The German and French Posture on Iraq

EuroSavant veterans will recognize the following as the latest manifestation of a tried-and-true formula: commentary out of the German newspaper Die Zeit as reflected in Thomas Friedman’s column for the New York Times. I shouldn’t do too much of this, over and over – I don’t like to fall into predictable formulas – but lately commentary on the French and German reaction to America’s need for help in Iraq has come together in a propitious way, to include in addition a contribution today to that same New York Times Op-Ed page (and so in English, of course) from German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Friedman’s column of yesterday startles you with its title: Our War With France. Does he perhaps mean that undeclared war with Napoleon’s regime of the last decade of the 18th century, and the first decade of the 19th, when the Americans got caught in the struggle between Napoleon and the British Empire over European sea-lanes, resulting in many American merchant ships being seized by the French (and the British)? No, he’s talking about the here-and-now, about a France that “is becoming our enemy”, which “wants America to sink in a quagmire [in Iraq] in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its ‘rightful’ place as America’s equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs.”

If you hadn’t come across it before, here I can just let you use that link and read the remainder of Friedman’s article for yourselves. Keeping his rather startling message in mind, though, it is then instructive to turn to Die Zeit and consider Richard Herzinger’s current article there, Selbstbeweihräucherung im Luftschloss, or (and this is a tough one to translate) “In the Castle-in-the-Air, Piling It On Thick with Self-Praise.”

Herzinger has some tough things to say about his subject, but the noteworthy thing is that that subject is not just France’s present attitude towards what needs to be done in Iraq, but also his native Germany’s. This seems to be justified; after all, Schröder and Chirac are fresh from a bilateral summit they held in Berlin yesterday. More to the point: Both countries together are demanding a “Mitspracherecht” (or “right to have a say in the matter”) for Iraq in return for their support there. (Chirac of course demands whatever the equivalent is in French; I use Mitspracherecht because I am referring to a German newspaper.)

Herzinger takes this demand and goes beyond it: if they had his “right to have a say,” what in fact would they be able to say that would be of use? They’ve already made their demand clear that the UN must take over the leading role in the rebuilding of Iraq; but then Herzinger quotes no less than Kofi Annan to the effect that the UN is simply not in a position to take over civilian control of this rebuilding, not to speak of the responsibility for military security in the country. Presumably the French and Germans already knew this; if so, then their making such a demand anyway can only be characterized, in Herzinger’s words, as “a structure of hot air, in that grey-zone between self-righteousness and self-delusion.”

Power is “to be given back to the Iraqi people” as soon as possible, we hear from the French and the Germans. But how? To whom? Is there someone they know about in Iraq now – political parties, structures, or even just persons – who can in fact take back the responsibility for Iraq’s political future – that the Americans don’t already know about? How do they propose that the early elections they seem to call for be organized, given the chaos and lack of security that the occupation authorities are still struggling against? Or does they just want the Americans and British to get out, so that they can take over responsibility there?

Answers to questions like these Herzinger sees as not forthcoming, mainly because the French and Germans don’t have these answers. Instead, they’re playing a cynical game. It’s true that the out-and-out hostility with the Americans that marked relations before and during the War in Iraq is now gone, but that’s because neither wants to be shut out from the commercial possibilities in Iraq once it becomes a stable, “normal” country. Instead, these European “core power” are making sure that they stay close enough to the action to retain an influence on how further developments in that part of the world proceed (both in Iraq and between the Israelis and Palestinians), while keeping themselves aloof from any actual requirement to help out with money and/or manpower.

This is an intriguing, if sharp, point-of-view – but, in its light, what are we to make of Gerhard Schröder’s piece in todays New York Times? Well, he seems to talk mostly about Afghanistan, which he certainly has the right to do, since the Germans are in fact considerably aiding the Americans there. As for Iraq, “The United Nations must play a central role.” What is Germany willing to contribute? “Humanitarian aid,” basically – i.e. not military aid.

It curious that Schröder was obviously preparing this piece (or having it prepared) at the same time that he was summitting with Jacques Chirac. Does it mean that Herzinger’s verdict might be too harsh, at least as regards Germany? Does it mark a break from that Franco-German solidarity on display in Berlin (where in fact the German and French cabinets held a joint meeting), an effort to shore up German-American relations? Schröder makes reference in the article to the upcoming opening of the UN General Assembly, when he will visit New York and have a chance to meet (for the first time in a long time) with President Bush.

Schröder’s article, in my view, does not say much. Still, even just as a gesture, it muddies the waters of the supposed solid Franco-German solidarity. And it is clear that, next week when so many of the principles involved in this diplomatic game find themselves together in New York, we can expect some developments.

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