November 03, 2003

French Perfidy Watch Frankly, as

French Perfidy Watch

Frankly, as the allegations are so serious, it seems almost trite to call this post "French Perfidy Watch"--language which has become, pretty much, slightly jestful code for Dominique de Villepin gallivanting about Cameroon, Guinea, Angola and the like to scuttle UNSC resolutions.

This important Steve Coll WaPo piece contains much more serious allegations of possible French treachery than all that whirlwind travel through Africa and related Turtle Bay machinations.

The piece is a must read, not only because of potentially damning information about secret French contacts with Iraq before the war, but also because it contains further information about Saddam's purposeful intent to run afoul of Resolution 1441.

But one thing at a time.

Here are the key grafs re France:

"Saddam Hussein refused to order a counterattack against U.S. troops when war erupted in March because he misjudged the initial ground thrust as a ruse and had been convinced earlier by Russian and French contacts that he could avoid or survive a land invasion, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz has told interrogators, according to U.S. officials."

Later:

"Aziz's extensive interrogations -- eased by a U.S. decision to quietly remove his family from Iraq to safe exile in a country that American officials would not name -- paint Hussein on the eve of war as a distracted, distrustful despot who was confused, among other things, by his meetings with Russian and French intermediaries. Aziz said Hussein emerged from these diplomatic sessions -- some secret at the time -- convinced that he might yet avoid a war that would end his regime, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Aziz has told interrogators that French and Russian intermediaries repeatedly assured Hussein during late 2002 and early this year that they would block a U.S.-led war through delays and vetoes at the U.N. Security Council. Later, according to Aziz, Hussein concluded after private talks with French and Russian contacts that the United States would probably wage a long air war first, as it had done in previous conflicts. By hunkering down and putting up a stiff defense, he might buy enough time to win a cease-fire brokered by Paris and Moscow.

Aziz's account, while provocative, has not been corroborated by other sources, said U.S. officials involved in the interrogations. They said they were aware that Aziz might be trying to pander to his American captors' anger at French and Russian conduct before the war.

The public record of French and Russian back-channel contacts with Hussein on the war's eve is thin and ambiguous. Former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, long close to Hussein, made an announced visit to Baghdad in February and a secret trip just days before the war's opening on March 20. A few weeks later, after Baghdad's fall, Primakov held a news conference to explain that, at his clandestine last-ditch meeting, he had urged Hussein to resign...

The extent and character of French contacts with Hussein before the war is even less clear. Several media outlets reported early this year that France had opened a private channel to Hussein, but the French Foreign Ministry denied these reports, insisting that its diplomats had made plain to Hussein that he should stand down." [emphasis added]

Coll is quite cautious here. We are told that the extent of French contacts, if any, is quite murky.

But there are a few reasons why I think that this story may have real legs.

One, I don't think Tariq Aziz is naive enough to believe that he would be treated materially better by his captors by "sexing up" his disclosures by creating a fictitious story about those perfidious Frenchies.

We're all adults here--and the other information Aziz provided on Saddam's contravention of the 150-km range limit on missiles is pretty damning on its own.

Second, the story just rings true. Saddam has often proved to be ruthlessly smart in terms of quashing domestic opponents--but a strategic blunderer on the international scene (see his military misadventures in Iran, Kuwait).

You can just see him completely misjudging Bush as another feckless Clinton-type-thus thinking Dubya would almost exclusively rely on an air campaign that, per Paris, Saddam might wait out.

Then, of course, Dominique would enter the fray and 'heroically' broach a cease-fire from those brutish hotheads in Baghdad and Washington. Peace in our time or such.

Third, the French (at least since de Gaulle but likely going back to nefarious Sykes-Picot days) have always deluded themselves that they possess a special 'Araby' policy.

Put simply, they think they get the Arabs--while the hapless Anglo-Saxons don't. It's really a carry-on from the rosy days when France administered Damascene and Allepin precincts--it was all jolly good fun and, bien sur, allowed the French to gain special apercus into what makes the Levant-zone tick.

These historically derived pretenses, combined with the folie de grandeur that has so often characterized de Villepin's stewardship of the Quai D'Orsay, make it possible (likely?) that French intermediaries would have opened up private channels to Saddam early last year (or in the Fall of '02) and helped delude Saddam that he wouldn't be facing an imminent American land invasion.

Fourth, and important, the French have made something of a speciality of this kind of thing before ("special" channels to Tariq, Saddam and gang).

From a 1998 WaPo piece by Barton Gellman and Dana Priest (via a Lexis search, article dated March 1, 1998):

"As the Clinton administration saw it, Saddam Hussein was intent on portraying a Washington-Baghdad confrontation, and the president's advisers were just as intent on casting themselves as speaking for a united "world community."

They therefore continued a seven-year policy of refusing direct diplomatic contact with the Baghdad government. That left the diplomatic field to Russia and France, each of which dispatched a deputy foreign minister to negotiate with Saddam Hussein and his wily, English-speaking deputy premier, Tariq Aziz.

France had known for some time that Iraq was most concerned to protect eight "presidential sites," and the French diplomacy aimed to fashion special rules for inspections there.

U.S. intelligence assessed that Iraq is hiding several dozen Al Hussein missiles, a few of the longer range Al Abbas missiles, and substantial stocks of anthrax, botulinum, and nerve agents such as VX. But the illegal weapons, U.S. analysts believe, are not actually in the presidential sites. The Clinton administration and UNSCOM wanted to ensure primarily that the eight sites could not become sanctuaries for contraband shifted in a "shell game" from other hiding places.

By the first week of February, France perceived what one official called an "infernal machine" -- the threat Paris supported was about to become the war it did not want. To avert the launch, Paris promoted a trip to Baghdad by Kofi Annan to hammer out a compromise on the eight special sites." [emphasis added]

There is no smoking gun here. But there sure is a lot of smoke.

Again, it's worth stressing, why would Aziz make this up from whole cloth?

And, it begs the question, is this the behaviour of an "ally"? If, on the cusp of a conflict, where the U.S. has amassed some 200,000 troops on the Iraqi border, perhaps even making a strategic blunderer like Saddam think twice about continuing to stonewall the international community--if at that sensitive stage French contacts work to make Saddam feel he is not really facing a full-blown American invasion--well, what's the result?

For one, it makes it less likely that Saddam will stand down.

And therefore more likely that U.S. troops will have to fight (and die) in a war.

I wouldn't expect such considerations to give a Yevgeny Primakov pause--but I would have expected it to give a nominal ally a reason to abstain from such diplomatic foul play--or at least cause a little crise de conscience style navel-gazing about back-stabbing a friend that had acted as guarantor of Western Europe's stability through the Cold War and saved the French from the Hitlerian project.

Well, as I said, especially if this story gets a lot of play--expect fervent Gallic denials, denunciations of the U.S jingoistic yellow press, and damage control from the French Embassy in Washington.

The story is still very much developing. But it makes me, at least potentially, very angry.

And reinforces what a poor prognosticator I was when (what seems to be a long, long time ago) I started this blog (with more faith in Parisian diplomacy).

UPDATE:

More on the French "Araby" policy via Amir Taheri.

Thanks to reader TM for the link. TM, based in Belgium, also writes:

"I'm not sure, however, that anger is not a counterproductive response, at least if it's not carefully expressed. I live in Belgium and can see something has gone seriously wrong in continental Europe, but that all the French-bashing drowns out those voices which are making serious points and engaging in constructive criticism. Indeed, the same thing is happening here, with the reasonable European voices also being drowned out (I mean Bruckner, Glucksmann, BHL, Kouchner, and those guys)."

Fair point. Perhaps alluding to anger wasn't necessarily how I should have ended my post.

That said, however, and if the allegations detailed above are true, I don't see how one can avoid being mightily steamed by the actions of the French government.

ANOTHER UPDATE: How credible is the French denial regarding all the above?

Posted by Gregory at November 3, 2003 09:35 AM
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