20-20 hindsight

PARIS. — Senior French officialdom now has a consistent message about the diplomatic breakdown prior to the Iraq war. What happened was that in January, French officials first realized that the United States was determined to go war to oust Saddam Hussein. The United States would accept no diplomatic resolution pertaining to the disarmament of Saddam, as called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441.

Therefore, since France did not believe that the possibility for diplomatic action had been exhausted or that war was the best means for achieving the goal of disarming Saddam — and in addition posed numerous other risks — France was obliged to move into opposition to a rush to war. France never said “never,” but the conclusion in January was premature. Thus, in the French view, the shifting American objective in Iraq — from regime change to disarmament to removal of a humanitarian scourge to securing a defiant Saddam’s compliance with U.N. resolutions — was revealed by January to have been nothing other than regime change all along.

The lack of variation with which French officials repeat this narrative is an indication of an explanation constructed after-the-fact and stamped with an official seal. Nevertheless, it’s useful to look at the points of connection between the story line and events in December and January. French policy did veer sharply. And what we have here is an attempt to lay responsibility for that shift on the United States.

That there are officials in the Bush administration who would have been unsatisfied in the absence of regime change in Iraq should come as no surprise. What’s pernicious in the French story line is the implication that these officials were secretly fully in charge of the policy all along, and that everything related to the United Nations and other diplomatic tracks was a smokescreen. The story line here, intentionally or not, reinforces the domestic paranoid theory that a deceptive neoconservative conspiracy has taken hold of Bush administration policy-making.

As a post-September 11 hawk on Iraq — by which I mean someone who reached the conclusion then that it was too dangerous to leave Saddam in power and that the liberalization of the Middle East was an urgent, if monumentally difficult task — and as a supporter of the 1441 diplomacy, let me state unequivocally what I thought changed as a result of the resolution: There were now two possible outcomes short of regime change in Iraq. The first was that Saddam would comply with 1441 and disarm — issue a truthful weapons declaration, demonstrate that stockpiles had been destroyed, etc. He would then remain in power and, no doubt, sanctions against him would be lifted.

This would be worrisome on grounds of the suspicion that he had not truly changed his stripes, only having grown more adept at concealing his activities, and because his brutalization of the Iraqi people would continue.

The second possibility under 1441 was that Saddam would be deposed (or abrogate). All by itself, this would probably have ended the case for military action. Had a new Iraqi ruler, who would likely come from the top ranks of Ba’athist thugs closest to Saddam, been even the least bit forthcoming about promising to end weapons programs, he too would almost certainly have benefited from overwhelming pressure to lift sanctions. Once again, the humanitarian case would evaporate, even if Iraq’s new ruler was 100 percent as nasty as Saddam.

These were real possibilities created as a result of 1441. From my point of view, they were risks, in that the outcome in either case would have been less than optimal: a short-term solution to a problem that had been localized in the person of Saddam Hussein; and one that did not address the broader humanitarian and liberalization issues. To my mind, the risk was small but genuine. From another point of view, of course, either of these possible outcomes would be a great success, removing the threat posed by Saddam without war and without potentially destabilizing regional consequences.

The French story line is vulnerable to this question: What happened that made France realize in January that the United States was determined to wage war? French officials describe this realization as the scales falling from their eyes, the true U.S. intention emerging at last. In fact, the answer is that Saddam failed utterly to comply with the terms of 1441, first issuing a bogus declaration Dec. 7 on the inadequacy of which the Security Council was briefed on Dec. 19. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix again briefed the council Jan. 9, highlighting Saddam’s non-cooperation. It was, in short, the failure of Saddam to take advantage of the “final opportunity” afforded him by 1441 that led the United States to war.

U.S. intentions toward Iraq were clear from the beginning: Comply or face war. The French story line has to ignore Iraq’s non-compliance in order to rationalize the sudden January outbreak of neo-Gaullism from President Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

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