In the Shadow of the Bush Ultimatum: The View from France

 Conducted by Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, assistant managing editor of The National Interest) Q: Professor, there seem to me to be three critical topics for France arising from President Bush's speech on Monday night.

 Conducted by Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, assistant managing editor of The National Interest

Q: Professor, there seem to me to be three critical topics for France arising from President Bush's speech on Monday night. First, could we have your opinion of the speech?  Then could you assess its impact on the development of French opinion?  Finally, could you discuss the consequences for the Franco-American relationship? First, your reaction to the president's address.  

A: This was a good speech, much better than those that preceded it in the sense that Bush employed arguments that were quite concentrated.


Q: Could you give an example? 

A: From the point of view of international law, for example, making the explicit link to UN Security Council Resolutions 678 and 687 is important. To follow President Bush's reasoning: he is not engaging in war, or at least not a new war, since the Gulf War was never over. These resolutions provided for a cease-fire, and there were provisions for immediate disarmament then, in 1991, that were not respected, obviously. President Bush's interpretation of international law is that the sanction of the Security Council is not indispensable given that the it has already been given more than once over a period extending back twelve years. It also signifies that any state given the conditions currently at play, i.e. the fact that there is a cease-fire, has the right to do what is necessary to defend itself. 

This brings us back to the classical conception of international law, namely the one that reigned prior to the establishment of the United Nations. The meaning of this speech is that the United States has a sovereign right-as a state that particularly feels its sovereignty, given its power and its moral authority-to act. This is the context in which we should see the doctrine of pre-emption. 

The doctrine of pre-emption, of course, is not in keeping with the style adopted since 1991. European reactions to this novel doctrine, to the present crisis and to the war that will come are fundamentally different from those to previous post-1991 conflicts (in which Europeans participated in not insignificant numbers): in 1990-1 there was the attempt to annex another sovereign state, in the Afghan affair there was the American-led response to an act of aggression universally sanctioned by the Security Council and NATO, etc. All this meant that in previous situations, opinion was more spontaneously favorable than in this case, where the perception of the danger, as Bush himself said, is certainly not the same in the U.S. and in Europe. So the speech was a good speech in the service of the cause that President Bush is defending. I note also that there is the promise of creating a war crimes tribunal, which might be a way to reaffirm the American doctrine of ad hoc tribunals. The speech, then, said much in few words.


Q:  In the immediate, short-term aftermath of the speech and its ultimatum, what will France do? How will French opinion develop? 

A: This depends of course on the flow of events. The situation in France is different from the way it is presented in America's conservative press. In a diplomatic crisis, there are subtexts that are lost on some and therefore not taken into account. The French position is not one of principled pacifism. Rather, it is that the time for war had not yet arrived because diplomatic ways had not been exhausted. Both President Chirac and Foreign Minister De Villepin have said that this is a unilateral act, that it is a great assumption of responsibility, etc. The tone was one of misapprobation. That being said, two things need to be noted in the recent speeches by Chirac. 

First, a few days ago on French television, he said clearly that France authorizes American use of its airspace. Secondly, he said on American television, if I remember correctly, that he hoped that the victory will be swift. So the French position is not as belligerent as is commonly understood. Given the end of the diplomatic phase of the conflict, France will not impede the United States. More than that, it will show certain signs of goodwill, since that which France has permitted is still being negotiated between America and her Turkish ally, it seems to me.


Q: But not exactly, since with the Turks it was also a question of staging troops, of opening up a second front in the land war-if it comes to that.  

A: Certainly, but what I mean to say is that in contradistinction to the ongoing Turkish situation, the French move did not require negotiations of any sort. France has given signals of bienveillance, that is, France, now, is not looking to impede the American intervention, given that the time for diplomacy has passed.


Q: Fine. Please explain the worldview informing the French attitude toward America's behavior in the international arena.  

A: The French position, with all its complexities, is predicated on three things. I will present them in ascending order of importance or seriousness.  

First, the argument that the United States does not have sufficient authority to pursue its ambitions in the Middle East because it is too pro-Israel. This is a weak argument because one can say easily of France and the European Union that they are too pro-Palestinian. Also, the Europeans don't have the means to act in the region, or at least their means are quite inefficient. So this argument is a weak argument.  

Second, a more forceful explanation of the French attitude concerns a differing evaluation of the likelihood and risks involved in the attempt to transform the Middle East in the wake of a successful  war. I find the American plan ambitious and risky. On the French side, there is a prudence that betrays too much caution.