Politics & Policy

The French Position

It's not just Chirac.

French demands for the “immediate transfer” of power to Iraq’s fledgling institutions, to be conducted entirely under U.N. auspices, set the stage for a review of the bidding in advance of President Bush’s address to the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday.

Over the weekend, French PM Jacques Chirac forcefully reiterated these two conditions, rejecting out of hand British PM Tony Blair’s hapless efforts to paper over irreconcilable Coalition differences with France and its diplomatic satellite, Germany:

Our views are not quite convergent. We hope there can be an immediate transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis–I mean the current Iraqi institutions–and then of course a devolution of responsibilities that would happen as swiftly as possible but that should be done with the oversight of the UN. That is the French position.

Immediately at issue is the September 4 draft U.S. resolution whereby the UN Security Council would bestow on U.S.-led Coalition forces a greater measure of purely “cosmetic legitimacy“–to borrow Victor Davis Hanson’s phrase–in exchange for granting the U.N. some unspecified role in “advancing efforts to restore and establish national and local institutions for representative governance.”

The resolution’s stated rationale was to provide political cover for states unwilling to contribute troops or funds without a broader U.N. fig leaf to shelter behind; but it also appears to have been intended to change the subject at time of mounting press criticism of U.S. “unilateralism” and of its attendant costs in blood and treasure–not to mention sinking poll numbers. After initially raising unfounded expectations that India, Pakistan, and Turkey in particular might contribute substantial ground forces, the Bush administration now rightly acknowledges that any such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming in any case, except in modest amounts.

That is why the administration must hold the line against efforts to weaken the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), whose powers under international law “to promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory” were explicitly recognized by the Security Council in Resolution 1483 (May 22). But the immediate aim of the French, their like-minded allies and the U.N. bureaucracy itself is to sideline the CPA in favor of the U.N.; and their current weapon of choice is the draft resolution now on the table.

To grasp what’s at stake, consider both the various aspects of the overall U.S. mission in Iraq and the divergent interests of the various players.

Like Caesar’s Gaul, the task of rehabilitating Iraq is divided into three parts: security, reconstruction, and political development. These three distinct tasks are of course closely related: Establishing security is the prerequisite for reconstructing Iraq’s dilapidated infrastructure, providing adequate power and water and renewing economic life generally; and political development in turn depends on helping ordinary Iraqis set about improving their lives, exercising their new freedoms, and gaining ownership over local and national institutions now under construction. All three steps are essential means to the shared U.S. and Iraqi objective of a more decent and democratic Iraq at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

France, however, has long-regarded Iraq solely as a means to counter U.S. influence and to advance its own pretensions of grandeur. While repeatedly emphasizing that France will in no event commit its own troops or funds to Iraq, Chirac has sought at every turn to exercise control over Iraq’s political future by using the U.N. as a willing proxy. For all his bluster, Chirac is shrewd enough to realize that French vanity alone is not enough to counterbalance 140,000 U.S. troops on the ground. But he is patient enough to see the new draft resolution as an opening wedge, a chance to create introduce some ambiguity into Iraq’s governing arrangements that the U.N. bureaucracy can exploit. The more ambiguity, the greater the temptation for Iraqi factions to play one set of foreigners off against another; and the more friction and chaos, the better the chance for Iraq to implode and–more important–the U.S. to fail.

That France is playing for keeps is a fact of life, not simply the idiosyncratic judgment of a recovering Francophile. Even columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the bellwether of elite conventional wisdom, belatedly acknowledged on Sept. 18 that “there is only one conclusion that one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.” What’s less well known–but no less potentially harmful–is that senior U.N. bureaucrats share these views.

Like France, the U.N. bureaucracy has long gone to considerable lengths to define itself in direct opposition to U.S. interests and values. Hence the puzzlement voiced by one of the survivors of the Aug. 16 terrorist bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad: “It was clear to many of us in Baghdad that lots of ordinary Iraqis were unable to distinguish our U.N. operation from the overall U.S. presence in the country.” What’s puzzling is that U.N. staffers should have regarded their studied moral neutrality as sufficient immunity against the enemies of civilization.

What is more, bureaucratic self-interest alone is a powerful impetus for seeking a piece of the action in Iraq–much the biggest game in town. Whether the U.N. has anything to contribute beyond humanitarian aid is another matter entirely. Consider only the U.N.’s penchant for holding local political leaders in perpetual tutelage under parasitic bureaucracies in Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance.

On Tuesday, President Bush needs to make clear that the bazaar is closed. In a Fox News interview that airs tonight, the president reaffirmed that he will make clear to the General Assembly that the U.S. “made the right decision and the others that joined us made the right decision,” notwithstanding the Security Council’s failure to follow through in support of its own resolutions threatening Iraq with “serious consequences.”

In this preview of his speech, the president reiterated that “we would like a larger role for member states of the United Nations to participate in Iraq”–though not necessarily the U.N. itself. “I’m not sure we have to, for starters,” Bush added.

“The key on any resolution,” Bush stated, “is not to get in the way of an orderly transfer of power based upon a logical series of steps. And that’s constitution, elections, and then the orderly transfer of power.”

But the president also sent a unfortunate mixed message appearing to equate the substance of the new Iraqi constitution with the mechanics of holding and monitoring elections:

I do think it would be helpful to get the United Nations in to help write a constitution. I mean, they’re good at that. Or, perhaps when an election starts, they’ll oversee the election. That would be deemed a larger role.

One hopes that the president simply misspoke in these off-the-cuff remarks and was not announcing a reversal of settled U.S. policy. For the Iraqi constitution is the centerpiece of the political development portfolio, the one key institution that will underpin the future Iraqi state and outlast the direct U.S. presence. What’s needed is a pragmatic framework for limited government, based on individual rights and reinforced by structural devices like separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. What’s not needed is a socialist wish list that limits democratic accountability and leaves basic issues unsettled–precisely the sort of instrument favored by international bureaucrats and the whole transnational freemasonry of left-wing activists, NGOs, and underemployed law professors.

Granting the U.N. any role in shaping the Iraqi constitution risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s here that the line must be drawn.

In any case, President Bush would do well to call attention to the words of Akila al-Hasemi, the Iraqi Governing Council member now fighting for her life in an American military hospital after an assassination attempt on Sept. 20. Only ten days earlier, the former diplomat had visited the Quai D’Orsay and, according to the New York Times, “admonished the French not to try to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the new Iraqi government by offering a tempting plan for quick sovereignty.”

It is al-Hasemi’s parting words to her French hosts that bear repeating: “Don’t think the Iraqis will ever forget what the Americans did in liberating them. We will not allow the Americans to fail.”


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