Politics & Policy

The French Veto

Down to the wire at the Security Council.

Watching the ongoing tarantella around the “use of force” resolution in the U.N. Security Council, one wonders why France has not yet stated that it will use its veto power. France has carefully avoided being explicit on this issue — why not just take a stand and be done with all this frenetic diplomatic activity?

The question is more complex than a simple exercise of the French veto. First, examine the conditions by which France would have to use it. The veto is only necessary if the resolution receives the necessary nine votes in the Security Council. If the coalition fails to achieve the necessary super-majority, a veto will be needless. On the other hand, if the Security Council votes in favor of the use of force, the country exercising the veto will be acting against the desires of three-fifths of the Security Council. Vladimir Putin has reportedly stated that Russia would not cast a veto under these circumstances. It would make no sense for Russia to endanger its relationship with the United States in a situation where Russia cannot change the outcome (i.e., Saddam’s downfall). China has been ambivalent and probably would not cast a veto unilaterally, especially with Russia not joining them. This leaves France. Would the French take the lead against the will of the Security Council? France has the most to lose in the case of a war, being Iraq’s primary trading partner, and having billions of dollars worth of unexecuted petroleum contracts set to go into force as soon as sanctions are lifted. If conflict breaks out, the oil equation will shift in favor of the countries that rebuild the destroyed Iraqi petroleum infrastructure, and France would likely be excluded. This suggests a veto is likely.

However, casting a veto is not the same thing as stopping the conflict. The coalition will take action anyway. The president has stated as much. The hundreds of thousands of troops in the desert have not been deployed as a NATO-style containment force, despite the French assertion that it is achieving that end. The ready force trumps the veto, and if France decides to kill a resolution the Security Council would otherwise have passed, the coalition enjoys a moral victory to add to its subsequent military triumph. This might also open a debate over why France even has veto power, since the global reality of 2003 is not that of 1945. In fact, I am amazed at the number of times I keep using “France” and “power” in the same sentence.

Meanwhile the nonpermanent members of the Security Council will seek to engage in strategic voting. After all, just like in Congress, votes frequently come down to appearances, especially when the outcome is known. Some countries, like Mexico, might want to vote in favor of the resolution to stay on the good side of the U.S., but would just as soon see it fail. France would do Mexico a great favor by saying it would cast a veto no matter what, so the Mexicans could vote with the U.S. in confidence that the resolution would not pass. In fact, any country that wanted to be a team player with the U.S. and Britain would be foolish not to vote in favor of the resolution if France were definitely going to veto it. These people are politicians after all, they don’t have to believe in anything in particular, only seem to.

However, this is probably why France is leaving the matter in doubt. The French do not want to encourage states to vote in favor, because it would make their veto threat self-fulfilling if nine states signed on. In addition, if France goes on record in favor of the veto, further negotiation would end. France would be assured a Phyrric victory in the Security Council while events moved ahead anyway in the Middle East. So France is working very hard to amass seven negative votes or abstentions to deny the coalition nine votes, and make a French veto unnecessary.

However, this still leaves the “facts on the ground” part of the equation. The issue cannot simply be left with a vote that initiates immediate hostilities by the coalition. (And if a resolution proposing a March 17 deadline is vetoed, the coalition should start the conflict as soon as possible. Every additional day spent waiting would give Saddam and his sympathizers more opportunities to attempt some form of political theater to blunt the momentum of the attack.) Thus the French should be seeking an alternative resolution worded in such a way as to not ban the use of force, but neither to make it a demarche. There must be enough room for them to be able to save face domestically and internationally, yet also take into account the realities of the situation, and ultimately not to be locked out of the postwar reorganization of Iraq.

Few thought Resolution 1441 would pass, especially with the tough language promising “serious consequences” for Iraqi noncompliance. This was clearly a threat-of-force resolution, and it passed unanimously. The current resolution seeks only to validate 1441 by placing a March 17 time limit for Iraqi compliance. A compromise resolution might seek another date, or other conditions, but regardless of subsequent authorization or its absence, the coalition will act to enforce 1441. Thus, it is in the interest of every Security Council member that some resolution be passed this week that takes into account not only the interests of the various countries involved, but the reality that, barring the immediate total cooperation of Saddam Hussein in disarming, the coalition will impose both Iraqi disarmament and regime change by force. As I mentioned above, these men are politicians, not principled idealists. They will cut a deal; Saddam Hussein will feign cooperation to stave off the inevitable; perhaps he will discuss the possibility of going into exile at some future date; but unless Saddam shows up in Libya or Belorussia or another likely haven by week’s end, he will find himself facing the coalition’s “veto power,” France or no France.

— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.


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