When will Jacques Chirac stop playing at being De Gaulle?by Derek Coombs / June 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
President Chirac feels personally vindicated by the coalition’s difficulties in Iraq. But he must bear his share of responsibility for the mess. Certainly America has mishandled the occupation, creating enemies quite unnecessarily. It is now clear that America can fight and win wars but, especially in the middle east, cannot win the peace. It has neither the traditions nor the people and is seen as too unconditionally pro-Israel. We can be proud of our British troops who have mainly acted with restraint and sensitivity; it is only a shame we have not had more influence on the overall management of the occupation. Once it was clear that America could not be stopped, the best outcome would have been a US-led invasion followed by a UN-led reconstruction. Chirac destroyed this possibility out of political vanity and the desire to project himself as a latter-day De Gaulle. Sadly, George Bush is from the same stable. Weak world leaders are nothing new – remember Grey and Asquith before the first world war. Lloyd George opposed their drive to war but he was overruled. He was, of course, eventually vindicated and took over from Asquith in 1916. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have made many mistakes, not only in the small number of troops they sent, but also in the subsequent decisions to disband the Iraqi army and prevent former Ba’ath party members from playing a role in the reconstruction. The number of innocent Iraqi civilians who have died now reaches many thousands. Iraqis don’t want Saddam back but they do want their everyday security. I have always believed that it was wrong to invade Iraq without the broad international support that is symbolised by the UN. This was a lost opportunity. France’s blanket opposition and America’s obduracy bear equal blame. There can be no question that Bush has irretrievably damaged America’s reputation worldwide and particularly its role and influence in the middle east. There also is no doubt in my mind that if France had played a constructive role in following through past UN resolutions on Iraq, her influence – together with Britain’s small but significant influence over US policy – would have resulted in a different outcome. But Chirac was tempted by the Gaullist gesture, reinforced no doubt by France’s special relationship with Iraq over oil and arms – in the late 1980s more than 40 per cent of all French arms exports went to Iraq. (And contrary to what is often said neither Britain nor the US ever sold a weapons system to Saddam.) It will now take many years to convert Iraq into a stable and prosperous democracy. This transitional period will do nothing to help the broader middle east settlement nor the UN-led international order that France says it wants. Yet France is doing precisely nothing to help in Iraq (even Germany is training policemen). Chirac is halfway through a five-year term; presidential elections are due in 2007. Recent French elections demonstrate his unpopularity in his own country. The French economy has some serious problems which he is not addressing. He has grand illusions about France and its influence in the world. This makes him a spoiler rather than a contributor. Under a different president France could regain its dignity and respect. France can be a force for good in the world. It need not support America in the way that Britain does but it must recognise the realities of power. A more helpful French attitude would have influenced Germany and Russia, plus international opinion generally, and might have encouraged even Bush to wait and see over Iraq. Chirac’s so-called diplomacy divided the EU, weakened the UN and damaged Nato. America is now desperate for UN participation in Iraq and the UN’s Lakhdar Brahimi is doing his best to craft a legitimate provisional government for after 30th June. It is time for France to join in and support the new initiative.