This has been an exciting few days for students of classical geopolitics. Two international organizations, the United Nations and NATO, are being shaken by blocs of member states pursuing divergent national interests. In the process, they are demonstrating that organizations of these types are not supra-national entities with corporate interests and goals, but simply alternate arenas in which countries pursue politics by other means. Inside or outside the U.N., with or without NATO, countries still behave the same self-seeking way they always have and always will. It is so blatant it’s refreshing.
The Franco-German-Russian Bloc find themselves facing the equally determined American-British-Spanish-Portuguese-Italian-Plus-a-Bunch-of-Others Coalition. Details of the Franco-German “secret plan” to avert armed intervention in Iraq are sketchy, either because it is an unusually well-kept secret or because, like Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, it does not yet exist. Russia has voiced support for the plan, whatever it may turn out to be. Germany has stated that the proposal does not involve dispatching peacekeepers to Iraq, as originally reported, but does support the “decisive reinforcement” of the inspection regime. (We could perhaps reach compromise by calling the 180,000 Coalition ground forces “inspectors” and sending them in — a very decisive reinforcement.)
Since Saddam has shown no compunction to cooperate meaningfully with the inspection regime, it is unclear why having more inspectors will lead to more satisfactory results, or why blunting the threat of force will convince this hardened realist dictator that his foes mean business. Yet for the coalition of the unwilling there are greater interests involved than the issues at hand in Iraq, for example:
1. The desire to restrain the United States. Each country would like to see the United States contained and stop behaving like a global hegemon, especially when it comes to the use of military power, where they are at a disadvantage. Germany has seen itself as the primary economic power in a united Europe, and has no particular desire to extend its influence militarily, or see the military instrument being used so effectively. France has similar Euro-pretensions, and Russia, of course, has little need for an even more assertive U.S. than the one that brought about the end of the Soviet Empire.
2. The need to stay relevant. It is difficult to maintain ranking as a world power if you are being ignored. France in particular clings to its great power status, which rests solely on the legitimate possession of nuclear weapons and permanent-member status on the Security Council, both legacies of World War II-era agreements long since superseded by reality. Russia is in a similar situation, yet with the added complication of a GDP per capita lower than American Samoa. Germany of course makes a virtue of the fact that its previous attempts at global relevance led to constitutional provisions banning most military action abroad.
3. Avoiding bad precedents. All three countries would prefer to see U.S. actions kept within the framework of the United Nations. Warfare by coalition is bad enough; future regime changes being pulled off by the United States unilaterally would be intolerable.
4. Catering to Muslims at home and abroad. These countries have substantial domestic Muslim minorities, and supporting a war in Iraq could generate various sorts of problems. In addition, essentially siding with the Muslim world against Coalition war talk ingratiates them. Note though that this does not apply as clearly to Russia, as its actions in Chechnya attest.
5. Resisting regime change in Iraq. Baghdad owes France and Russia tens of billions of dollars. Whether those debts would survive the transfer of power or become a “gift of the international community” is anybody’s guess.
6. Oil. The oil issue is worth some extended discussion. The familiar mantra “No War for Oil” takes on an interesting meaning when discussing these countries, and France in particular. A war in Iraq would have very negative effects on French economic prospects in the region. (Why they would have obviously positive effects for the U.S. is something best explained by the antiwar crew, because it is not evident to me.) France is currently Iraq’s most favored trading partner, and is heavily involved in Mideast regional energy development. The French energy giant Total Fina Elf recently brought the world’s largest offshore natural gas field online in southern Iran, along with Russian natural gas firm Gazprom and the Malaysian company Petronas. Total Fina Elf also has multibillion-dollar oil contracts with Iraq, but because of U.N. resolutions, these contracts have not been signed and cannot be executed until sanctions are lifted. The Russian form Lukoil had a similar $4 billion agreement to develop the Iraqi West Qurnah oil field, but an indignant Saddam recently nullified the deal when Russia established contacts with the Iraqi opposition. Seems like Saddam can’t trust anybody these days.
One outstanding question is whether there will be automatic succession of the existing agreements should Saddam be overthrown. Regime change could bring about a shift in fortunes, with American and British petroleum companies being the primary beneficiaries. So goes the theory. However, note that Kuwait has been reticent to extend such privileged access to American oil firms, and that country owes its very existence to the United States. Nevertheless, all of this will be moot if war breaks out, because the oil wells will likely not survive. Saddam will seek to destroy Iraqi petroleum production facilities to deny them to potential successors, a concept discussed last year in NRO and now generally accepted as the most likely scenario. Whoever inherits these flaming ruins will face years of reconstruction and billions in investment to restore full Iraqi production. This is hardly a bargain — but if no war is fought, the oil wells will survive, sanctions will be lifted, and the contracts could be executed. The fact that French oil interests tend to mitigate the potential conflict is an irony for the Greens to ponder.
Ultimately, the secret plan, if it exists, will go before the Security Council, where it could face veto from the U.S. or U.K. The U.S. is playing the same game by pursuing a more robust use of force resolution, which the French, Russians or the lately somewhat subdued Chinese can veto that if they choose. Nevertheless, that leaves Resolution 1441 standing, which the Coalition has maintained authorizes the use of force if Iraq is found to be not in compliance — which is the case thus far.
Meanwhile on the NATO front, France, and Germany, joined by the doughty Belgians, have blocked Turkish requests to begin preparing defenses against possible spillover from a coalition attack against Iraq (especially if it is partly launched from Turkish soil). Opponents of the move claim that NATO may only act if the threat is imminent. The Turks responded by invoking Article IV, which requires consultation between member states if one feels threatened. The Article has only been invoked once before — by Turkey, in 1991, under similar circumstances. Turkey may of course establish such defenses as it pleases as a sovereign state, and may invite any countries to assist in these efforts who choose to. The Franco-German-Beligian dissenters have stated that they would of course come to Turkey’s aid in event of an actual emergency, but even preparing to do so now would make war more likely. In response the Turks might bring to their attention the willingness of France and Germany — and even Belgium — to commit to NATO’s probably illegal attack on Serbia in 1999.
Another important development has been the willingness of some Eastern European NATO aspirants to pledge support for the war effort. This is in part because they (unlike liberal Americans) know how the Cold War really ended and credit Ronald Reagan rather than Mikhail Gorbachev for their freedom. But more importantly, they still face the geopolitical reality of Russia on their flank, and want to keep the U.S. engaged in Europe for their own protection. Russia of course has sought ways to wedge the U.S. off the continent since 1945, which is another reason to side with France and Germany.
Overall, the Coalition retains the initiative. The facts on the ground dictate it. In the end, force will be used if necessary regardless of what the French, Germans, and Russians do or do not do. Of them, the French have consistently reserved the right to join in the war against Iraq if they deem it necessary (unlike Germany which has indicated it will not get involved under any circumstances). It will not be in French interests to sit the war out if it comes. The pattern they are displaying now is similar to 1990-91. Back then France tried doggedly to prevent the use of force against Iraq, and even a few days before the advent of Operation Desert Storm introduced a last-ditch diplomatic proposal endorsed by Germany and Belgium, among others (such as the PLO and Libya). Yet, when this initiative failed, Prime Minister Michel Rocard stated that “In any international police operation, the fatal moment comes when one must act. Alas, after everything we have done to avoid it, that moment has now arrived.” The French assembly voted 523-43 to approve President Francois Mitterrand’s war message. (A few days earlier the U.S. House had voted on a similar resolution, 250-183.) Ultimately the French will be on board. They will have to be part of the winning team to get a piece of the peace. In fact, I would not be surprised to see French forces be the first to reach Baghdad. After the shooting stops, I mean.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.