Release date: April 4, 2004
The following article is excerpted from Kenneth R. Timmerman'snew book, The French Betrayal of America (Crown Forum, New York,$25). All rights reserved.
For Secretary of State Colin Powell, the U.S.-French divorcebegan on Jan. 20, 2003, when French Foreign Minister Dominique deVillepin blindsided him during a press conference outside the U.N.
After a special session of the Security Council devoted to thewar on terror, held at de Villepin's personal request, Powell haddriven over to the French U.N. ambassador's official Park Avenueresidence, where de Villepin was to host him to an exclusivelunch.
Instead, de Villepin stayed behind at the U.N. and announced tothe world that France would never support a U.S.-led militaryintervention against Saddam Hussein. As Powell saw the man he thoughtwas his friend appear on the video monitors in the Frenchambassador's residence his jaws dropped, says his deputy andconfidant, Richard Armitage. "He was very unamused," Armitagerecalls. "When he's unamused, he gets pretty cold. He puts the eyeson you and there is no doubt when his jaws are jacked. It's not apretty sight."
During the session, de Villepin "preened and postured," recalleda deputy to U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. After a tepid homage tothe victims of 9/11, de Villepin urged the United Nations to takeover the global fight against terror by sending internationalbureaucrats to Third World nations that were harboring or sponsoringterrorist groups. He wanted the World Bank and the InternationalMonetary Fund to get involved, and proposed a new internationalarms-control treaty to track the commercial use and shipment ofradioactive materials, surely a move that would prove as useful inpreventing nuclear terrorism as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treatyhas been in preventing nations such as Israel, Pakistan, India andNorth Korea from going nuclear.
"Let us look at things with lucidity," the Frenchman saidfinally, his voice quivering with compassion. "Terrorism feeds oninjustice. So an equitable model of development is thereforenecessary to definitely eradicate terrorism."
After briefly summarizing these proposals, which no one tookseriously, de Villepin told the news cameras that he now wanted tosay "a few words" about Iraq. That caught Powell's ear.
Just the evening before, over a private dinner at the WaldorfAstoria, the two men had discussed possible wording the Frenchgovernment could accept in a new U.N. resolution (the 18th, in fact)that would authorize the use of force against Iraq. Powell would saylater that he had thought they were close to an agreement. Diplomatsat the U.N. were actually laying bets - at 100-to-1 odds - that theU.S. would get the votes for the resolution. None of them wasprepared for what the Frenchman said next.
"If war is the only means of resolving the problem, then we havereached a dead end," de Villepin said. "A unilateral militaryintervention will be the victory of might makes right, an attack onthe primacy of international law and morality." The U.N. should waituntil the U.N. inspectors made their next report, scheduled forJanuary 27, before deciding on any further action, he said. At thatpoint, "Iraq must understand that it is time for it to cooperateactively."
To Powell and his advisers, it was clear that de Villepin wastrying to run out the clock so Saddam could finish hiding his weaponsand prepare for war.
Later, in the reconstruction of the day's events he and other topFrench officials gave to reporters, de Villepin denied he had triedto ambush Powell, or that he had disguised an intention to use theministerial session of the U.N. Security Council on terrorism as aplatform to attack the United States on Iraq. "There was no ambush,"he said. "I did not mention the word 'Iraq' once in my speech. It wasonly at a press conference afterward that I discussed Iraq in replyto a very aggressive question."
I read that account to a U.S. official who knew de Villepin andhad watched the tape of that press conference many times. "That'sjust a lie," he said.
Indeed, the written record of de Villepin's press conference,provided to me by the French foreign ministry, shows on the contrarythat it was de Villepin who shifted directly to Iraq at the verybeginning of his press conference, and made a lengthy condemnation ofthe United States well before the questions began. "We will notassociate ourselves with military intervention that is not supportedby the international community," he said finally. "Militaryintervention would be the worst solution." Even the Washington Post,which highlighted international opposition to the Bushadministration's position on Iraq, called de Villepin's performance"theatrical."
When de Villepin finally showed up for the luncheon, it gotworse. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer berated Powell andPresident [George W.] Bush for having decided to move forwardwith military action, and claimed that Iraq "has complied fully withall relevant resolutions and cooperated very closely with the U.N.team on the ground," certainly an Alice-in-Wonderland version of thefacts even as they were presented by the well-heeled U.N. chiefinspector, Hans Blix.
Finally, Powell had heard enough. "He got an edge to his voice -something Powell prides himself at not doing - and said, 'You saidthe same thing before Panama and we went in and three days later,everyone forgot.'" The scales fell from Powell's eyes that day, anaide said. "He suddenly realized this was a game of hardball politicsand that he had let himself be used and abused."
From that moment on, the relationship between the two men turnedto ice. No more letters from de Villepin addressed, "Cher Colin." Nomore cozy lunches. Communications became stiff and formal, while thetop leaders traded broadsides across the Atlantic.
Standing side by side with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder inParis on Jan. 22, [French] President Jacques Chirac hurledanother cannonball. "War is always an admission of defeat," he said,"the worst of solutions. Hence everything must be done to avoid it."
Some French officials suggested to me privately that Chirac hadbeen "set up" by Schroeder, whose harsh criticism of the UnitedStates went way beyond the prepared speech he had given Chirac'sadvisers beforehand. Indeed, so thorough was the deception beingplayed out by Chirac and de Villepin that many senior members ofChirac's own ruling party believed that Chirac still intended to jointhe U.S. and British-led war effort at the last minute, aftersqueezing from the U.S. a maximum of commercial concessions inpostwar Iraq.
The next morning, writing in the New York Times, NationalSecurity Adviser Condoleezza Rice chastised the French and othercritics who wanted to give Iraq more time to cooperate with U.N.weapons inspectors. "Has Saddam Hussein finally decided tovoluntarily disarm?" she asked. "Unfortunately, the answer is a clearand resounding no. There is no mystery to voluntary disarmament.Countries that decide to disarm lead inspectors to weapons andproduction sites, answer questions before they are asked, statepublicly and often the intention to disarm and urge their citizens tocooperate. The world knows from examples set by South Africa, Ukraineand Kazakhstan what it looks like when a government decides that itwill cooperatively give up its weapons of mass destruction."
Iraq's behavior did not fit the bill. "By both its actions andits inactions," she concluded, "Iraq is proving not that it is anation bent on disarmament, but that it is a nation with something tohide."
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave a more detailedpresentation on the same theme to the Council on Foreign Relations inNew York. "It is not the job of inspectors to disarm Iraq; it isIraq's job to disarm itself," he said. "Think about it for a moment.When an auditor discovers discrepancies in the books, it is not theauditor's obligation to prove where the embezzler has stashed hismoney. It is up to the person or institution being audited to explainthe discrepancy. It is quite unreasonable to expect a few hundredinspectors to search every potential hiding place in a country thesize of France, even if nothing were being moved."
For 12 years Iraq had played a game of "rope-a-dope in thedesert" with U.N. inspectors. That game was about to end because ofrenegade Saudi Osama bin Laden. "As terrible as the attacks ofSeptember 11 were, however, we now know that the terrorists areplotting still more and greater catastrophes," Wolfowitz said."Iraq's weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which theIraqi regime are linked are not two separate themes - not twoseparate threats. They are part of the same threat."
French officials say they never bought into the U.S. argument ofa "convergence" between Iraq, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), andterrorism. "The U.S. argument was highly speculative," a senioradviser to de Villepin told me in Paris. "If there was going to beconvergence between terrorists and WMD, it would happen with renegadescientists from Biopreparat in Russia, who decide to go to work foral-Qaeda. It would happen in Pakistan, but not in Iraq. SaddamHussein's regime was not known for spontaneous behavior. He had noobjection to using terrorism, but he would never give weapons togroups that were not thoroughly under his control, who could actautonomously in ways that could pose a threat to his regime."
But of course, that was precisely what the U.S. contended when itcited Saddam's use of al-Qaeda offshoot Al Ansar al-Islam, which wasoperating with the support and protection of Saddam's intelligencearm, the dreaded mukhabarat. The U.S. presented evidence that AlAnsar was training with biological and chemical weapons, but theFrench remained unconvinced.
On Oct. 27, 2003, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith sent aclassified memo to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee detailingno fewer than 50 separate credible intelligence reports on contactsbetween top al-Qaeda members and Iraqi intelligence. It's simplyinconceivable that the French, for all their close ties to Saddam,had seen none of it.
Powell and de Villepin continued to duke it out in Davos,Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum that weekend. DeVillepin again warned that France would veto any U.S.-backedresolution at the U.N. to authorize the use of force, and said hisEuropean colleagues agreed with him that the U.N. inspections shouldbe extended by "several weeks, or for several months."
Powell reminded the Frenchman of the bonds of blood tying Americato France and the sacrifices Americans had made to free Europe fromtyranny. "We've put wonderful young men and women at risk, many ofwhom have lost their lives," he said. "We've asked for nothing butenough land to bury them in." Now, things appeared to have changed."One or two of our friends, we have been in marriage counseling withfor 225 years nonstop," he said, indicating France. He didn't utterthe word "divorce," but it was clear that the marriage counseling hadreached an impasse.
The French never fully appreciated the dramatic changes inAmerican thinking that followed 9/11, a top de Villepin adviseradmitted. They found it inconceivable that the United States couldfeel threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein.But when I asked how French national security would have beenthreatened by acquiescing to U.S. war plans - what was so importantto French vital interests to require them actively to oppose the U.S.- de Villepin's adviser sank into a stunned silence that lastednearly a minute.
In the end, he uttered a mush about hurting the feelings of theArabs. "Nations don't always act from self-interest, but also fromconviction," he said finally. "We believed someone had to speak up toexpress the objections of a large majority of the internationalcommunity who disagreed with the American policy and who had nospokesman. We were like the Roman tribune."
In fact, there was "very little debate" within the ForeignMinistry or elsewhere about opposing America during the crisis,another top official told me in Paris. "The policy was driven by deVillepin and by Chirac personally. Only five or six senior advisersdared to raise questions about how de Villepin was handling himself."
The naysayers were in a distinct minority at the Quai d'Orsay,and nonexistent at the presidential palace; indeed, they keep a lowprofile these days. "There was never any misunderstanding between usand the Americans," this official said. "Both sides knew each other'spositions very well. It was a fundamental difference in viewpoints.We simply didn't share the U.S. perception of the threat and activelytried to block the U.S. from preventive military action it consideredto be an act of legitimate self-defense."
A U.S. diplomat involved in the exchanges agreed - up to a point."The French knew exactly what our thinking was. But until Jan. 20, wehad thought they were totally with us."
There was good reason for the Bush administration's confidence,as I can reveal here for the first time. Until Jan. 20, I learned ininterviews with a half-dozen administration officials directlyinvolved in the negotiations, the French had gone out of their wayprivately to assure the president, the secretary of state and U.S.diplomats working the issue that they backed the U.S. in the showdownwith Saddam, even if it included the use of force.
When the Iraqis stonewalled United Nations arms inspectors inlate October 2002, Chirac picked up the phone and called PresidentBush in the Oval Office to reiterate French support for a strongUnited Nations resolution that would include the option of usingforce.
In early December, he sent a top French military official toCENTCOM [United States Central Command] headquarters inTampa, Fla., to negotiate the specifics of the French participationin the war.
"Chirac personally told the president he would be with us," onesenior U.S. administration official told me. "We didn't know untilthe ambush that France would not go to war with us. We thought theymight complain, or abstain, or not vote - but not that they wouldactually veto." Added another, who was privy to the Oval Officeconversation, "Chirac's assurances are what gave the president theconfidence to keep sending Colin Powell back to the U.N. They alsoexplain why the administration has been going after the French soaggressively ever since. They lied."
Back in Washington, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said publiclysome of the things Powell was too polite to utter even in private.
A former undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration,Perle now headed the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and was closefriends with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy DefenseSecretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage. Farfrom being an automatic France-basher, Perle was a dedicatedFrancophile who owned a vacation home in France and for two decadeshad maintained close personal ties to many top figures in the Frenchdefense and security establishment.
The French government, he told Fox News Sunday, was acting not onprinciple as it claimed, but on behalf of its commercial interests."It's ironic that people accuse the United States of being interestedin oil," he said. "If you want to see who's interested in oil, lookat French policy. It is entirely self-concerned, and it has to dowith oil contracts and very little else."
At a conference on Iraq in Washington the day before Powell'sFeb. 5 presentation to the U.N. on Iraqi WMD, he suggested thatFrance by its behavior was demonstrating that it had parted companywith the United States. "France is no longer the ally it once was. Ithink it is reasonable to ask whether this country should now or onany other occasion subordinate its most fundamental national-securityinterests to a show of hands that happens to include governmentswhose interests are different from our own. Deep in the soul ofJacques Chirac, he believes that Saddam Hussein is preferable to thealternative that is likely to emerge when Iraq is liberated."
Throughout the crisis, the French press painted a picture of thediplomatic tug of war that showed the United States as isolated andFrance as the voice of reason whose proposals to prolong the U.N.inspection regime "have been particularly well received." The armsinspectors had just reported that "the verification of Iraq'sdisarmament is now within reach," Le Figaro gushed, in a modern-dayversion of the infamous "peace in our time" comment by British primeminister Neville Chamberlain after he and his French counterpart hadceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler in Munich in 1938.
Foreign Minister de Villepin was an international celebrity,wrote Le Figaro, "whose speech [at the U.N.] received astanding ovation from the gallery reserved for the public and thepress." Others were less flattering, and referred to de Villepin asthe "Energizer bunny of diplomacy," or took to calling him "Zorro,"and "Nero."
More significant, however, was de Villepin's adoration of twohistorical figures: Napoleon, whose slogan was "victory or death, butglory whatever happens," and Machiavelli, who perfected the art ofthe diplomatic lie.
"The problem with you Americans," de Villepin hectored a visitingUnited States senator in Paris last December, "is that you don't readMachiavelli." His meaning, the senator's aide told me, was crystalclear. De Villepin and Chirac had lied to the United States duringthe Iraq crisis, and if we didn't like it, we should get over it.That's how the "big boys" played politics.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.