Commentary: The British-French duel

By JOHN O'SULLIVAN, UPI Editor in Chief  |  March 24, 2003 at 2:26 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) -- As Operation Iraqi Freedom grinds relentlessly toward Baghdad, two statesmen watch its progress with the uneasy apprehension that their own fates hinge on its result -- and that if one of them prospers by it, the other must eventually perish. French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are engaged in a ferocious duel for the highest possible stakes in European and world politics.

To understand the grounds of their struggle, look first at Chirac's strategy over the past few months. It is clear in retrospect -- as the distinguished expatriate Iranian commentator Amir Taheri pointed out in advance -- that his consistent aim throughout had been to prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq either with or without the sanction of the U.N. Security Council.

He had a number of reasons for this determined opposition. Iraq itself was one. France has invested substantially in Saddam's regime for more than 30 years. It has substantial economic interests there. Chirac did not want to lose such a valuable client state even if it meant turning a blind eye to the regime's atrocities.

A more general opposition to American "dominance" in world politics was another motive. This is a French policy that goes all the way back to Charles de Gaulle. In recent years, however, France under governments of both left and right has pursued this aim more subtly by seeking to place it itself at the heart of various "multilateral" international coalitions.

As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in an important "Policy Review" article, Paris both cultivated the United Nations and non-governmental organizations and supported the extension of international law, treaties and conventions. It hoped to use these "multilateral" rules and bodies to tie down Uncle Sam and to limit his freedom of action (except for those rare occasions when Uncle Sam happened to be acting in the interests of France.)

At the U.N. Security Council, Chirac calculated that he could exploit the regime of U.N. inspections to ensure the inspectors would drag out the process of disarming Iraq indefinitely. The United States would always be waiting for permission to invade and disarm Iraq by force. It would be unable to act without such permission. After a year or two of this forced delay, the steam would go out of the entire enterprise. And this humiliation would weaken the American "hyper-power" and consolidate a new world order of multilateral rules and institutions (manipulated, naturally, by France and its allies de jour.)

Chirac's third motive was to place himself at the head of "Europe" or, to be more precise, of the European Union. Although himself a conservative, he saw the Iraq crisis as a chance to exploit the anti-American sentiments of the European Left -- in particular of the German social democratic government -- in order to build popular support for a common European foreign policy of opposition to America. Halting an Iraq invasion, moreover, was merely the first step in restraining Uncle Sam. Ultimately the EU would become the "counterweight" to U.S. power that Paris had long aspired to create on all issues.

It was a Machiavellian strategy rooted in political reality and with a prospect of success. To the sophisticated diplomats of the Quai d'Orsay, it must have seemed that the only obstacle to its realization was those naïve Americans led by an inexperienced cowboy.

Even if that had been the case, Chirac would still have lost this round on Iraq. Whatever his other demerits, George W. Bush demonstrated an ability to cut the Gordian knot of U.N. diplomacy when it began seriously to obstruct American interests and the Pentagon's military planning. Chirac's strategy depended on the willingness of the sole superpower to be treat the U.N. Security Council as the final authority on war and peace. And not even the State Department was prepared to cede U.S. sovereignty to that extent.

In addition, however, Blair intervened to oppose Chirac on virtually every level.

It is possible that Chirac did not expect Blair's opposition. Not long before, the prime minister had been busy forging a close Anglo-French entente to ensure that Britain would join France and Germany as the prime movers in shaping the new enlarging EU. To establish that Britain was committed to a "European" identity despite its absence from the euro, he had embraced a common European defense and security policy by signing an Anglo-French treaty of practical military cooperation at St. Malo. And it was common knowledge that he was restrained from joining the euro only by the calculation that a referendum to do so would probably be lost.

That said, Blair's vision of Europe was very different from Chirac's. He thought that the EU, far from being a counterweight to the United States, should be its reliable ally. He hoped that Britain, as both a pro-American power and as a "good European," would be the bridge linking both sides of the Atlantic. And he wanted to convert Bush and the United States to "multilateralism" -- not to shape it as a European weapon against the United States. With such divergent attitudes, London and Paris were bound to part company.

They began to do so at the last-but-one European Summit when Chirac joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in sinking a British scheme to reform the expensive Common Agricultural Policy. Blair felt betrayed. Harsh words were exchanged. Chirac said he had never been spoken to so rudely. And the two men began to see each other as rivals rather than partners.

The Anglo-French gulf widened further when Chirac and Schroeder, without consulting other EU member-states, issued a joint statement criticizing U.S. policy toward Iraq. Blair promptly joined eight European leaders (led by the Spanish premier, Jose-Maria Aznar) who declared their broad support for the United States in opposition to France and Germany. And when the almost all the post-communist nations of Eastern Europe added their own support for the United States in a second joint declaration, Blair strongly defended their right to do so against an angry Chirac who in effect had told them to shut up.

These events were a large earthquake in Europe. They challenged the convention that France and Germany invariably dominated EU decision-making and that, if they agreed on something, it must become EU policy. They even raised the possibility that, if Eastern Europe were admitted to the EU as planned in 2004, then the Franco-German dominance of the EU would be broken forever-and Chirac's grand strategy broken with it.

So it was as the potential leader of an alternative Europe that Blair joined Bush in urging the U.N. Security Council to authorize the use of military action against Saddam Hussein. He argued that if multilateralism were not to become a synonym for impotence, the U.N. had to be prepared to use force against recalcitrant regimes. And he cited the brutality of Saddam's regime as a serious justification for its overthrow -- even if secondary to the threat it posed to international order.

In other words, on every point of French policy -- on the covert protection of Iraq, on the uses of multilateralism, and on the future of Europe -- Blair opposed and obstructed Chirac.

In the 10 days leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Chirac almost had his revenge. His opposition to the United States was endorsed by large public demonstrations in Britain as well as in other European countries. Blair's own Labor party -- which contains a multitude of anti-American leftists with a pacifist bent -- was restive and rebellious. There was growing speculation in Parliament and the press that the British prime minister would be overthrown.

If Blair had indeed been ousted, it would have been a famous victory for Chirac. Britain's participation in the Operation Iraqi Freedom would have been suddenly canceled. His successor would doubtless have switched his ultimate loyalty from Washington to Paris and Brussels. The new pro-American coalition of European nations would have broken up in disarray. And Chirac would have emerged as the de facto leader of a new Europe that was distancing itself from the United States.

And for a moment all this looked possible. With only a week to go before hostilities, the Blair government briefly panicked. Two ministers hinted resignation. Rumors of a Cabinet coup swept the parliamentary lobbies. Contingency plans were made to withdraw British troops from the war. And then, almost as quickly, the parliamentary arithmetic -- Blair was supported by the Tory opposition as well as by Labor loyalists -- quieted this fever. Blair survived; indeed he was strengthened.

Today it is Chirac who sees the potential ruin of his hopes. If a short and relatively bloodless war liberates grateful Iraqis, if postwar inspections uncover a hidden arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, if the opening of Saddam's prisons reveal horrors even worse than we have imagined, then the temper of international opinion might swing sharply back in favor of Bush and Blair. Chirac would be compromised and discredited by his long support of Saddam Hussein. Other Europeans -- governments more than the public perhaps, but it is governments that decide foreign policy -- would shrink from him. And Blair would be in the Euro-driving seat.

None of these things have yet happened, however. It is conceivable that they never will happen. And it is equally possible that, even if they do happen, they might not influence opinion against Chirac and for Blair. In the meantime the duel continues.

At last week's EU summit, Chirac, who is apparently a born high-roller, raised the stakes between them dramatically on two crucial issues.

The French president threatened to veto any future U.N. resolution that would allow the United States and Britain to administer Iraq in the aftermath of victory on the grounds that would legitimize their unlawful military intervention after the event. This was a clever card to play. Blair has expended considerable political capital in order to persuade Bush to agree to a major U.N. role in the reconstruction of Iraq. He persuaded Bush to promise such a role in the Azores declaration. If that is now vetoed by Chirac, the Bush administration would hardly mind -- it might even be relieved. But Blair would be deprived of a multilateral justification for governing Iraq just as he was for invading the country.

Of course, Blair could resolve his dilemma by concluding that in the post-Sept. 11 world U.N. mandates and resolutions are not the only -- or even the best -- forms of multilateralism. But that would require him to revise his hitherto passionate support for unreformed U.N. structures. And Blair shows no sign of such a radical conversion.

Chirac's second card was to invite Germany and Belgium to a summit that would discuss the development of a European defense community without America. That was similarly designed to wound Blair since the European security and defense policy was the main issue on which he had tried to demonstrate Britain's European credentials. Now he was being deprived of even that.

In short, Chirac was playing a weak hand very boldly -- perhaps too boldly, since the Germans are plainly very nervous about a defense policy that would separate them not only from NATO and the United States but from most of the other European countries as well. Already they have started qualifying Chirac's proposal of a defense triumvirate by suggesting that other European states will be welcome at the summit too.

But Chirac is assisted by the fact that Blair is playing a strong hand very nervously.

Both of Chirac's cards are attempts to force Blair to choose between Europe and America -- the very choice that Blair has repeated described as unnecessary and harmful. And the more that Chirac sharpens that choice, the more that Blair dithers.

Many shrewd observers of British politics -- Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, Irwin Stelzer of both the Weekly Standard and the London Sunday Times, and the historian Paul Johnson -- have all written recently that Blair, in siding with Bush on Iraq, has effectively chosen British national independence over a common European foreign policy and transatlantic "coalitions of the willing" over vaguer multilateral relationships. And that certainly seems to be the logical destination of Blair's intervention in Iraq.

As Stelzer for one acknowledges, however, Blair does not see things that way. He himself continues to deny any need to choose between Europe and America. His closest allies in politics, such as former minister Peter Mandelson, argue almost paradoxically that Britain can best repair the Atlantic alliance after the Iraq crisis by first committing itself wholeheartedly to a "European" identity. And this same theme is echoed with variations by influential Blairite and centrist commentators in the British press such as Peter Riddell of the London Times and Philip Stephens of the Financial Times.

Again, as on multilateralism, Blair could reconcile these apparent opposites by recognizing that the present EU institutions are not the only, or even the best, expression of European integration. He might propose joining with other European governments -- notably those that signed the two pro-American declarations -- to re-design the institutions of Europe to make them more welcoming to the applicant states and more friendly to the United States. An opportunity to shape that kind of EU now exists in the forthcoming negotiations on a Constitution for Europe.

If Blair were to re-design Europe on such lines, he would permanently frustrate Chirac's ambition to shape the EU into a counterweight to American power. He would also establish the foundations of more fruitful and practical multilateral cooperation between Europe and America. And over time the EU would become not a rival superpower but an important regional component of a wider Atlantic community dominated by the United States.

In these circumstances, the worst that Chirac could do in response is to exploit the flexibility of this new Europe to create a Franco-German middle-ranking power with its own defense and foreign policy structures. And as a Europeanist island in an ocean of Atlanticism, this entity would be incapable of serious mischief.

If the arguments of his political allies are any guide, however, Blair is thinking along conventional Europhile lines-joining the Euro, maintaining the British commitment to a European defense policy, signing onto the federalist proposals for a European Constitution, and in general reassuring Chirac that ultimately he remains a "good European." Blair must be aware of the risk here-namely, that the legal rules, political structures and bureaucratic elites all "tilt" firmly in favor of Chirac's vision of Europe. By locking Britain into an essentially unreformed EU, Blair would strengthen Chirac's hand even if France were to be humiliated by a U.S. victory in Iraq. The duel would continue on Chirac's ground. Why would Blair agree to that?

As often happens in card games and duels, both men feel that they have something decisive up their respective sleeves. Blair's ace is the admission of the pro-American East European nations into the EU. He calculates that their votes would give Britain the leadership of a pro-American EU well into the foreseeable future. And on paper he is not wrong.

Unfortunately for the British, Chirac has more than cards up his sleeve. His ace is the institutional set-up of the EU, described above, which would give Paris and the Brussels bureaucracy the economic and legal powers to whip the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other Mitteleuropeans into the anti-American Euro-federalist camp over time.

And if that pressure were to fail, Chirac, as he has already threatened, could pull from his sleeve a revolver -- France's veto -- and order Blair's new allies out of the saloon and back into the cold.

Blair political allies in Britain dismiss the idea that Chirac would ever go to the lengths of vetoing Eastern Europe in order to preserve his distinctive vision of Europe. But Charles de Gaulle, Chirac's hero, did exactly that in 1963 when he excluded Britain from the European Economic Community. No one thought that Chirac would carry out his threat to veto America's war on Iraq in the UN -- but he did. And the cheers of the European crowds are ringing in his ears and filling him with a sense of destiny.

The duel is not over yet. And no one can honestly predict who will emerge the winner.

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