around shared actions which, because they corresponded to different ulterior motives never completely concealed their divergent views. These divergences have always existed, no matter whether it was the Republicans or the Democrats who were in power in Washington or whether the relations between the two countries were stormy or peaceable. Both followed this never-ending pattern of alternating turmoil and pacification when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 against French opposition or when Syria was forced to evacuate Lebanon under combined pressure from Washington and Paris.
It is generally agreed that the US invasion of Iraq was a consequence of 9/11. In the weeks that followed Al-Qaida’s attacks on New York and Washington, President George W. Bush ordered his services to plan a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq even though there was no proof whatsoever of any ties between Al-Qaida and the Iraqi dictator. The decision to go to war had not yet been taken but this decision to prepare for war was likely to lead to one. And it was also likely that the US President’s intention had long been nurtured by a deep-seated hostility towards Saddam-Hussein dating back to the nineties and which only needed a pretext to be acted out. The 9/11 catastrophe conveniently provided this pretext.
The US President not only saw an action against Iraq as a way of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his imaginary “weapons of mass destruction.” It was part of the strategy of “constructive instability” dear to the hearts of the US neoconservatives whose ambition was a vigorous remodelling of the “Greater Middle East” along “democratic” lines as these are conceived in Washington.
The presumption of the French
No one in France ever thought the US would let them in on their intentions before they were carried out. But Paris was aware of its supposed but deep-rooted singularity and would probably have preferred to be treated differently. “Whoever likes me, follows me” has always been the motto of US decision makers and whoever opts out of their game knows they will become an object of Washington’s disdain, contempt, suspicion or, worse still, neglect. In the matter of Iraq, Paris avoided most of these attitudes, overridden as they were by US anger which became frankly hateful when it transpired that France would use its veto power on the UN Security Council to oppose that military intervention. This proud audacity immediately set fire to large segments of US public opinion.
By autumn 2002, in Brussels and in some European capitals, the idea was beginning to take shape that Bush might take a drastic decision. The various diplomatic corps – some of whom still did not want to believe a war was possible – were nonetheless all agreed that it would be hard to jam the well-oiled US war machine and that their governments would end up endorsing Bush’s bellicose stance with little more than a disapproving frown.
In Paris, the atmosphere was different. President Chirac had no doubts about the attitude that should be his and what he should do. His conviction was that a military intervention would modify the balance of power in the region with disastrous results and that it had to be opposed.1
Jacques Chirac’s “no”
And so, he repeatedly rejected US demands.2 It befell to Dominique de Villepin, France’s Foreign Minister, to transmit the President’s vision which he did steadfastly and brilliantly from the autumn of 2002 until 14 February 2003 when he developed French objections before the UN Security Council.
His impassioned plea against military intervention in Iraq is still etched in people’s memories.
One of the key moments in France’s opposition was Resolution 1441, passed on 8 November 2002. It dealt with the disarmament of Iraq to be achieved by sending UN inspection teams into the country. As often with this sort of document, what was left out was more meaningful than what it contained. The drafting of the text was the object of long and bitter negotiations in which France had a preponderant role, rejecting the Security Council’s customary phrase “use all necessary means.” This phrase is a sort of brutal guillotine which would have authorised the use of force to oblige Saddam-Hussein to disarm his country. Thus, in accordance with the wishes of France, the Resolution did not become an official green light for military intervention. Consequently, it boiled down to a “credible threat of force” in the hope that it would oblige Saddam Hussein to dismantle his military arsenal.
A second resolution, more binding than the first, was in all the minds of the US (and British) delegations. Yet no more than for the other text did Chirac intend to approve one which would have authorised the automatic recourse to military force. His threat to use France’s veto right on the Security Council put paid to US hopes. This second resolution never saw the light of day. Without UN approval, any military intervention would be illegitimate and, above all, illegal. However, contrary to the appropriately named rock group, The Clash, still very popular at the time, Bush never asked himself the question, “Should I stay, or should I go?” On 20 March 2003, he launched the military operation against Iraq dubbed “Shock and awe” which did indeed unseat Saddam Hussein and deconstruct the whole region but failed to bring it stability and democracy in their US versions. However, in an interview with a senior US official belonging to the neoconservative faction, a European diplomat had pointed out that a war would destabilise Iraq for some ten years to come. The official smiled and said: “Ten years? No, forty years.”
French diplomacy and, more generally, the image of France was to suffer from Paris’s options at that time. Francophobia ran rampant in the Anglo-American world. It was not until the interests of Paris and Washington converged that their relationship settled down again.
The Lebanese opportunity
It was the situation in Lebanon that made possible a rapprochement between the two countries. But several difficulties had to be overcome first. The French offer to share in the reconstruction of Iraq when the time came was curtly dismissed in Washington. On 23 September 2003, the French president addressed the UN General Assembly. His opening words were not meant to flatter the US President: “Declared without the authorisation of the Security Council, the war has undermined the multilateral system.” It was a regular barrage of accusations: condemnation of the war, condemnation of the absence of authorisation by the Security Council and condemnation of unilateralism, a major sin within the United Nations fora.
And yet Paris had shown a spirit of openness in New York for it had a high stake in this issue. True, France had come out against the US invasion but could not reasonably hope that Washington’s occupation of Iraq should be a failure. So, on 22 May 2003 it voted in favour of Resolution 1483 which recognised in the UK-US coalition an occupying power under international law and created an Iraqi council of transition. France voted in favour of other resolutions as well. Some areas of concern were shared by all, such as the struggles against terrorism or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But despite these gestures proving that Paris had rejoined the UN consensus, the imminent rapprochement between France and the USA followed a rocky road.
In 2004, the wounds began to heal. The truth was that Washington could hardly make a positive assessment of its intervention in Iraq: the initial military success was fast fading away, the plan for a “Greater Middle East” was falling apart, the abusive treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison was starting to be made public, the battle of Falluja had been won but at a cost of many US and Iraqi lives, no weapons of mass destruction had been found, his coalition allies were starting to back away from Bush and every day the Iraqi population demonstrated its hostility towards the US presence in their country. Already, in January 2004, David Kay, one of the US inspectors, admitted before Congress that his countrymen “had got it all wrong” when they accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
As for Jacques Chirac, he had his eye on Lebanon, worried as he was about the increasing power of Hezbollah which was less and less a militia and more and more a state within the State. The sovereignty of Lebanon, occupied by Syria since 1975, worried him greatly.3 And this feeling was shared by Bush though he was primarily concerned about the security of Israel and blamed Damascus for allowing jihadis to cross its territory on their way to Iraq.4 It was time for US and French emissaries to start talking. On 6 June 2004, at the commemoration of the 1944 landing in Normandy, Chirac spoke to President Bush; “America is our eternal ally,” a phrase meant to invoke both the wars of the past and political alliances to come. On the previous day, the two presidents had spoken of the need to pool their diplomatic assets. This was obvious for France but also a necessity for Washington who would need Paris to adopt resolutions dealing with its post-war operations in Iraq.
The two countries’ diplomats consulted each other frequently. Their relationship was smooth, their communiqués frequent and unconstrained. French emissaries travelled often to the US where they received a warm welcome. Hard feelings on both sides were swept under the rug.
The road to Damascus became unavoidable. Maurice Gourdault-Montaigne5, Chirac’s personal envoy, paid a discreet visit to the Syrian president in November 2003. He informed Bashar Al-Assad of France’s intentions (as approved by Berlin and Moscow), took care to insist that Iran and Syria should be treated with the respect which these two countries deserved, developed the idea of a procedure meant to improve regional stability and urged him to join in. Assad listened but paid no heed. He was on a different planet. The only recognition that mattered for him had to come from Washington. The months went by. Assad never responded.
The UN’s warning shot: Resolution 1559
The US and France agreed that it was time to go back to the UN. In the summer of 2004, Paris offered Washington the draft of a resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops – i.e., Syria’s – from Lebanon. It was accepted immediately, since Lebanon – supposedly easier to “democracise” than other Arab countries in the region – was enthusiastic about the US notion of a “Greater Middle East.” On 2 September 2004, the draft became Resolution 1559 and was adopted by the Security Council with nine votes for and six abstentions. It not only called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon – meaning Syrian – but also the dissolution of militias – i.e., Hezbollah and the pro-Palestinian groups. The very next day, under pressure from Rustom Ghazalé, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, the Lebanese parliament extended for another three years the term in office of President Emile Lahoud, a puppet of Damascus in Beirut, who thus became his own successor. This was the first Lebanese-Syrian response, frank and brutal, to Resolution 1559, which also demanded a presidential election that should be “free and equitable, in keeping with constitutional provisions adopted without foreign interference.” On 14 February 2004, Rafic Hariri, former premier and one of the main critics of the Syrian presence among Lebanese politicians, was assassinated. Syria finally withdrew from Lebanon on 27 April 2005 but Hezbollah has continued to play a decisive role in Lebanese politics.
All that fuss for this?
The war against Iraq had happened and produced its lot of terrorist outgrowths. The Middle East remains as unstable as ever. Today everyone has forgotten that those years gave rise to the “road map” of the Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia, United Nations) meant to lead to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to regional stability, all part of the US vision of a “Greater Middle East.” The fact that this instrument still survives remains a mystery: overall, it failed – which was the fault of the parties or of their incapacity – but it remains a reference and continues to crop up in chancellery declarations. For lack of a settlement, for lack of courage or imagination, most politicians keep on calling for the implementation of the solution advocated by the Quartet, the two-State solution, “Palestine and Israel living peacefully side by side.” This worn-out mantra may still be heard in Paris and Washington when the last three decades have amply demonstrated its uselessness.
1Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, Les autres ne pensent pas comme nous, éditions Bouquins, coll. « Mémoires», 2022.
2Chirac’s “No”: on 10 March 2003, Jacques Chirac announced on the 8 o’clock news (TF1 and FR 2) that he would veto any UN resolution authorising a war against Iraq.
3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Since the end of WW1, Lebanon has been an unofficial colony of France.
4Michel Duclos, La longue nuit syrienne, Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2019.