When the Americans Negotiate
By Gilles Kepel *
Thursday 05 June 2003
On the occasion of the G-8 in Evian, the American president decided to bury the hatchet and smoke the peace pipe with France. After Condolezza Rice, the talented pianist who presides over the National Security Council, let out her fortissimo Punish France! would she start to soft pedal and disappoint that deep America which posted bumper stickers on their cars After Iraq, Chirac! ? It's precisely the "After Iraq" that poses a problem for White House and Pentagon strategists and which constrains them despite themselves to reckon that military victory does not spontaneously translate into political success. It constrains them to start speaking again with Paris and the "Old Europe" only yesterday still consigned to the gallows. The unilateralism which works for attack efficiency in the era of integrated military systems could not be set up as a panacea for the management of Iraq's complex occupation- which quickly wore out General Gardner and his team. It's within this context that the return to good graces of the old Europeans must be understood, they who have some competence in relations with the Arab world. And if, for the moment, according to the adage current in Washington right now, "In the Middle East, the Americans do the cooking and the Europeans wash up", the champions of fast-food and Blitzkrieg will have to resort to diplomatic multilateralism and call the old continent to the rescue, there where France (apart from gastronomy) occupies a central role thanks to its old and tight relations with the complicated East and to its expertise, recognized by specialists of the region.
To the extent that President Bush transforms into a candidate for his own succession, it's essential for him that the Iraqi thorn not stick too deeply into his electoral Achilles' heel: neither soldiers' mothers nor American taxpayers will vote for the one who blundered into an Iraq occupation expensive in lives and money if it turns out to be a political impasse.
One year after the reelection of Jacques Chirac and the appointment of Dominique de Villepin to Foreign Affairs, French policy toward the Arab world has essentially fed the transatlantic dispute. Before the war against Saddam Hussein's regime, most observers persuaded themselves that the Quay d'Orsay official, former press counselor at the French embassy in Washington, Anglophile, an Americano-phile even, would be able to line Paris up behind the Star - Spangled Banner, just as in 1990-91, during Operation "Desert Storm". The unanimous adoption of Security Council Resolution 1441 allowed that expectation. However the United States displayed their determination whatever the cost to destroy the Baghdad regime; not giving much weight to the evanescent argument of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, they wanted to remodel a Middle East where liberal democracy delivered by forceps between the Tigris and Euphrates would triumph everywhere, where Basra and Kirkuk's oil would be extracted by American companies, and where Israel would be naturally integrated into a region finally prosperous because adjusted to the norms of globalization.
>From that, there was but one alternative for French diplomacy: alignment, which would give it, well behind the faithful British ally Tony Blair, after Aznar's Spain and post-Communist Poland, a few post-war crumbs from the oil cake and from Iraqi reconstruction, or resistance. The latter created a medium-term negotiating position: by giving voice and offering tribute to the countries of the South and notably to those Arab opinions which would otherwise not be heard above religious extremism and its cortege of violence, Dominique de Villepin played double or nothing. In the last case, the bet would prove itself disastrous: if the world resembled the Pentagon's neo-conservative model of it, if their lightning military victory were to be followed by the collapse of Near Eastern dictatorships and an evolution of the Middle East comparable to that of the former "popular democracies" of Eastern Europe, France would emerge morally discredited and materially ruined. France would appear to be the last supporter of unpopular regimes and its companies would be thrown out of an Americanized region where two thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, as well as major clients of its aeronautic, defense, luxury, distribution, telecommunication, not to mention banking and insurance industries, are located. In the first case, if the concrete realities of the region should prove themselves recalcitrant to the grand strategic schemas prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic, the easy military victory against an enemy deliberately overestimated by official propaganda and Mr. Murdoch's press would be followed by a much less easy occupation of a society where the collapse of the dictatorship would free the ferments of ethnic chaos, community anarchy, and religious fanaticism.
The American hyperpower would then find itself constrained to share the burden of starting a fragmented region up again, constrained to call on, besides its faithful, those of its allies who had expressed their skepticism with regard to the linkage between the destruction of Saddam and the induced delivery of democracy and prosperity.
The weeks of the war and post-war blew hot and cold: right after the conquest of Baghdad, Paris' position seemed lost. People joked about its diplomacy as the charge of the light brigade, about the lyricism of the charismatic poet minister whose appearances on TV5 during the oratorical jousts at the UN made the hearts of ladies from Tunis to Qatar, from Cairo to Abu Dhabi throb, but dismayed the bankers and the industrialists of the Hexagon, anxious about the expected consequences of American retaliation. Those transports of the heart seemed of little weight compared to the pain in the pocketbook. The perpetuation of chaos, insecurity, and looting in Iraq, the Ayatollahs' return to power in Najaf and Kerbala, the attacks in neighboring Saudi Arabia and Casablanca have today reduced the victors' triumphalism; the "war against terror", this "mother of all battles" in the Near East, is not won, and brute force has proved to be inadequate to reestablish order in Iraq where army of occupation's tens of thousands of soldiers seem for the moment impotent to control twenty million Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds whose federated state has vanished with its dictator, like the baby with the bath water.
The present situation hardly predisposes Washington to give Paris lessons and the calls to boycott French products, which, under WTO rules are very risky to implement, have no more reality behind them than the staggering contracts of post-war Iraq, where, at the moment, until some security is reestablished, no Board of Directors will risk investing millions of dollars and the lives of their managers and employees.
It's in the search for a political solution for a torn Iraq, indispensable prerequisite to a return to order, that France, strong in its relationships in the Arab world, can no doubt contribute. The wave of Anti-Americanism that submerges the Middle East is unprecedented even if it supplies many Arabs with the illusion that they can pass up self-criticism for the fascination they felt for Saddam and even for Bin Laden, and avoid drawing lessons from the political impasse and moral failure into which it has lead them. The regions' leaders are presently American dependents, but they cannot ignore popular sentiment, very widespread also among the elites including those who have studied on the other side of the Atlantic and today seek in Europe in general and France in particular a cultural alternative to the American hammer and the Islamist anvil.
In that regard, the summits of Sharm el Sheikh and Aqaba, where George Bush successively summoned the Arab leaders and then Mssrs. Sharon and Abbas (Abu Mazen) should not be taken for a demonstration of the strength of the hyperpower who has set the Middle East straight. With rising criticism across the Atlantic and across the Channel over the American and English leaders' "lies" on the subject of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the morass of the security and political situation in Iraq, the White House needs to make a symbolic point: only Israel's acceptance of the "road map" can strengthen the United States' hand today. Liberal post Saddam Iraq was supposed to be the forceps allowing Israeli-Palestinian peace to be delivered on the terms desired by Washington and Tel-Aviv. But today, the reverse is true; it's progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation (which constrained Mr. Bush to put pressure on Ariel Sharon, speaking from now on of the occupation of Trans-Jordan and Gaza, to the great barrage of Likud militants) which will permit the American President to hope for resolution in Iraq which could otherwise encumber the reelection campaign in the United States.
The big strategy of the Neo-conservatives seems, after Evian, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Aqaba, to have run out of gas. It must make way for considerations of reality, as much those of United States' domestic politics as of the stakes in the Middle East. As of now, this seems to confirm a posteriori the French reading of the fundamental givens of the region since the adoption of Resolution 1441.
*University Professor at the Institut d' tudes politiques de Paris, Chair of Middle-East-Mediterranean.
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.