French “I Told You So”s?

Today we progress towards fulfilling yesterday’s mention of current French points-of-view towards the Coalition troubles in Iraq. The on-line dailies are treating the subject hit-or-miss (see a review of a contribution from Libération at bottom). But what’s that over there on Le Monde diplomatique? That’s the sister-publication to Le Monde – of course – but it comes out monthly, and so with longer, “deeper” articles which are mostly opinion-pieces that take a broader look at current affairs. And on the front page of the latest (Sept. 2003) issue we have L’onde du chaos (“The Wave of Chaos”), an examination of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Bush Administration by writer Alain Gresh.

Le Monde diplomatique can be relied upon to lay out a “French” point-of-view carefully fashioned to be about as opposite to what the American administration would want you to believe as possible, short of setting up your own direct feed to Osama bin-Laden’s propaganda department. But stepping out of the confines of Fox News and the various other US media outlets which often are but thinly-disguised cheerleaders for administration policy, to be confronted with a foreigner’s viewpoint, is what this site is supposed to be all about, right? (Or is it instead about foreigners discovering the various innovations that make America great, such as Hooters Air? Or America discovering the innovations that make Europe great, like medically-prescribed marijuana? Just let me know.)

Gresh starts his article with some juicy quotations to show how the Americans have got things wrong, from Donald Rumsfeld (translated from the French: “We can say with confidence that the world is a better place since the United States led a coalition of forces into Iraq.” July 9, 2003), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (“In the Arab world, before September 11, they thought that the US was a paper tiger. . . . They laughed at us. And now they see that it’s serious and a real power. And they respect power.”), and MidEast specialist Daniel Pipes (“The war in Iraq will result in a reduction in terrorism . . . . I expect that Muslim anger will probably diminish after an allied victory in Iraq.”)

But all these ideologues are simply living in their dreams, Gresh writes. The Bush Administration might think it has won the important battles in the War Against Terrorism – Afghanistan, Iraq – but it is still losing the war. Two years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is still in chaos, with violence and insecurity everywhere outside the heavily-militarized capital, Kabul. And of course al-Qaeda has experienced a recent renaissance, what with its strikes in Saudi Arabia, in Morocco, in Jakarta, and the recent bombings of the Jordanian embassy and UN headquarters in Baghdad. In fact, as he points out, the most effective methods for capturing al-Qaida operatives have turned out to be standard police methods, of infiltration and arrest; those terrorists which armies have gone after may be dead (in which case they are useless for providing more intelligence), or in fact they are still at large (such as Mullah Omar of the Taliban, and Osama bin-Laden himself).

Gresh finds it strange that Saddam’s regime was able to restore basic infrastructure and services to his people within a short time after the 1991 Gulf War, even while continuing to face UN sanctions, while Coalition occupation forces are still struggling with that problem. Perhaps one reason is Washington’s refusal to enlist the help of the companies which helped build Iraq’s infrastructure in the first place. These tended to be European companies, such as Siemens, Alcatel, and ABB; rather than turning to them for help, it seems a better policy, in the eyes of top administration officials, to hand the job of rebuilding off with lucrative contacts to American companies (e.g. Halliburton) with sterling records of contributing to Republican campaign coffers.

In the meanwhile, the whole country suffers from a lack of drinkable water, electricity, and security, and Iraqis justifiably ask themselves whether they are truly better off than under Saddam. Even Baghdad International Airport hasn’t yet been able to be reopened, keeping Iraq in further isolation from the rest of the world. The Pentagon wants to attribute the daily acts of violence to hangers-on of Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime, and ignores the widespread hostility among the Iraqi population which the Coalition occupation has prompted. As for the Governing Council, it is fatally handicapped by factionalism; the Shiites on it only talk to fellow Shiites, the Sunnis only to Sunnis, the Kurds only to Kurds. As for the troop contingents that Washington has managed to gain from other countries to go share the occupation burden in Iraq, it’s still usually Washington that is paying their costs. (Gresh implicitly casts doubt on the competence of Polish forces to hold up their end of occupation by sarcatically reporting on their “shock weapon”: copies of speeches by Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski that they have brought along, in Polish, English, and Arabic, which “no doubt will win for them Iraqi hearts.”)

In all, the list of Western offences against that population is long in Gresh’s eyes: the decade-long economic sanctions; the passivity as the Shiite rebellion erupted in the spring of 1991, thus allowing Saddam’s security forces a free hand to brutally suppress it; the thousands of civilian casualties during the war that finally toppled Saddam’s regime. So, to Gresh, all the talk about “helping Washington” deal with the situation in Iraq is misplaced; it is the Iraqi people who should be helped first and foremost, and, to this end, “there is no other way to peace than that of the United Nations.”

As we read in the news, it seems that President Bush is bowing to this imperative and taking steps to allow wider UN involvement in Iraq, and Patrick Sabatier comments on this in Libération in an article entitled Volte-face, or “About-face.” Although the piece’s conclusion is surprisingly moderate, as we’ll see, it takes the usual French tone. For example: “The mixture of ideology, arrogance, and incompetence which has marked US policy since the decision to knock down the Baghdad dictatorship is in the middle of dissolving in the shifting sands of Iraq.” And, of course, in Afghanistan as well the mission has not been truly accomplished, since the Taliban have returned to conduct a guerrilla war there.

In all, “neo-imperialist” ideology has run up against several hard facts in Baghdad and Kabul. These are: 1) The American army simply doesn’t have the resources to play world-wide sheriff, and so far the “coalition” is much more help; 2) The US is not prepared, nor even disposed, to play a “nation-building” role, which necessarily involves great expense; and 3) Most importantly, it has been shown that mere military victories don’t amount to much in the end when they fail to also gain a political and moral legitimacy, both in the country in question and vis-à-vis the international community.

One can only hope, Sabatier writes, that this turn to the UN marks a certain shift to pragmatism on the part of the Bush administration – and that it will not try, for example, to dictate to the UN the conditions under which its influence in Iraq will be widened. France, too, needs to be pragmatic; leaving the Americans to stew in Iraq in the mess they’ve created for themselves cannot be a valid policy, but neither can be unconditionally joining the Americans in that mess, which after all France did not create but even warned about in the months leading up to the war. Pragmatism must trump ideology, both in Washington and in Paris.

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