The following article is excerpted from Kenneth R. Timmerman’s new book, The French Betrayal of America (Crown Forum, New York)
For Secretary of State Colin Powell, the U.S.-French divorce began on Jan. 20, 2003, when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin blindsided him during a press conference outside the U.N.
After a special session of the Security Council devoted to the war on terror, held at de Villepin’s personal request, Powell had driven over to the French U.N. ambassador’s official Park Avenue residence, where de Villepin was to host him to an exclusive lunch.
Instead, de Villepin stayed behind at the U.N. and announced to the world that France would never support a U.S.-led military intervention against Saddam Hussein. As Powell saw the man he thought was his friend appear on the video monitors in the French ambassador’s residence his jaws dropped, says his deputy and confidant, Richard Armitage. “He was very unamused,” Armitage recalls. “When he’s unamused, he gets pretty cold. He puts the eyes on you and there is no doubt when his jaws are jacked. It’s not a pretty sight.”
During the session, de Villepin “preened and postured,” recalled a deputy to U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. After a tepid homage to the victims of 9/11, de Villepin urged the United Nations to take over the global fight against terror by sending international bureaucrats to Third World nations that were harboring or sponsoring terrorist groups. He wanted the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to get involved, and proposed a new international arms-control treaty to track the commercial use and shipment of radioactive materials, surely a move that would prove as useful in preventing nuclear terrorism as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has been in preventing nations such as Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea from going nuclear.
“Let us look at things with lucidity,” the Frenchman said finally, his voice quivering with compassion. “Terrorism feeds on injustice. So an equitable model of development is therefore necessary to definitely eradicate terrorism.”
After briefly summarizing these proposals, which no one took seriously, de Villepin told the news cameras that he now wanted to say “a few words” about Iraq. That caught Powell’s ear.
Just the evening before, over a private dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, the two men had discussed possible wording the French government could accept in a new U.N. resolution (the 18th, in fact) that would authorize the use of force against Iraq. Powell would say later that he had thought they were close to an agreement. Diplomats at the U.N. were actually laying bets – at 100-to-1 odds – that the U.S. would get the votes for the resolution. None of them was prepared for what the Frenchman said next.
“If war is the only means of resolving the problem, then we have reached a dead end,” de Villepin said. “A unilateral military intervention will be the victory of might makes right, an attack on the primacy of international law and morality.” The U.N. should wait until the U.N. inspectors made their next report, scheduled for January 27, before deciding on any further action, he said. At that point, “Iraq must understand that it is time for it to cooperate actively.”
To Powell and his advisers, it was clear that de Villepin was trying to run out the clock so Saddam could finish hiding his weapons and prepare for war.
Later, in the reconstruction of the day’s events he and other top French officials gave to reporters, de Villepin denied he had tried to ambush Powell, or that he had disguised an intention to use the ministerial session of the U.N. Security Council on terrorism as a platform to attack the United States on Iraq. “There was no ambush,” he said. “I did not mention the word ‘Iraq’ once in my speech. It was only at a press conference afterward that I discussed Iraq in reply to a very aggressive question.”
I read that account to a U.S. official who knew de Villepin and had watched the tape of that press conference many times. “That’s just a lie,” he said.
Indeed, the written record of de Villepin’s press conference, provided to me by the French foreign ministry, shows on the contrary that it was de Villepin who shifted directly to Iraq at the very beginning of his press conference, and made a lengthy condemnation of the United States well before the questions began. “We will not associate ourselves with military intervention that is not supported by the international community,” he said finally. “Military intervention would be the worst solution.” Even the Washington Post, which highlighted international opposition to the Bush administration’s position on Iraq, called de Villepin’s performance “theatrical.”
When de Villepin finally showed up for the luncheon, it got worse. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer berated Powell and President [George W.] Bush for having decided to move forward with military action, and claimed that Iraq “has complied fully with all relevant resolutions and cooperated very closely with the U.N. team on the ground,” certainly an Alice-in-Wonderland version of the facts even as they were presented by the well-heeled U.N. chief inspector, Hans Blix.
Finally, Powell had heard enough. “He got an edge to his voice – something Powell prides himself at not doing – and said, ‘You said the same thing before Panama and we went in and three days later, everyone forgot.'” The scales fell from Powell’s eyes that day, an aide said. “He suddenly realized this was a game of hardball politics and that he had let himself be used and abused.”
From that moment on, the relationship between the two men turned to ice. No more letters from de Villepin addressed, “Cher Colin.” No more cozy lunches. Communications became stiff and formal, while the top leaders traded broadsides across the Atlantic.
Standing side by side with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Paris on Jan. 22, [French] President Jacques Chirac hurled another cannonball. “War is always an admission of defeat,” he said, “the worst of solutions. Hence everything must be done to avoid it.”
Some French officials suggested to me privately that Chirac had been “set up” by Schroeder, whose harsh criticism of the United States went way beyond the prepared speech he had given Chirac’s advisers beforehand. Indeed, so thorough was the deception being played out by Chirac and de Villepin that many senior members of Chirac’s own ruling party believed that Chirac still intended to join the U.S. and British-led war effort at the last minute, after squeezing from the U.S. a maximum of commercial concessions in postwar Iraq.
The next morning, writing in the New York Times, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice chastised the French and other critics who wanted to give Iraq more time to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. “Has Saddam Hussein finally decided to voluntarily disarm?” she asked. “Unfortunately, the answer is a clear and resounding no. There is no mystery to voluntary disarmament. Countries that decide to disarm lead inspectors to weapons and production sites, answer questions before they are asked, state publicly and often the intention to disarm and urge their citizens to cooperate. The world knows from examples set by South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan what it looks like when a government decides that it will cooperatively give up its weapons of mass destruction.”
Iraq’s behavior did not fit the bill. “By both its actions and its inactions,” she concluded, “Iraq is proving not that it is a nation bent on disarmament, but that it is a nation with something to hide.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave a more detailed presentation on the same theme to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It is not the job of inspectors to disarm Iraq; it is Iraq’s job to disarm itself,” he said. “Think about it for a moment. When an auditor discovers discrepancies in the books, it is not the auditor’s obligation to prove where the embezzler has stashed his money. It is up to the person or institution being audited to explain the discrepancy. It is quite unreasonable to expect a few hundred inspectors to search every potential hiding place in a country the size of France, even if nothing were being moved.”
For 12 years Iraq had played a game of “rope-a-dope in the desert” with U.N. inspectors. That game was about to end because of renegade Saudi Osama bin Laden. “As terrible as the attacks of September 11 were, however, we now know that the terrorists are plotting still more and greater catastrophes,” Wolfowitz said. “Iraq’s weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which the Iraqi regime are linked are not two separate themes – not two separate threats. They are part of the same threat.”
French officials say they never bought into the U.S. argument of a “convergence” between Iraq, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and terrorism. “The U.S. argument was highly speculative,” a senior adviser to de Villepin told me in Paris. “If there was going to be convergence between terrorists and WMD, it would happen with renegade scientists from Biopreparat in Russia, who decide to go to work for al-Qaeda. It would happen in Pakistan, but not in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime was not known for spontaneous behavior. He had no objection to using terrorism, but he would never give weapons to groups that were not thoroughly under his control, who could act autonomously in ways that could pose a threat to his regime.”
But of course, that was precisely what the U.S. contended when it cited Saddam’s use of al-Qaeda offshoot Al Ansar al-Islam, which was operating with the support and protection of Saddam’s intelligence arm, the dreaded mukhabarat. The U.S. presented evidence that Al Ansar was training with biological and chemical weapons, but the French remained unconvinced.
On Oct. 27, 2003, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith sent a classified memo to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee detailing no fewer than 50 separate credible intelligence reports on contacts between top al-Qaeda members and Iraqi intelligence. It’s simply inconceivable that the French, for all their close ties to Saddam, had seen none of it.
Powell and de Villepin continued to duke it out in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum that weekend. De Villepin again warned that France would veto any U.S.-backed resolution at the U.N. to authorize the use of force, and said his European colleagues agreed with him that the U.N. inspections should be extended by “several weeks, or for several months.”
Powell reminded the Frenchman of the bonds of blood tying America to France and the sacrifices Americans had made to free Europe from tyranny. “We’ve put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives,” he said. “We’ve asked for nothing but enough land to bury them in.” Now, things appeared to have changed. “One or two of our friends, we have been in marriage counseling with for 225 years nonstop,” he said, indicating France. He didn’t utter the word “divorce,” but it was clear that the marriage counseling had reached an impasse.
The French never fully appreciated the dramatic changes in American thinking that followed 9/11, a top de Villepin adviser admitted. They found it inconceivable that the United States could feel threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. But when I asked how French national security would have been threatened by acquiescing to U.S. war plans – what was so important to French vital interests to require them actively to oppose the U.S. – de Villepin’s adviser sank into a stunned silence that lasted nearly a minute.
In the end, he uttered a mush about hurting the feelings of the Arabs. “Nations don’t always act from self-interest, but also from conviction,” he said finally. “We believed someone had to speak up to express the objections of a large majority of the international community who disagreed with the American policy and who had no spokesman. We were like the Roman tribune.”
In fact, there was “very little debate” within the Foreign Ministry or elsewhere about opposing America during the crisis, another top official told me in Paris. “The policy was driven by de Villepin and by Chirac personally. Only five or six senior advisers dared to raise questions about how de Villepin was handling himself.”
The naysayers were in a distinct minority at the Quai d’Orsay, and nonexistent at the presidential palace; indeed, they keep a low profile these days. “There was never any misunderstanding between us and the Americans,” this official said. “Both sides knew each other’s positions very well. It was a fundamental difference in viewpoints. We simply didn’t share the U.S. perception of the threat and actively tried to block the U.S. from preventive military action it considered to be an act of legitimate self-defense.”
A U.S. diplomat involved in the exchanges agreed – up to a point. “The French knew exactly what our thinking was. But until Jan. 20, we had thought they were totally with us.”
There was good reason for the Bush administration’s confidence, as I can reveal here for the first time. Until Jan. 20, I learned in interviews with a half-dozen administration officials directly involved in the negotiations, the French had gone out of their way privately to assure the president, the secretary of state and U.S. diplomats working the issue that they backed the U.S. in the showdown with Saddam, even if it included the use of force.
When the Iraqis stonewalled United Nations arms inspectors in late October 2002, Chirac picked up the phone and called President Bush in the Oval Office to reiterate French support for a strong United Nations resolution that would include the option of using force.
In early December, he sent a top French military official to CENTCOM [United States Central Command] headquarters in Tampa, Fla., to negotiate the specifics of the French participation in the war.
“Chirac personally told the president he would be with us,” one senior U.S. administration official told me. “We didn’t know until the ambush that France would not go to war with us. We thought they might complain, or abstain, or not vote – but not that they would actually veto.” Added another, who was privy to the Oval Office conversation, “Chirac’s assurances are what gave the president the confidence to keep sending Colin Powell back to the U.N. They also explain why the administration has been going after the French so aggressively ever since. They lied.”
Back in Washington, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said publicly some of the things Powell was too polite to utter even in private.
A former undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration, Perle now headed the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and was close friends with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage. Far from being an automatic France-basher, Perle was a dedicated Francophile who owned a vacation home in France and for two decades had maintained close personal ties to many top figures in the French defense and security establishment.
The French government, he told Fox News Sunday, was acting not on principle as it claimed, but on behalf of its commercial interests. “It’s ironic that people accuse the United States of being interested in oil,” he said. “If you want to see who’s interested in oil, look at French policy. It is entirely self-concerned, and it has to do with oil contracts and very little else.”
At a conference on Iraq in Washington the day before Powell’s Feb. 5 presentation to the U.N. on Iraqi WMD, he suggested that France by its behavior was demonstrating that it had parted company with the United States. “France is no longer the ally it once was. I think it is reasonable to ask whether this country should now or on any other occasion subordinate its most fundamental national-security interests to a show of hands that happens to include governments whose interests are different from our own. Deep in the soul of Jacques Chirac, he believes that Saddam Hussein is preferable to the alternative that is likely to emerge when Iraq is liberated.”
Throughout the crisis, the French press painted a picture of the diplomatic tug of war that showed the United States as isolated and France as the voice of reason whose proposals to prolong the U.N. inspection regime “have been particularly well received.” The arms inspectors had just reported that “the verification of Iraq’s disarmament is now within reach,” Le Figaro gushed, in a modern-day version of the infamous “peace in our time” comment by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain after he and his French counterpart had ceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler in Munich in 1938.
Foreign Minister de Villepin was an international celebrity, wrote Le Figaro, “whose speech [at the U.N.] received a standing ovation from the gallery reserved for the public and the press.” Others were less flattering, and referred to de Villepin as the “Energizer bunny of diplomacy,” or took to calling him “Zorro,” and “Nero.”
More significant, however, was de Villepin’s adoration of two historical figures: Napoleon, whose slogan was “victory or death, but glory whatever happens,” and Machiavelli, who perfected the art of the diplomatic lie.
“The problem with you Americans,” de Villepin hectored a visiting United States senator in Paris last December, “is that you don’t read Machiavelli.” His meaning, the senator’s aide told me, was crystal clear. De Villepin and Chirac had lied to the United States during the Iraq crisis, and if we didn’t like it, we should get over it. That’s how the “big boys” played politics.