Schroeder and Chirac may regret their opposition

Posted: Feb 12, 2003 12:00 AM
France's Jacques Chirac, Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and Russia's Vladimir Putin have announced their united opposition to militarily induced regime change in Iraq. For about half a millennium, the allied power of those three great countries would have been the decisive political fact in world events. But today, their decision, should they stick with it, will have decisive consequences, primarily for their own domestic political careers and their countries' relationship with the United States. While we have enduring, but second level, interests in regaining their cooperation in the everyday affairs of the civilized world, their current huffing and puffing on Iraq will have minimal, if any, material consequences on our prosecution of the upcoming war. If, by their opposition, they damage irreparably the United Nations and NATO, it will be their interests, not ours, that they disproportionately will be undercutting. After all, they derive disproportionate influence in the world as allies and interlocutors with the United States. They piggyback on our power, not we on theirs. As I wrote last week, I believe that we should strive to repair and value our historic relations with France, Germany and the United Nations. But it may well be the case that such repair work cannot be started as long as the current leaders of those countries and the United Nations are in power. Of course, we shouldn't unnecessarily further poison those relationships. Russia's President Putin is still likely to support us when the balloon goes up, because it would appear that he has made the strategic judgment to ally Russia with the United States (consider his acquiescence on NATO expansion, rescinding the ABM treaty and seeking our support against his Chechen terrorists). But M. Chirac and Herr Schroeder well may have talked themselves into a corner, out of which they cannot extract themselves. Jacques Chirac, like many leaders (and not only French ones), aspires to be remembered as a great man. The 70-year-old French president's career has been substantial, but has fallen short of not only the great Charles De Gaulle but even of Francois Mitterrand, especially in the sacred French objective of defining France's special destiny in terms of blocking and opposing American policy. With the coming of the Iraqi war crises, Chirac has seen his last chance for greatness, and he has lunged at it. Riding the tide of the French public's famously fickle sentiments, he is currently triumphant atop 80 percent poll approval numbers. But as a Parisian lawyer observed earlier this week in the London Times, Chirac always rushes into things without planning an exit: "It's going to end in tears. It always does for Chirac." If the French people are tough on their allies, they can be ferocious on their own fallen idols. It currently gratifies the French people to sneeringly call George Bush a cowboy (ignoring France's own less heroic role in Iraq as the saloon keeper). But, apres la guerre, when France is excluded from the honor of victory, Chirac will not seem so magnificent. He will have to live out politically the opposite condition of that invoked by the fine old French phrase: tout est perdu hors l'honneur -- all is lost, save honor. Having lost honor, Chirac will fall. But with the Socialist opposition supporting Chirac, French politics is likely to be rather scrambled for the next year or two. It will be during that period that the United States may wish to repair relations with a temporarily more compliant France. Meanwhile, on the Teutonic side of the Rhine, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has already got his lederhosen in a twist. Herr Schroeder's freewheeling exploitation of German anti-war sentiments has put him at odds with his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. As the chancellor has become ever more extreme in his anti-war, anti-American rhetoric, he has undercut the diplomatic efforts and curtailed the options of his foreign minister. And because Foreign Minister Fischer is also the senior Green Party minister in the Social Democrat-Green coalition government (in fact, 20 years ago, it was Fischer and Schroeder, personally over a beer, who conceived and created the Social Democrat-Green alliance), there is a risk of the collapse of Schroeder's government, according to the respected German newspaper Bild. "Relations between the Chancellor and his Foreign Minister have plunged into an ice age," the paper reported Monday. Herr Schroeder has publicly mocked Fischer's U.N. envoy, prematurely leaked details of Fischer's negotiations with his French counterpart and bragged that he is more popular with the Green rank and file than Fischer himself. A resourceful and angry Fischer combined with a sinking German economy bodes ill for the German government's longevity. A proud English newspaper once famously headlined: "Fog obscures Channel-Europe cut-off." Today, the French and German governments may think they are cutting off the United States, but they are only setting up their own governments and countries for a fall.