Kenneth Timmerman, a New York Times best-selling author, lived and worked as an investigative reporter in France for 18 years. His latest book, The French Betrayal of America, was released last week from Crown Forum. He recently spoke to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about the new book.
NRO: It seems “cool” these days for right-of-center Americans to French-bash: Hasn’t it gone a little too far? Aren’t you just adding to the lifespan of “freedom fries” with a book about a “betrayal?”
Timmerman: It’s a serious matter when the leaders of a country such as France show by their actions that they are willing to jettison a friendship with America that goes back 225 years in favor of a dictator such as Saddam Hussein, whose claim to fame includes the massacre of some 300,000 of his own people. And yet, that is precisely what French president Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin have done. They have shown that they were willing to exchange exclusive oil deals with Saddam, and political payoffs, for the French alliance with America.
NRO: Did Chirac actually lie to President Bush before the Iraq war?
Timmerman: Yes, and this is why the president and Secretary of State Powell were so taken aback when foreign minister Dominique de Villepin pulled the rug out from under United Nations negotiations on January 20, 2003, by announcing, apparently out of the blue, that France would never ever agree to using force against Saddam Hussein.
Before the first U.N. vote in early November 2002 (actually, it was the 17th U.N. resolution condemning Saddam and calling on him to voluntarily disarm or suffer the consequences, which included his forceful ouster), Jacques Chirac picked up the phone and called President Bush at the White House, personally reassuring him that France “would be with” us at the U.N. and in Iraq. To demonstrate his intentions, he said, he was sending one of his top generals to Tampa, Florida, to work out the details with U.S. Central Command leaders for integrating French troops into a Coalition force to oust Saddam.
“Chirac’s assurances are what gave the president the confidence to keep sending Colin Powell back to the U.N.,” one source who was privy to Chirac’s phone call to Bush told me. “They also explain why the administration has been going after the French so aggressively ever since. They lied.”
NRO: How close was the relationship between Saddam and Chirac?
Timmerman: Like lips and teeth. One of my favorite stories is the bullfight Chirac hosted for Saddam in the southern France resort town les Baux-de-Provence in September 1975, where Saddam bet $600,000 on the bulls. During that first trip Saddam made to France, Chirac stuck to him like glue. He also arranged to sell Saddam a nuclear-research reactor, which Saddam himself called a nuclear-bomb plant. If the Israelis hadn’t taken it out in a daring air strike in June 1981, there is no doubt that Saddam would have had the ability to make a nuclear weapon by 1985–at the latest.
NRO: How much of a friend would France be losing if the people of Iran were to topple the mullahs?
Timmerman: The people of Iran will remember who befriended them in their time of need, and who helped the mullahs retain power by legitimating them, apologizing for them, and letting them–literally–get away with murder. Iranian hit teams operated in Europe with virtual impunity throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, murdering Iranian dissidents, while the Europeans carried out a policy they called “constructive engagement.” The only “constructive” thing about it was the number of chemical plants and missile-design centers they built for the mullahs. While Germany certainly led the way, France was never far behind and continues to send trade delegations to Tehran and to defend Iran as it hides its nuclear-weapons program from the IAEA.
NRO: You accuse France of actually encouraging genocide–it seems like an outrageous charge.
Timmerman: It’s a very specific charge, made by Hoshyar Zebari, who is now the Iraqi foreign minister. Zebari was referring to the massacre of the Marsh Arabs who used to live in the Howeiza marshes along the southern border between Iran and Iraq. In the mid-1990s, at the urging of the French, who worried about sending their oil engineers into the area, Saddam drained the marshes–an area the size of the state of Delaware–turning the rich, fertile homeland of this ancient people into a dust bowl. Then he sent in the Republican Guards, massacring thousands of civilians. Why? To make the area safe for French oil engineers and French oil workers.
NRO: You say in your new book that the Iraq war was, in fact, all about oil.
Timmerman: The war in Iraq was indeed a war for oil–waged by the French, not the United States. The Chirac government was desperate to maintain its exclusive–and outrageously exploitative–oil contracts with Saddam’s regime, which would have earned the French an estimated $100 billion during the first seven years of operations, according to experts I interviewed for my book. My worry today is that a Kerry administration would back the French, who continue to assert that these contracts are legally binding on the new Iraqi government. That would be a travesty and a dishonor to all those Iraqis who died under Saddam.
NRO: What are French motivations when dealing with these regimes–purely economic?
Timmerman: Contracts are certainly very important. Americans need to remember that France is not a free-market economy, as we still are (despite the efforts of Hillary Rodham Clinton to nationalize the U.S. health-care industry!). When French businessmen go abroad, they often travel in delegations led by the prime minister, or the foreign minister, or some other top official. The French government gets involved not just in opening doors, but in negotiating contracts. Often, these contracts have involved substantial kickbacks to French political parties. Even today, French companies can declare as an expense on their income-tax declaration the bribes and commissions they pay to foreign agents. This was banned in the United States in the 1970s under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This is one of the reasons the French like to do business with dictators. In a free and fair market, their companies can’t always compete.
NRO: How and why has France stonewalled in the Moussaui case?
Timmerman: Over the past 15 years, I have had the privilege to become close to the top French counterterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, arguably the world’s top expert on al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. I went back to meet him at his Paris office in October 2001, and he was grinning like a cat that had swallowed a canary. He had new information, he told me, that would be of tremendous use to U.S. prosecutors on Zacharias Moussaoui, and couldn’t wait to turn it over.
Then the politicians got wind of what he wanted to do, and came down on him like a ton of bricks. They ordered him not to turn over evidence that could be used in a U.S. court unless the U.S. promised not to seek the death penalty against Moussaoui. That put the kibosh on Bruguiere’s cooperation.
Bruguiere had everything on Moussaoui, who was a French citizen. He knew all about his trips to Afghanistan, his operational ties to Afghanistan, and exactly how he fit into the al Qaeda “spider’s web.” And while he privately briefed U.S. prosecutors on this information, none of it can be used in court because of the French government’s ban. Had Bruguiere been allowed to present this evidence, Moussaoui’s trial would have been over long ago.
NRO: And meanwhile, we deal with France on a nuclear level-sharing technologies, you write. Will they pay, in terms of the closing of communication doors with the U.S. for their Iraq position–past and present?
Timmerman: I was quite surprised, as I was investigating the extensive nuclear-weapons cooperation between the U.S. and France, to discover that top Bush-administration officials were not aware that our national nuclear labs were still helping the French. Even today, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the French nuclear-weapons establishment. I think it is time for Congress to hold hearings on the U.S.-French nuclear relationship, to shed some daylight on a very murky subject and to open a much-needed debate on whether France can still be trusted with our nuclear secrets.
NRO: Is there any negotiating with France–getting her to see our view of the world? That certainly didn’t happen pre-Iraq liberation, but could it come post–or do things just get worse, as France continues to help Iran (and who else?) in ways they once helped Iraq?
Timmerman: When I was in Libya recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the chairman of the foreign-relations committee of the French senate, André Dulait. Dulait complained that the U.S. government was still punishing France for its behavior during the Iraq war, and that it was time to “let bygones be bygones.” I recounted the story to him of President Chirac’s personal lies to President Bush, and the manner in which foreign minister Dominique de Villepin ambushed Colin Powell at the United Nations on Jan. 20, 2003–events which were not just political, but personal betrayals. I suggested that perhaps if the French wanted better relations with the United States they might start by putting a new face on their diplomacy.
I see no reason why any U.S. administration should take Mr. De Villepin seriously or take his word on anything, given his track record of deceit and open lies.
NRO: Did the Madrid attacks shake France any, being as it was so close to home?
Timmerman: Al Qaeda has now threatened France because of a new French law banning so-called “Muslim” head scarves in the French public schools. One can debate whether the French were right to ban headscarves; I happen to think they were, because the radical Islamists were using the headscarf as a means of increasing their political power and of terrorizing Muslim girls into submission. What’s clear now, however, is that the Islamists are seeking to use this as a means of intimidating the French government and the French people into submission.
France has a long history of caving into terrorists, cutting deals with people such as Abu Daoud, the PLO terrorist who masterminded the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972, or with Imad Mugniyeh, the Iranian-government agent who has killed so many Americans in terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Both the French and the Spanish ought to know that they cannot buy safety by appeasing murderers; and yet, they do so. As the Clinton administration’s refusal to strike back at al Qaeda despite five attacks against America during the 1990s shows, appeasement, and a display of weakness only invites attack.
NRO: What did Tocequville get about France and the U.S. that Chirac and company don’t today?
Timmerman: Tocqueville understood freedom; Chirac disdains freedom, and has consistently taken France into alliances with dictators and rogue states. Tocqueville was trying to show his fellow Frenchmen a path away from authoritarian government (whether of the Napoleonic blend, or the monarchy who returned to France after his demise). Chirac and his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin believe in a “republican monarchy,” a strong authoritarian state that is the antithesis of American democracy.
NRO: Does France miss Saddam, economically, or otherwise?
Timmerman: I believe so. As a former adviser to Jacques Chirac told me when I met with him privately in the mansion of a Lebanese arms dealer in the south of France in 1994, Chirac and others believed France made a mistake by supporting the United States during the first Gulf War in 1991. “Iraq is our natural ally in the Gulf,” he said. “France gained nothing and lost much” by its support for the U.S. during the first Gulf war.