France breaks into a new leadership role

But its technical victory in opposing U.S. could lead to strategic defeat

March 16, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Thanks to its efforts to keep the United States from going to war against Iraq, France has become an effective counterforce for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The problem, however, is that France's leadership role is far from cemented, and French President Jacques Chirac could find himself with less influence - not more - when the dust settles from any war with Iraq.

"By engineering opposition to the United States, France has won a technical victory," said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "Once the war starts, and if all goes according to the plans of the Americans, I think France will see that a technical victory has led to a strategic defeat."

Disciple of de Gaulle

France's new position in Europe has come partly from the ambitions of Chirac, a disciple of Charles de Gaulle, who felt that aligning his country with the United States looked too much like cowering under the Americans' wing. It was de Gaulle who withdrew France from NATO's military structure and who warned, perhaps correctly, that trans-Atlantic alliances formed during the Cold War would disintegrate come a thaw. No longer would there be the mutual benefit of military security for Western Europe and a buffer against the western spread of communism for the United States.

But France's opportunity to dominate opposition to the war and Chirac's ability to lead a bloc that includes Russia and China, among others, have also come almost by historical default. Russia and China, like France, have veto power in the United Nations Security Council but for historical and political reasons do not have the ability to lead Europe.

Germany, which was the first major European country to speak out against a war with Iraq, lacks the veto power and, because of its past, the moral authority to speak for any country but itself. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a political bashing for aligning his country so closely with the United States, but given the bonds between the countries, there are not many circumstances imaginable in which any British leader would have done differently.

So unless Europe is prepared to follow the United States in every global decision - and the Iraq crisis has shown conclusively that it is not - that has left France the opportunity to lead the anti-war countries.

"All of Europe has been groping with how we live with the United States in the future, this new United States, which under the current administration is no longer a consensus-building America or even a NATO America," said Christoph Bertram, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "The answer has become to turn to the French. There's no question that this has been a victory for them, but a lot will depend on how the French proceed. If they misstep, it's likely to be a short-term victory and based on a very narrow definition of what a victory is."

A misstep, in Bertram's view, would be for France to see its success in at least delaying a war as a European mandate for opposing the United States at every turn. Instead, Bertram said, France should soften its tone and recognize its raised status as a first step toward gaining broader and deeper influence in Europe. Bridging the divide could be especially beneficial to both the United States and France after the resolution with Iraq, he said, because of Chirac's increased credibility in the Arab world.

`A certain halo'

"For moral reasons or political reasons, France could now wear a certain halo in international affairs," Bertram said. "But once the war is over and the debris can be assessed, I think these temporary partnerships of convenience will be assessed, and if France chooses its next step recklessly, it will find itself in a hole."

France, of course, is leading a faction of dissenters and not Europe as a whole. Its relations with Britain have become increasingly bitter, most notably with Blair lashing out at the French last week for threatening to veto a draft U.N. resolution imposing disarmament benchmarks for Iraq even before Baghdad responded.

In the British tabloid The Sun, which has a circulation of 4 million, the cover Friday showed a picture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein next to a portrait of Chirac. "Spot the difference," the headline said. "One is a corrupt bully who is risking the lives of our troops. He is sneering at Britain, destroying democracy and endangering world peace. The other is Saddam Hussein."

Spain, Italy and most East European countries have stood with the United States and Britain. Others, including the Dutch, have indicated increasing frustration with the French veto threat because it has come without any options to allowing inspections to continue indefinitely.

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