Few Americans will notice that Jacques Chirac is handing the reins of the French Republic to Nicolas Sarkozy this week. But they may come to notice—and appreciate—the difference in how the two leaders interact with Washington. Sarkozy won’t be America’s lapdog, but he’s bound to be an improvement over Chirac.
As the late David Halberstam recalled in his book War in a Time of Peace, Chirac raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic on his very first day in office, when he challenged the French military to stand up to the warring sides in the former Yugoslavia—and to the UN’s feckless chain of command. Upon hearing reports that French peacekeepers in Bosnia had been taken hostage, Chirac barked, “You can kill French soldiers! You can wound them! But you cannot humiliate them! That will end today! We will not accept that! We will change the rules of the game!” Chirac then issued new orders to his generals—“orders that went outside the UN command system.” It was an early indication of Chirac’s nationalist impulses and willingness to apply one set of standards to himself and another set to his allies.
Soon after that initial flourish, Chirac made it clear that his relationship with Washington was not going to be—ahem—cozy. With Washington AWOL from the Balkan war, Chirac mixed contempt with delight by concluding in 1995, “The position of leader of the free world is vacant.”
Of course, Chirac was even more cantankerous when the United States actually behaved like the leader of the free world, as we learned in the run-up to war in Iraq.
Largely because of France, it took eight weeks for the UN Security Council to agree in the fall of 2002 on a resolution requiring Iraq simply to comply with existing resolutions. Fearing he would “legitimize a preemptive use of force,” Chirac made sure not to explicitly authorize military action to bring Iraq into compliance. Instead, he forced the allies to go through the diplomatic dance twice—once to get Hans Blix and his hapless inspectors back into Iraq, and once to get the Security Council to confirm Blix’s findings and approve the war. As a result, the dance turned into a train wreck.
Even though a healthy majority of the European Union and virtually every leader in Eastern Europe supported a hard line against Baghdad, Chirac and his own lapdog in Germany opposed military action against Saddam Hussein. Perhaps it was Chirac’s old friendship with Saddam. As Slate’s Anne Appelbaum reminds us, Chirac once called Saddam, “my personal friend.” Or perhaps Chirac was protecting his cronies who were doing business with the Butcher of Baghdad. As Bill Gertz details in his book Treachery, French officials and French firms propped up Saddam throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Specifically, Gertz found that by 2000, France had become Iraq’s largest arms supplier. By 2003, Saddam had run up a tab with Paris of $4 billion for weaponry and non-military projects. (Some of that weaponry was even used against Coalition forces: A French-made missile downed a US A-10 in April 2003.)
Whatever the reason for Chirac’s intransigence, he was determined to prevent the US-led coalition from entering Iraq with the UN’s blessing. As the clock ticked down toward war, he threatened East European governments for daring to side with Washington rather than Paris on Iraq. “These countries are very rude and rather reckless of the danger of aligning themselves too quickly with the Americans,” he snarled. “Their situation is very delicate. If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU, they couldn't have chosen a better way.” (How’s that for diplomacy?)
Of course, military action was justified under 16 separate UN resolutions. If the biggest mistake President Bush and his advisors made after the fall of Saddam’s regime was not deploying more troops to smother sectarian violence, the biggest mistake they made before was going to the UN to be ensnared in Chirac’s labyrinth of diplomatic games.
The US and UK finally ended the games the second week of March 2003, citing a 173-page document published by UN inspectors. As an exasperated Tony Blair explained at the time, the report concluded that “550 mustard filled shells and up to 450 mustard filled aerial bombs [were] unaccounted for.” It expressed “additional uncertainty with respect of 6,526 aerial bombs, corresponding to approximately 1,000 tons of agent, predominantly mustard...Based on all the available evidence, the strong presumption is that about 10,000 liters of anthrax was not destroyed and may still exist.”
In short, Saddam was still noncompliant with UN demands. Whatever his motivation for being coy about the very stuff that could bring about his ouster—Was he maintaining some internal deterrence against the Kurds and Shiites or external deterrence against Iran, buying time to spirit the contraband into Syria, or husbanding disparate pieces to reconstitute the WMD program down the road?—he had not complied with Resolution 1441, which demanded a full accounting, unfettered access to weapons sites and complete disarmament.
Chirac saw the same intelligence as Blair and Bush. His spy agency agreed with the consensus view held by the rest of the West. But none of that mattered. When the US and UK pressed the Security Council to consider their “use of force” resolution, Chirac dispatched his foreign minister to more than a dozen capitals to organize an international opposition against his erstwhile allies. In fact, when the UK and Canada circulated an eleventh-hour compromise, France actually rejected the plan before Iraq.
Mincing no words, Blair concluded that Chirac was gambling with nothing less than the transatlantic alliance. “The outcome of this issue will now determine more than the fate of the Iraqi regime and more than the future of the Iraqi people, for so long brutalized by Saddam. It will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century; the development of the UN; the relationship between Europe and the US; the relations within the EU and the way the US engages with the rest of the world. It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation…We laid down an ultimatum calling upon Saddam to come into line with resolution 1441 or be in material breach. Not an unreasonable proposition, given the history. But still countries hesitated.”
And he called them by name. “France said it would veto a second resolution whatever the circumstances. Then France denounced the six tests. Later that day, Iraq rejected them.” That’s right: Blair was reminding the world that Jacques Chirac rejected the compromise measure even before Saddam Hussein.
No matter. The shameless Chirac would then condemn the US-led attack on Saddam’s regime because it was “undertaken without the approval of the United Nations…which is the only legitimate framework for building peace in Iraq.” Of course, if the UN is the sole source of legitimacy for military action, then Chirac has some explaining to do. After all, on the very same week that coalition forces attacked Saddam’s regime, hundreds of French troops poured into the Central African Republic to protect French interests after a coup. France didn’t ask the UN for permission. And this was anything but an isolated case of French unilateralism. Chirac openly defied calls from the UN to relinquish control over Mayotte, an island off the coast of Comoros in eastern Africa. And with all but two NATO members siding with the US and UK—in fact, fully 21 of the EU’s 25 members supported the campaign in Iraq—Chirac’s behavior before, during and after Saddam’s fall amounted to unilateralism within a multilateral context.
Chirac was just as bad on Afghanistan. In 2004, there was wide agreement to augment NATO’s 6,500-man commitment in Afghanistan with elements of the new NATO Response Force (NRF), a self-contained rapid-reaction unit of warplanes, warships and 20,000 troops. Predictably, Chirac balked, declaring, “The NRF is not designed for this. It shouldn’t be used for any old matter.” Some of us took issue with the notion that the security and long-term stability of the very place that incubated al Qaeda and spawned 9/11 is just “any old matter.”
Throughout his stay at the Elysee Palace, Chirac’s policies seemed to be fueled by resentment with American power, perhaps even a sad inferiority complex vis-à-vis America. Sometimes this was expressed in serious matters, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes in pathetic and silly episodes. Take the example of when his countrymen rejected his beloved EU constitution. Chirac incredibly seemed to blame the Yanks and the Brits. “The Anglo-Saxons and the Americans’ interest is, of course, to stop the European development, which risks tomorrow to lead to a much [stronger] Europe.”
Or consider “Quaero”—the Franco-German effort to build an Internet search engine to rival and surpass Google. At Chirac’s urging, EU governments poured 250 million euros (or $294 million) into the project. “We must take up the challenge of the American giants Yahoo! and Google,” he said in 2006, adding that what’s at stake is “cultural diversity against the looming threat of uniformity.” It pays to recall that he was talking about a service that helps people search for pictures, videos, music and blogs—a service that was created by a pair of American grad students without any public monies.
Perhaps that says it all about Chirac’s presidency. It began with him defending French honor on the Balkan battlefront—and ended with him trying to plant the EU flag on some tiny patch of cyberspace.