A Step in the Right Direction, but the Uneasiness Remains

Pierre Hassner is a research associate at Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) and a lecturer in international relations at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris and at the European Center of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna

Pierre Hassner is a research associate at Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) and a lecturer in international relations at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris and at the European Center of Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. He is the author of the new Chaillot Paper, The United States: The Empire of Force or the Force of Empire. He spoke with Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, assistant managing editor of The National Interest, to comment on President Bush's address before the United Nations.


Q: From the French perspective, what is your immediate reaction to President Bush's speech at the United Nations?


A: It is a step in the direction the French wanted. The French have been shifting from the position that Germany seems to have endorsed-namely that there should be no intervention, no use of force, period-to the British position, that the United States needs to work through the United Nations and that there has to be an ultimatum, but that, if Saddam Hussein does not respond to the ultimatum, we are prepared to follow America's lead. For the French the speech is a step in the right direction although I think that they, like most people outside of the United States and Israel, remain uneasy about the prospect of intervention against Iraq--but I think it will be seen as a positive step.


Q: Why do the French remain uneasy about the prospect of an armed intervention against Iraq?


A: There are several root causes. First, I would say that in order to attack a country one has to have a clear and present danger, some real warning that it is about to attack you. Thus, I am interested in the expression used by President Bush, describing Iraq as a "grave and gathering danger." The question remains, however, as even many Americans like Zbigniew Brzezinski have noted, it is one thing if you know someone is about to strike at you and you pre-empt--but the international order remains based on not striking pre-emptively, without a clear and imminent threat.


The second is that it seems sudden and abrupt while we are still in the middle of the Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda operations, to focus all of our attention on Iraq--especially since, despite all efforts to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden and the events of September 11th, the Bush Administration has not been able to do this. Otherwise the President would have presented his evidence.


Certainly the President made a case for going after weapons of mass destruction. Saddam, however, is not the only one who possesses them-- although what distinguishes him from the others is that he has actually used them, interestingly at a time when his relations with the Americans were good.


The logic of focusing on Iraq at the present time is unclear. Is Saddam is the principal (and imminent) danger--he is about to attack Israel or he is connected with September 11th, so we have go to after him. Or he is just another tyrant? Certainly he is-and I want to emphasize that everything that President Bush said about Saddam Hussein and about Iraq is absolutely true. But, without using the term "axis", as Bush himself has done, there is North Korea, and there is Iran, which may be even closer to obtaining nuclear weapons than Iraq, and whose sponsorship of Hizballah is very clear and direct. There are many tyrannies around the world and many countries that aspire to possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. So does this mean that the United States is going to go after each one after the other? It also raises the famous follow-up question: after the war is over, who is going to police Iraq, especially to prevent its fragmentation? Will it be American troops; will it be a UN force, as in Bosnia or Kosovo? What will be the impact on the rest of the region? All of these questions are being posed by Americans and non-Americans alike.


I don't think these concerns have been dispelled by the speech. It is a good speech, it acknowledges the concerns of everybody--but it fell short of dispelling those concerns. The speech did not address why only Iraq is the problem, and it did not clarify whether the danger posed by Iraq is distinct from that posed by Al-Qaeda or by other states seeking weapons of mass destruction. Nor was it clear whether the Bush speech represents the beginnings of a new doctrine in foreign affairs. For example, Iraqi violations of UN resolutions. It is very true that Iraq has violated UN resolutions, but who hasn't-to begin with, Israel (242, 243)-so nothing of this is a brief for a sweeping new policy.


I would be very happy if Saddam Hussein were to be overthrown, although unlike many Americans I don't believe that because he is a tyrant, which he absolutely is, that the population will greet us as liberators. I think many Americans have underestimated the resentment many Iraqis feel from the bombing, from the embargo, from the ongoing clashes between Israel and the Palestinians. I also think we are entering unknown, uncharted territory--we cannot predict the mood of the region. I don't think that the moderate governments of the Middle East will be overthrown-they may very well survive. We can't forget, however, that one of the main issues that has animated bin Laden was the after-effects of the first Gulf War and the continued presence of American bases in the region.