On Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003, George W. Bush announced the beginning of operation “Iraqi Freedom.” He preceded this terse announcement two days earlier by demanding the departure of Saddam Hussein and his sons, while offering a broad justification for the war. Iraq would not be a threat to the region or the United States, said the president, if its ruler were willing to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction. Bush noted in passing that the U.N. Security Council had failed the test of its responsibilities but left open a role for the U.N. in Iraq’s reconstruction.
Thus, the United States entered upon the second Gulf War but attended this time by quarrels with close allies unseen since the Suez fiasco of 1956. The Western soldiers and diplomats concerned with war over Iraq marched to different drummers. On one beat, the United States and Great Britain steadily assembled a mighty invasion force with the assistance of the Arab Gulf states. On the other beat, a deep diplomatic crisis divided the U.S.-led coalition of the willing from the French-led coalition of the unwilling. These discordances climaxed in a monumental row that damaged NATO and threatened to wreck the U.N. Security Council. Thus, the war began with frictions unforeseen by either the United States or its antagonists.
A review of the diplomacy preceding the war poses an obvious question. On November 8, 2002, after two months’ hard work, Secretary of State Powell secured unanimous Security Council support for Resolution 1441 that threatened “severe consequences” if Iraq did not disarm. Yet, four and one-half months later, Washington could not even secure a majority on the Council for yet another statement of the obvious, namely, that Iraq was still in breach of its obligations. What had happened?
At first, all went well. Powell’s achievement apparently vindicated Bush’s turn to the U.N. and seemed to revive the coalition that had fought the Gulf War eleven years earlier. Such unity held the best possibility of convincing Iraq to cooperate and, indeed, Saddam’s government quickly agreed to readmit the inspectors with much broader powers than before. But the resolution left open whether a further formal action by the Security Council would be needed to authorize war in the event of non-compliance. The French, who led the tortuous negotiations leading to 1441, insisted upon it; the Americans thought it unnecessary although it might be
The resolution also carried a definite deadline. On December 7, 2002, Iraq was to make a full, final, and complete declaration of its prohibited weapons inventory so that the destruction thereof could be verified by the inspectors. In the absence of such cooperation, the inspectors’ mission was hopelessly compromised. The preceding dozen years had shown that no team could cover a country as large as Iraq with a government as devious as Saddam’s. Indeed, much of the previous success had been due to defectors, notably Saddam’s son-in-law in 1995.
The 12,000-page declaration furnished by Baghdad, however, was defective on its face, as Inspectors Blix and ElBaradei noted. Yet the United States did not seize the moment to insist that further inspections were moot, given Saddam’s unwillingness to cooperate. This was puzzling. The Security Council had given its ultimatum; Iraq had not complied. “Severe consequences” should follow.
Did Washington hesitate because the Pentagon was not ready? By early December, American and British troops were still flooding into Kuwait. A war-shortening major advance from the north might be possible if Turkey could be persuaded to allow direct passage of a U.S. division.
Whether this was the reason or simply because, as has been reported, the United States did not want to look “too eager,” Washington saw no harm in prolonging the diplomacy. The United States assumed that Blix would continue to bring bad news. More significantly, the Administration misread the French objective to be identical to its own: a brief “test” for Saddam which, if he flunked, was cause for war.
The delay proved to be a critical blunder rapidly exploited by France to obstruct U.S. diplomacy.
THE GREAT AMBUSH
Apparently lulled by the good start, Washington did little to influence public opinion for over a month, allowing the opposition to U.S. military action plenty of time to organize. Almost before the Bush people knew it, they also found themselves in the “inspections trap.” Unlike 1990-91, when Saddam spurned Russian and French suggestions that might have eased his dilemma, he had learned that a little cooperation could go a long way. This took the form of concessions on procedures carefully doled out to keep the inspectors interested, delay the Americans and arm America’s critics on the Security Council.
Chief among these was France. Washington’s willingness to deal with Paris as its principal interlocutor on the Security Council was itself a surprise. The United States rarely ever began major diplomatic efforts with the French, although it never excluded them. This reflected the peculiarities of the Franco-American relationship. French politics (and culture) had long been tinged by anti-Americanism. France’s continued refusal to rejoin NATO’s integrated military command (a Gaullist legacy from 1966), its snide comments about the American “hyperpower” and its portrayal of the European Union as a potential competitor to the United States suggested at the least a deep ambivalence about the transatlantic connection. To begin with France meant dealing with a professed ally that often defined its power and prestige in opposition to the United States.
Now Powell would receive a personal lesson in what French President Chirac really intended, which was to subject American military power to the approval of the Security Council, or, more precisely, to France. On January 22, 2003, the secretary of state attended a special Council session, called by Paris, ostensibly to discuss terrorism.
There he was ambushed by the French and German foreign ministers who turned the meeting into an attack on American policy toward Iraq. War, they argued, could not be justified in the absence of a “smoking gun.” This, of course, put the burden on the inspectors to find something rather than the burden on Iraq to come clean. Ever since 1991, the Security Council had judged Iraq guilty until proven innocent. Now the French proposed to reverse that judgment.
Powell was dumbfounded. It was definitely not Iraqi disarmament that seemed to be the French focus but rather the hobbling of America’s threat of war. This impression was reinforced the next day when President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder celebrated the 40th anniversary of the historic Franco-German cooperation treaty by announcing that they shared “common views” and that war was “the worst of solutions” for the Iraqi crisis. Then, four days later, on January 27th, Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief inspector for nuclear weapons, told the Security Council that Iraq had begun to cooperate on procedures. There were promising developments, they said, that needed to be followed up.
In only one week, American diplomatic prospects had been transformed. Resolution 1441′s unity had been fractured (in Washington’s view) by a deliberate French-led assault that elevated the danger of U.S.-led military action above that of Saddam’s weapons. The inspectors’ report had played into that argument. Why not give Blix months or even years to look for them, especially now that Iraq had begun to cooperate?
On January 30th, a combined Anglo-American overture rattled the French. Britain’s Tony Blair, pursuing a pro-American policy despite his own Labour Party opposition, had often interpreted the Bush Administration to his European colleagues and vice versa. He shared the offense given Britain and others by the Franco-German pretense to represent “Europe.” Blair recruited seven NATO countries (Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, and Poland) to sign a letter of support for the United States. The French were outraged twice over when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld referred to the Franco-German opposition as “old Europe.”
Then, on February 5, Powell tried to refocus attention on Iraq through a remarkable briefing to the Security Council. He exposed numerous Iraqi deceits using declassified intelligence data, and insisted that Saddam had clearly failed to satisfy Resolution 1441. It was not the burden of the inspectors to find “smoking guns” but upon Iraq to prove it no longer had prohibited weapons. Powell should not have been surprised to find the French, Russian, and Chinese foreign ministers unpersuaded to various degrees. The dispute had gone beyond “evidence.”
The same day the so-called “Vilnius Ten,” candidates for European Union membership, offered a joint statement in support of the United States. Eighteen European states were now lined up against France. An Anglo-Saxon axe had splintered the European “pillar” upon which Chirac presumed to stand.
France, however, was not finished and soon harmed a project uppermost on the American list, the opening of a northern front by direct invasion from Turkey. The new Turkish government was on a kind of political probation. Dominated by an Islamic party that reformed itself to avoid offending the Turkish military guardians of Attaturk’s “western secular” state, its leaders did not want war. Nor did the Turkish people, mindful that the Americans had failed to protect them after 1991 against the disastrous economic consequences of long-running sanctions. Worse, a Kurdish state might emerge from the ruin of Saddam, capable of reigniting a rebellion within Turkey itself.
The Bush administration had negotiated financial and political arrangements, including allowance for Turkish military forces to enter Iraqi Kurdistan. Clearly, a big American force that seized Kirkuk and Mosul at the outset also would ease Turkish fears. But the Turks needed — or wanted — more political cover. The United States turned to NATO.
Again, an old diplomatic rule was ignored. Customarily, no issues were submitted to NATO’s supreme political authority, the North Atlantic Council, unless they were agreed ahead of time. Yet the United States sought authorization from the Council for NATO planning to aid Turkey several times from February 10 onward, only to have France, Germany, and Belgium oppose what the French called “the logic of war.”
It was an astonishing spectacle. Both Schroeder and Chirac hastened to tell Turkey that they would aid her while simultaneously denying the Americans approval for NATO to plan such aid. Finally, on February 19, the U.S. took the issue to the Military Committee on which the French held no place and got it passed with German help. In Berlin, there was a sense that Chirac had gone too far. The quarrel had damaged NATO for no good reason.
Now it was Turkey’s turn to embarrass. On March 2, the parliament narrowly failed to ratify the agreement to accommodate American troops despite the Cabinet’s approval. While the tally reflected popular opposition to war, the mechanics seemed the product of incompetence by an inexperienced Justice and Development party. Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promised to revisit the issue successfully once he was elected prime minister. As the Turkish Chief of Staff General Himi Ozkok explained, his country’s choice was “between bad and worse.” Unable to prevent war, said Ozkok, Turkey could protect itself against the worst by taking the American deal. But it might be too late.
Blix’s and ElBaradei’s second report did contain a “smoking gun,” the discovery that Iraq’s al-Samoud II missile flew further than allowed. On the face of it, the Samoud offered a stunning refutation for the proponents of containment rather than war: despite sanctions, the Iraqis had imported the engines, fuel and other parts to develop the missile.
Blix, smarting under Powell’s briefing that the inspectors had been fooled, demanded Iraq destroy the missiles. On March 1st, the Iraqis began to do so. Three days ahead of time, Blix submitted his third report, reminding the Council that very little disarmament had actually occurred although the Iraqis were now offering things that Blix publicly wondered why they had not submitted before. Blix himself became the object of public wonder when in his next report on March 7th, he omitted the discovery of another Iraqi weapons system-drones-that also violated restrictions.
The real drama, however, had shifted to a diplomatic showdown. At Blair’s behest, Bush agreed to submit a new resolution on February 26, 2003, a move the White House believed unnecessary and that left the coalition for war open to yet another delay that might still end in veto. The text was simple, stating that Iraq remained in breach and that Saddam had lost his last chance to fulfill 1441. Severe consequences would follow. As no one could deny that Saddam remained in breach 81 days after 1441 had been issued, the resolution was the equivalent of reminding everyone that the earth was round. But the flat earth party spoke up immediately.
When tabled on February 26, the Anglo-American-Spanish resolution was offset by a Franco-German “memorandum.” The French and their allies argued against a resolution for war. Instead, the inspectors should be charged to develop a series of deadlines for the numerous unsettled issues raised by Iraq’s original declaration almost three months earlier.
This was followed on March 5 by another shock to Washington when Russia joined France and Germany in a statement that commended the inspectors’ progress and threatened a veto of the American-sponsored resolution. Bush cherished his relationship with Putin. It had borne important results after 9/11, when Russia hastened to take the American side, not objecting to U.S. forces in its former Central Asian dominions. In return, the United States had gone easy on Russia’s war in Chechnya, although Moscow apparently expected other tangible rewards. The White House anticipated that Putin, assured of a role in post-Saddam Iraq, would come along. Putin had hinted that Powell’s U.N. briefing might justify a change in America’s favor. He had before him Gorbachev’s unsuccessful 1991 intervention to prevent the Gulf War and subsequent loss of influence and prestige. Yet he took the French side to White House dismay. A temptation to solidify the split in NATO, a long-sought Soviet and Russian objective, may simply have been irresistible to the former KGB man.
Bush, however, did not seem fazed by the Turkish or Russian surprises, still less by the very large demonstrations organized by the anti-globalist internationale. Like his father, George W. was also the target of earnest appeals from the clergy, including the pope. Their arguments were discounted by the value of their previous advice against war in 1991, which, if it had been taken, might have given the world a memory of Kuwait and the reality of a nuclear-armed Saddam.
On February 26, Saddam himself challenged Bush to a verbal duel in the course of an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather. Bush’s response to this oddity was to speak of a post-Saddam Middle East, which could open the way to a democratic Iraq and a peaceful Palestine. Intended to assure the Arabs that America meant no imperialism in Iraq but did mean to end the Israeli-Palestinian warfare, Bush’s vision probably had a different effect. Bush now threatened to bring upon the Middle East its first wholesale remaking since the departure of the British and French empires.
On March 6, 2003, the president gave a markedly subdued news conference. Serenely confident in the greatest test of his presidency, he surveyed the wreckage of his diplomacy and observed calmly that he would proceed in America’s interest as he saw fit regardless of U.N. approval. But, he said, he also wanted a vote in the Security Council. It was time to take a stand even if it meant a French veto.
Returning to the Security Council ran contrary to American interpretations of 1441 and signaled only Bush’s desire to help Tony Blair, the main allied victim of the French-led diplomatic fiasco at the U.N. Unlike Germany’s Schroeder, Blair had taken the U.S. side even at great political risk; Blair’s “New Labour,” like Schroder’s SPD, contained a strong anti-American wing. This final effort to put the Council “on record” broke up in confusion as the British tried to take the “work program” of the Franco-German memorandum but tie it to a short deadline. Unable to secure a majority for an exercise that seemed foredoomed by French veto threats, the United States and its allies simply abandoned the Security Council after a dramatic consultation in the Azores on March 16.
On the eve of war, the main arguments broke down this way. The Americans, fielding decisive military power, had determined that, as part of the war on terrorism, Saddam’s Iraq had to be disarmed before it metastasized into a larger threat through its weapons of mass destruction. This would complete what the U.N. (and the United States) had failed to do over the past decade, despite numerous resolutions. The price to be paid was the overthrow of the regime which, if done swiftly and with few casualties, might redound to the benefit of the rest of the region but would burden the United States (and others) with the highly risky rehabilitation of the Iraqi state. The alternative, in Washington’s view, was a Saddam fully armed with various weapons of mass destruction, the ambition to dominate the region, and perhaps even the ability to threaten the United States directly.
The opposition to war agreed that Saddam was “mad, bad and dangerous” but contested the magnitude and urgency of the danger. They argued that military action would recklessly endanger peace throughout a region already boiling over the Palestinian issue. Force against Iraq might not even be needed if the threat of it could be parlayed into a system of inspection, containment and deterrence. Yet even France agreed that the threat depended upon an overwhelming American military presence remaining in the desert until either the inspectors or Saddam gave up.
This was the weak point in the opposition case. In the absence of American forces prepared not simply to bomb Iraq (Clinton’s method) but to overthrow the regime, there would be no inspections. Even the sole superpower, however, could not keep the bulk of its armed forces crowded into the Gulf awaiting the outcome of a new cat and mouse game. And no state could allow its decisive military power to be controlled by others, such as France, without such power, much less international civil servants terrified of triggering a war. Time, and the U.N.’s record of wasting time with Saddam, thus told heavily against the critics. In the end, a swift and successful American military effort that seized arsenals of mass destruction embarrassing to the U.N. inspectors and U.S. opponents alike would settle much of the fight on American terms. Equally, a bungled effort would strengthen Washington’s critics.
A NEW BALANCE OF POWER?
There was another issue. Chirac revealed his larger purpose in an interview intended for the American public: “Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions” (Time, February 24, 2003). This observation suggested that, independently of the Iraqi crisis, American domination of the current international order was dangerous by definition; hence France was opposed to it.
Was there a new balance of power at hand? Indeed, historians might find the newly anointed Franco-German-Russian alliance against the United States on Iraq unprecedented; political scientists might find it a confirmation of theories about balance and counterbalance; yet practical men might wonder about the extent of the fuss. Unlike much of the 20th century or the 19th, the unity of these three powers hardly offset U.S. strength. The French, Germans and Russians were shrinking military powers by their own choice. Moreover, neither Chirac nor Schroeder nor Putin, least of all George Bush, intended to harm each other with economic sanctions or military actions. None of them proposed to suspend cooperation in the war against al Qaeda and international terrorism. Thus, at the end of this diplomatic argument lay neither an emasculated America nor a newly empowered Europe. Relative strengths will remain much the same as before unless the American military expedition meets catastrophe.
Still, there will be important consequences for Franco-American relations and the U.N. Security Council itself. Both the United States and France have been wounded. France has denied the United States, inventor of the U.N., the international approval it sought. The United States wants nothing more to do with a French government making its mark by opposing Washington. France condemns the arrogance of American power; the Americans condemn France’s sheer arrogance. This nasty virility contest has now gone well beyond the anti-Americanism fashionable abroad or the American disdain for those unable or unwilling to tackle Saddam. Chirac may very well discover that he has not only injured France’s commercial opportunities in the post-Saddam era but devalued the forum where France matters most, the U.N. Security Council. American reluctance to have any further dealings with the French may lead Washington to avoid the Security Council itself as a place to do much business.
Here lies the most important international change. In 1990, the war to free Kuwait of Saddam united a Security Council newly emancipated from Cold War divisions. A decade of failure to enforce disarmament, however, has now culminated in a renewed paralysis. The war to free Iraq and the world of Saddam’s weapons will be conducted by what Churchill called in 1946, the “sinews of strength,” an Anglo-American-led coalition. The future of an international order run by the democracies now depends on its success.
— Harvey Sicherman is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. His most recent book is America the Vulnerable: Our Military Problems and How To Fix Them, co-edited with John Lehman. This was originally written for FPRI and is reprinted with permission.