France, Britain backed U.S. to protect influence, gain 'a place at the table' WAR IN THE GULF

March 03, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS -- As U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III went shuttling through West European capitals last fall and winter, resolutely gathering support for each step that brought Washington closer to war with Iraq, France and Britain had little choice but to match Washington's commitment in opposing Iraq.

A year after the Berlin Wall's collapse reinforced Germany' economic dominance of Europe, with Moscow's disarray leaving the United States as the world's only real superpower, the showdown with Iraq handed France and Britain a chance to claim their share in the "new world order" unfolding at Europe's doorstep.

Had they left Washington to run the war alone, Washingto could reasonably have looked forward to running the peace unchallenged, with the vaunted "new order" translating roughly into a Pax Americana, officials here feared.

"France must assume its historical duty," French Presiden Francois Mitterrand said Dec. 19, by way of preparing his country for the increasingly inevitable war with Iraq. "France must maintain its stature."

For Washington, relying on the U.N. Security Council as th instrument to apply pressure against and later go to war with Iraq countered charges that this was a U.S. war launched on Israel's behalf against Iraq. For Britain and France, permanent Security Council members holding veto power, the council gave them diplomatic influence far greater than they could muster on either the battlefield or financial markets.

Hardly had the last bullet been fired and the cease-fire called las week than London and Paris insisted the Security Council chart the terms of peace.

The war also bolstered Britain and France against attempts to enlarge the Security Council by adding Japan, Germany or the European Community to its ranks. For while all three are present or upcoming economic superpowers, they made remarkably poor showings in challenging Iraq diplomatically and militarily.

Neither London nor Paris stand as world-class military o economic powers, but both consider their interests in global terms. One Brussels-based diplomat, assessing the performance of Germany and Japan since August, ranked them as "incomplete powers" that interpret their interests in narrow terms, reluctant to accept political responsibility equal to their economic might.

To be sure, the rewards for pledging support of Kuwait are no all intangible. As Kuwaitis regained their homeland last week, the scope of Iraqi destruction and the needs for reconstruction became clear.

In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Monde las week, Sheik Salem al-Sabah, the governor of Kuwait's Central Bank, said the countries that liberated Kuwait would be given preference in contract proposals to rebuild the country. Speaking in London, Sheik Salem said 22 percent of the contracts awarded so far had gone to British firms and even more to U.S. companies.

He estimated the cost of rebuilding the country's infrastructur at $10 billion to $100 billion. Private-sector reconstruction, he predicted, would run $500 billion.

There is also the more subtle matter of protecting French an British interests as this new order is hammered out.

One French defense analyst noted, for example, that despit their public pledges to limit weapons sales to the Middle East, France and Britain would be keen to protect their arms industries as any new arms limitations agreements for the Middle East are devised. Western Europe's arms industries rely more heavily than the U.S. industry on exports, the analyst noted.

The common phrase allied officials have whispered in explainin their reason for joining the anti-Iraq coalition, risking their relations with non-coalition Arab and North African countries, is "a place at the table."

In the aftermath of the coalition's stunning victory last week Turkish President Torgut Ozal reportedly said his country had missed a critical chance to gain a better seat at the post-war bargaining table by staying out of the conflict.

"First you want to be there," one diplomat here said. "Then it' where you sit and what's the outcome."

With the ground war over in less than a week, Washington' allies will now turn to using the seats they have won. The first order of political business for France, at least, appears to be offsetting the damage of siding with the Americans against an Arab ruler by demanding an international conference to grant the Palestinians a homeland. Economically, French businesses will likely be more aggressive now in seeking contracts to rebuild Kuwait and Iraq.

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