September 13, 2003

Dominique's Inscrutable Gaze French Foreign

Dominique's Inscrutable Gaze

French Foreign Mininister Dominique de Villepin has something of an exegesis in Le Monde discussing France's policy proposals for Iraq. Meanwhile, Steve Weisman has a rather poor NYT article on the state of Franco-American diplomacy:

"Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reopening the trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq Ñ this time about expanding the authority of the United Nations there Ñ said today that a French proposal to cut back the role of the American-led occupation was unacceptable." [my emphasis]

Note the implication that the blame for re-opening transatlantic rows falls squarely with the U.S. Might not France's unrealistic musings about how quickly sovereignty might be turned over to the Iraqis play a role in all of this? Perhaps worth a brief mention in the context of which party is souring the diplomatic mood, no? Evidently not.

De Villepin's piece, even for a fluent French reader, was somewhat exhausting to get through. It made me wonder if Dominique had been reading Roland Barthes' essay "Writing Degree Zero" recently, which I think is worth quoting here at some length, despite being as exhausting as de Villepin's piece (an affliction that appears to often strike French (real or pseudo) intellectuals) :

"What makes writing the opposite of speech is that the former always appears symbolical, introverted, ostensibly turned toward an occult side of language, whereas the second is nothing but a flow of empty signs, the movement of which alone is not significant. The whole of speech is epitomized in this expendability of words, in this froth ceaselessy swept onward, and speech is found only where language self-evidently functions a devouring process which swallows only the moving crest of the words. Writing, on the contrary, is always rooted in something beyond language, it develops like a seed, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti-communcation, it is intimidating. All writing will therefore contain the ambiguity of an object which is both language and coercion: there exists fundamentally in writing a "circumstance" foreign to language, there is, as it were, the weight of a gaze conveying an intention which is no longer linguistic. This gaze may well express a passion for language, as in literary modes of writing; it may also express the threat of retribution, as in political ones ..." [my bolded emphasis]

Put aside, for a moment, the booming poseur detector alarms going off in your head. For here is poor Colin Powell's conundrum in a Barthesian nutshell! What Dominique is he meeting in Geneva? The bonhomie-laden visage of the so very talented, dashing, and prolific poet? Or the steely gaze of the realpolitiking diplo running Quai D'Orsay with iron will?

Put differently, is Dominique's long Le Monde screed simply a joyous expression of "passion for language," or is there instead, lurking amidst the inscrutable Gallic prose, a "threat of retribution", a "political" threat (a veto even)?

Methinks Mr. Powell is getting tired of hearing such convoluted language such as asides about the "logic of occupation." Sure, racy neo-Marxist lexicon swap about the "logic of dialectics" and such would doubtless be fun to bat about Les Deux Magots over copious cafes au lait and Gauloises some sunny afternoon on the Left Bank.

But time is short and U.S. soldiers are dying almost daily. To the tiresome French recitations about the "logic of occupation" Powell might respond, delicately of course, with a Bronx-like "logic of we are the $%%^% there already--and in large number." You know, just to put the negotiations in context.

Still, Can There Be a UNSC Deal?

All this said, a compromise is in sight. A close read of de Villepin's piece reveals that the French will accept that coalition troops serve under the command of the "principal contributor of troops" (he evidently couldn't bring himself to say they would serve under an American commander). Note: de Villepin's piece only mentions "coalition" forces serving under said U.S. commander--he never expressly (but does implicitly) avers that U.N. forces would be deemed to be "coalition" in nature. Nevertheless, and tortuously arrived at perhaps, it appears the French would vote for a resolution that has blue helmets serving under overall U.S. command.

Next, de Villepin calls for, per the Afghan model, the training and equipping of an Iraqi army. Fine, no objections there. At the same time, he also wants the de-mobilized former Iraqi army to be reconstituted. He's likely right on that score. Only top level Ba'athist commanders were complicit with Saddam. The vast majority of the Iraq army should likely not have been disbanded, but paid to stay on and help with local police work while helping guard Iraq's borders with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria.

So what's the potential deal breaker? This part:

"Les actuelles institutions irakiennes, c'est-ˆ-dire le Conseil de gouvernement et les ministres rŽcemment nommŽs, seraient considŽrŽes par le Conseil de sŽcuritŽ des Nations unies comme le dŽpositaire de la souverainetŽ irakienne pour la pŽriode de transition. Dans un dŽlai trs court, par exemple d'un mois, un gouvernement provisoire irakien pourrait tre constituŽ ˆ partir de ces instances, et se verrait transfŽrer de manire progressive le pouvoir exŽcutif, y compris l'activitŽ Žconomique et budgŽtaire."

Put simply, de Villepin wants the Iraqi interim authority to become the repository of Iraqi sovereignty within a month. But note that de Villepin makes mention of a gradual "transfer" of executive, as well as budgetary powers, from that point on. In other words, the clock starts ticking in a month but a full handover of key powers to the Iraqis could be structured so as to occur well later.

De Villepin's proposal would also give a personal representative of the U.N. Secretary General authority that sounds like it would usurp Jerry Bremer's. But a close read indicates that the representative would be tasked with liasing with "coalition authorities" (read: Bremer) and would only make recommendations and proposals to the U.N. regarding the timing of a full return to Iraqi sovereignty.

Later, per the French, an international conference would be convened after return to Iraqi sovereignty had been achieved to plan international troop contributions and the like. But nothing de Villepin writes indicates the French would definitively be opposed to allowing for international troops before such a conference.

Bottom Line

What does all this mean? I think it means that Powell will have to devote most of his efforts to pushing back the French on their grossly unrealistic timetable for Iraqi sovereignty. And he can point to de Villepin's own piece to support his contention that such a timetable is way too optimistic:

"Aujourd'hui, l'urgence est de transfŽrer la souverainetŽ au peuple irakien lui-mme afin de lui permettre d'assumer pleinement ses responsabilitŽs. Alors les diffŽrentes communautŽs trouveront, je l'espre, la force de travailler ensemble." [my emphasis]

Translation: "Today, it is urgent to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people themselves so as to allow them to fully assume their responsibilities. Then the different communities, I hope, will find the strength to work together."

Even for de Villepin the notion of the Shi'a, Sunni, Turkomen, Kurds (not to mention internal rivalries amidst said groups) beginning to work together as a sovereign, effective government within a month is but a "hope." Powell should remind him of that as he tries to hash out the next UNSC compromise resolution.

UPDATE: The NYT has an updated Weisman article up:

"Mr. Powell met briefly one-on-one with his principal adversary in these talks, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin. But American officials could not say what had been accomplished or whether the meeting had been friendly.

American officials are openly irritated with Mr. de Villepin, who wrote up his proposals in a sweeping article published in Le Monde on Friday, a move that was not considered diplomatically adroit as a prelude for meetings that were supposed to be low key and confidential."


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