Don't count on France

Posted: Oct 18, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--On Sept. 12, President Bush went to the United Nations to make his case against Iraq. It has been more than a month now, and the U.N. has done nothing. The United States and Britain circulated a draft resolution demanding serious, coercive inspections and threatening the use of force if Saddam refuses. France, backed by Russia and China, has been blocking that resolution. It insists on weaker inspections and will not permit an automatic trigger. If Saddam does not comply, France wants the issue returned to the Security Council for further deliberations. For the United States, this is disastrous. It would prolong inspections for months, and delay any military action against Saddam for over a year because winter is the window of opportunity. It would be very hazardous to strike anytime beyond March because desert heat would be debilitating for American troops wearing heavy protective gear against chemical weapons. The question for the State Department is: Do you bargain with the French? We have been bargaining for a month and gotten nowhere. It is time to call their bluff. Introduce the American-British resolution. Let the French contemplate vetoing it. President Bush has made it clear that no matter what the Security Council does, the United States will act anyway. After the House vote authorizing the use of force, he declared, ``The days of Iraq acting as an outlaw state are coming to an end.'' This is a Rubicon Bush cannot--and has no intention to--recross. Bush has further and correctly insisted that he now has all the legal authority he needs to attack Saddam: first, overwhelming votes in both houses of Congress; and second, all the U.N. Gulf War resolutions that Saddam has violated. The war ended in 1991 not in a treaty or even in a truce, but in a cease-fire, a ``suspension'' of hostilities conditioned on Saddam's disarmament. Having not disarmed, he is in violation of the cease-fire. The suspension is thus unsuspended. QED. If this seems like legal quibbling to you, don't blame me. I believe that the entire notion of ``U.N. authority'' is nonsense in the first place. But for those who feel that the United States may not defend itself without reference to some piece of U.N. paper, the paper is there. The case is clear--even State Department lawyers should be able to make it. So much for legal authority. Yet France insists that we need a fresh piece of U.N. paper. France ``cannot accept an intervention ... that would not follow the path of law,'' declared French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Now when Louis XIV declared that something was unacceptable, it carried weight. Napoleon, too. And Clemenceau. What exactly does French nonacceptance mean now? A cheese embargo? France's grandiosity is rivaled only by its hypocrisy. The NATO war on Serbia was conducted without any Security Council approval (because Russia would have blocked it). Kosovo being a bit closer to France, and with Balkan troubles threatening to destabilize its neighborhood, France appears to have manfully suppressed its scruples and supported, indeed participated in, a war unsanctioned by the Security Council. No more dithering. Put the question to France. We are going to present our resolution to the Security Council. Will you veto it? This will not be an easy choice for France. It surely understands that if it vetoes the resolution, and if the United States goes ahead regardless (as it surely will), and if the war is a success, this will mean the end of the Security Council as a serious institution. The General Assembly, where every country has equal weight, is already an absurdity. No one takes anything that happens there seriously. But people still ascribe some importance to the Security Council, despite the fact that it is a relic of the Second World War. If, however, on the major issue of the day--war and peace in the Persian Gulf--France tests the authority of the council by casting a veto that is summarily brushed aside, the emperor's clothes will be gone. The U.N.'s irrelevance will have been irrefutably demonstrated. The question for France is whether it wants to throw away the entire reputation of the Security Council on this one, and lose whatever influence it retains on lesser issues. France must know that on an issue of supreme national security, the United States will not be deterred (any more than would France on an issue of comparable importance to France). On lesser issues, such as, say, the Arab-Israeli dispute, France can still carry weight by acting through the Security Council. Do the French want to gamble away their vestigial global influence? As Dirty Harry once inquired: Do you feel lucky? It will be interesting to see which way the French go.