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PARIS — It was hardly a surprise that less than a month after U.S. President George W. Bush’s inauguration, the U.S. Air Force should have launched a raid against Iraqi missile batteries and radars close to Baghdad. The flights of the U.S. and British jets supposed to protect the “no-fly” zones where the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites live had been increasingly disturbed by Iraqi missiles. Despite some 8,000 strikes directed against Iraq in recent years and sanctions adopted by the United Nations, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had managed to do several things: to rebuild with most of the Arab monarchies the links that had been damaged in 1990 by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; to smuggle some 400,000 barrels of oil per day to his neighbors; and to proceed in the absence of foreign control with his missile-building and atomic-research programs, leading Israel to fear the worst from a country that has made no secret of its desire to destroy it.

Add the fact that the new U.S. president intends to hew as closely as possible to the line followed by his father, the victor in the Persian Gulf War, Vice President Dick Cheney, who was then defense secretary, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who chaired the joint chiefs of staff. There is no doubt that in their eyes, Hussein rivals terrorist Osama bin Laden as America’s No. 1 public enemy and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a ruler of the kind of “rogue state” against which they intend to build their hotly debated missile shield. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s priority in the region was to bring about peace between Israel and Palestine. Bush is less interested in that conflict, a welcome attitude for new Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who would like to be left free to do what he wants, without any foreign interference. In the same way, the new U.S. team would like to be left free do what it wants with Hussein.

It is also no surprise that the British are participating in the anti-Iraqi action. Prime Minister Tony Blair never lost an opportunity to portray himself as Clinton’s closest ally. The Royal Air Force has been associated with the U.S. raids since the Gulf War ended, and Britain treasures its reputation as America’s closest ally. “If we had to choose some day between Europe and the open sea, be sure, General, that we would choose the open sea,” Winston Churchill told Charles de Gaulle in June 1944. There has been only one exception to that rule: in November 1956, when French and British troops landed on the Sinai Peninsula to help the Israelis against the Egyptians. Then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower vetoed that action, and London instantly acquiesced.

Until 1998, France had not only supported the U.S. and British raids against Iraq; it took part in them. That was the legacy of President Francois Mitterrand, who believed that fighting in the Gulf War alongside the U.S. was the only way for France to keep its global rank, especially in the Middle East. But both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin later concluded that it was better to maintain their freedom of judgment and action, in order to give France a chance to exert independent influence in the region. Results, until now, have been limited, but this attitude underlines the great differences now existing on that issue between Paris and London — an important consideration at a time when the two countries are trying to develop a common European foreign and security policy and to build a defense corps of 60,000 soldiers.

The raids against Iraq have provided a new occasion for measuring the distance that still separates them. The French government lost no time in expressing its “incomprehension and unease” over the raids, which, it said, “create tensions that damage efforts to reach an agreed solution to the Iraqi problem on the lines proposed by the U.N. Security Council.” This reaction certainly reflects the determination of the French not to kill all hopes of reopening the road to Iraqi oil, but also its conviction that there will be no chance of securing a general mobilization against Baghdad, as happened in 1990. Not only have Russia and China taken a strong stand against the American move this time — whereas Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s support was of decisive help to President George Bush 10 years ago — but Egypt has also criticized it sharply. Even Turkey, America’s main ally in the region, criticized both the U.S. and Britain for not giving it advance notice of their plans. In fact, no member of NATO, outside the Anglo-Saxons, has backed the raids.

Will they be resumed? Dressed as a cowboy, like his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox, to whom he was paying his first state visit at the time of the raids, Bush described them as merely “routine.” They certainly don’t represent the best way of supporting either NATO or the EU, but the unilateralists, of whom there are plenty around Bush, don’t seem to worry very much about that.

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