Bush and Chirac Agreeably Disagree

John Zvesper

June 1, 2004

As Ronald Reagan’s enemies acknowledged, he had a knack for communication and timing. Even, it seems, in his death, which by falling on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings, lent a hand to President Bush. Bush was in France as one of the guests and speakers at the Normandy ceremonies. (He was also trying to find out whether France will support a UN resolution recognizing the new sovereign government of Iraq, and thus joining or at least endorsing the Coalition’s efforts to help Iraq become secure and self governing.) When an American television reporter in Normandy asked Bush about current European hostility to his administration’s policies, he replied: “I remember my predecessor, whose life we mourn, Ronald Reagan; they felt the same way about him. What I’m trying to do is what I think is right. And what is right is to fight terror.”

Will Bush be as successful in leading the struggle against global terrorism as Reagan was in leading the challenge to the Soviet regime? And how will American relations with Europe—in particular, with France, the would-be leader of Europe—figure in this challenge?

Bush and Chirac had a meeting and a joint press conference in Paris on Day D-1, and it was in this quite agreeable but still visibly antagonistic exchange, rather than in the more formal speeches in Normandy, that the state of the American-French alliance could be more easily gauged. Both Presidents have taken to describing their disagreements over Iraq as a family quarrel, and are even saying that they’ve never really been angry with each other. Well, it’s true that family quarrels, like intra-party ones, very often appear bitter for a while, and then end in reconciliation. But even if we accept that the Bush-Chirac falling out was a family affair, this does not decide the question whether one was right and the other wrong; sometimes in family disputes it is not true that both sides are anywhere nearly equally at fault. So even if we believe the Presidents’ protestations of never-interrupted political kinship, we can still ask whether in the Bush-Chirac meeting, and in the American-French disagreement, both sides are acting honorably, and presenting rational arguments. Is there light as well as heat in the quarrel between America and France? And which side, if either, has been more reasonable?

In Normandy, Chirac would express gratitude for the Allies’ liberation of western Europe in 1944, but clearly maintain the now very traditional French position that sees much more importance in European unity than in European-American harmony, and (unlike Tony Blair) thinks it is both necessary and possible to choose between these two, now that the Cold War and the division of Germany have ended. Neither the Bush administration nor its critics should really be so shocked as they often are when this classic French stance causes the French government and whichever other governments share its view on any given policy to disagree with the American government and whoever shares its view.

Of course, as usual in politics, there were large economic interests as well as more respectable reasons for the French government’s opposition to the intervention in Iraq (this time: it had participated in 1991). French businesses had lucrative contracts in pre-liberated Iraq, and it looks like Iraqi debts on these contracts risk being cancelled or at any rate not paid. (Mysteriously, there is a recognition of this in the official French but not in the White House version of one of Bush’s remarks at the joint press conference: the French text has Bush saying that France will be cancelling Iraqi debts. Disagreement on this debt issue was clearly not removed by Bush and Chirac’s discussions, and it will probably continue beyond the G8 summit this week as well.)

On top of economic interests, there has also been an important psychological reason for the French position on Iraq: the wounded pride still felt in France because of its inability or unwillingness to defend itself against German invasion, even with help from its allies; its incapacity to do much about its own liberation; guilt about wartime collaboration with German occupiers; and consequently a long-standing and perhaps quite healthy wish to diminish—and somewhat less reasonable wish to deny—any military or political dependence on “the Anglo-Saxons.” Even before D-Day, General de Gaulle launched this expression of pride, which often looks like ingratitude and arrogance on the receiving end, as several British and American officers and statesmen discovered during and after the war. During his presidency, de Gaulle vetoed British entry into the Common Market, and did not attend the decennial Normandy ceremonies. Only this year has the French government got around to offering the Legion of Honor to the only French soldiers who actually joined in the Normandy invasion (177 of them); they had been excluded before because they were, after all, fighting under British command. While the Germans have had problems about the Second World War because they deserved to lose, and did, the French have had problems because they deserved to win and didn’t.

The Coalition—and the United Nations should it get involved—will have to keep this point in mind: here is a clear parallel between 1944 and 2004, whatever other parallels there may or may not be. No doubt Chirac was right to emphasize (in the Paris press conference) that the proposed UN resolution—and presumably all actions subsequently related to it—must “give the Iraqis the sense that they have regained their sovereignty and the mastery of their fate.” “Moreover,” he said, “I think that that is the only way forward for solving the considerable problems that are arising in this country, and for mastering the strong centrifugal forces that exist in Iraq. That’s why we are being very careful that the resolution be drafted in a way that avoids sending any negative signal to the Iraqis by leaving any possibility of a dispute about their sovereignty that could lead them to lack trust.” This advice could almost be de Gaulle reflecting on France in 1945. Perhaps Bush did not need Chirac to give such advice to him; nevertheless it may well be good advice. It is possible that its earlier application in American relations with western Europe could have made for a healthier North Atlantic alliance.

In addition to these economic and psychological dimensions of French differences with American policy on Iraq, there is a straightforward disagreement in France (and more generally in Europe) with Bush’s argument that we should try to encourage democracy in the Middle East. (No doubt this disagreement will emerge at the G8 and NATO summits this month.) Like some Americans—including many conservatives—many French people and politicians think this is a hopeless and therefore very risky ambition, which could lead to Middle Eastern regimes that are less rather than more moderate, even if they are more democratic in the sense that they have the occasional election.

With the end of the Soviet threat (or its replacement with a more manageable Russian one), some French and other Europeans have concluded that their alliance with the USA has become more optional. The US government is likewise in the process of concluding that its armed forces based in Europe can be substantially reduced and repositioned. The end of the Cold War has also seen the rise of global terrorism organized by nihilists claiming Islamic religious inspiration and support. Europeans are still working on their response to this. Bush’s terrorism policy is based on the view that the end of the Cold War has had one other important result: the opportunity to tackle one of the main roots of this terrorism, namely the frustration of modern democracy and human rights in the Middle East by perhaps “modernizing” but non-democratic governments in that region. Bush applies to the Middle East an argument a little like the one that Europe is applying (or misapplying) to the USA: we no longer have to be so uncritical of these regimes, because we no longer need their support against Communism and the Soviet Empire.

Bush is now very often ridiculed for hastily inventing this argument to make up for the weaknesses that have appeared in his case for intervening in Iraq to end the combination of the possibility that Saddam possessed mass-killing arms with the likelihood that he would make these available to terrorists whose enemy list overlapped with his. But the argument for Middle East political reform has been a very prominent and consistent part of Bush’s major speeches from as early as June 2002, and it was naturally part of the speech in which he issued the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on 17 March 2003, setting out the reasons for military action if Saddam and his sons failed to leave Iraq. To the Iraqi people, he said, “We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.” To the American people, he said: “Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty, and when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation. The United States with other countries will work to advance liberty and peace in that region. Our goal will not be achieved overnight, but it can come over time. The power and appeal of human liberty is felt in every life and every land, and the greatest power of freedom is to overcome hatred and violence, and turn the creative gifts of men and women to the pursuits of peace. That is the future we choose.”

But in France the dominant view is that Bush’s argument is ridiculous not because it was cobbled together late in the day to patch up another argument, but because it is mistaken. This is not just the view of those who think that Bush means we should be preparing to go to war with all undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. Not too many people seriously think that Bush thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte. Bush has got through at least to a few thoughtful people in France (though not of course to the chanting crowds and their media echo managers) his message that there are other ways of promoting reform than going to war. After all, Reagan did not take the country to war with the USSR or its “allies” in eastern Europe. That is not to say that he did not keep them guessing about this possibility. The strategy was to talk loudly, but carry a big stick, too (though even that was for economic as much as for military competition).

It may be wrong, but the view more or less thoughtfully held by the French political class, certainly in the Foreign Affairs Ministry (as, probably, in the US State Department, for that matter), is that moderate undemocratic Middle Eastern regimes need all the support they can get, and we should not be nagging them to liberalize and to democratize at the same time that they are having to defend themselves from home-grown and imported fundamentalists and fascists. Thus, those who articulate this view (e.g. the former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, and François Heisbourg, Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research) make it clear that, in all good faith, they believe that the defeat of Bush’s Middle East democratization campaign is in America’s interest, just as Bush thinks in all good faith that European participation or at least acceptance of this campaign is in Europe’s interest.

Neither side has got very far in settling this disagreement. Perhaps, like Reagan’s view of the Soviet Empire, it can only be tested empirically, so choosing between the views is a matter of choosing whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Chirac did make a modest gesture towards Bush’s optimistic position in their Paris press conference, when he allowed that yes, maybe in Iraq, given that unfortunately the military intervention had now been initiated, if and when the consequent “reigning disorder” ever ended by pacification of the confrontations, then one could “try to open the way to what could be a form of democracy”—but one would have to see about this some way down the road, since at the moment “the situation is extremely precarious.”

(There is again a somewhat mysterious discrepancy between the official Bush text on this topic and the official French translation, which makes Bush refer not, as he actually did, to “the increase of reform,” but “the huge reform” [“l’énorme réforme”] that is going to be needed in the Middle East as “the antidote to terror.”)

For his part in this attempt to emphasize possible areas of agreement, Bush said that one thing he’s counting on the French to contribute from now on is “great advice” (no sarcasm was detectable): ”President Chirac has got good judgment about the Middle East, and he understands those countries well.” However, it seems clear that Chirac’s advice, if it is sought and given, is likely to be unfavorable to experiments in or pressure towards democratization and human rights for Islamic countries, as long as he sticks to the script provided by his own advisers rather than getting drawn into the optimistic outlook favored by Bush.

Even if this basic disagreement on the desirability and possibility of promoting liberal political and social reforms in the Middle East disappeared, lying underneath it is a less explicitly-defined but no less clearly present disagreement on how to try to encourage settlement of the conflict between Israel and its Middle Eastern enemies. The logic of Bush’s approach is that you can start by encouraging changes in Israel’s enemies’ institutions and policies (though the logic would surely also demand at some stage the reconsideration of the Israeli treatment of its Arab citizens). At the joint press event in Paris, he spoke briefly about the need for a Palestinian state with “democratic institutions and responsible leaders.” The well-nigh universal approach in Europe (which Chirac didn’t even have to allude to in Paris, it’s so unquestioned) is the opposite, that Israel is the Bush-like (and Reagan-like) aggressive party, with Palestinians in the victim role. Perhaps Bush thinks a discussion of this currently somewhat latent disagreement would be unnecessary and unhelpful to his Middle East reform campaign. So there is reason to think that this part of the Bush-Chirac argument will not soon take off.

If it ever does, it is possible that Bush or Chirac or neither will still be President. (Chirac’s term expires in three years—but he might run again if only to extend his self-granted immunity from a corruption charge!) In fact, this is probably one reason Chirac has become for a moment a little less interested in publicly clashing with Bush: if Bush is going to be replaced come January, then it makes less sense to quarrel with the American President in order to change his policies (the American electorate might do that). And if Chirac wants to quarrel with the replacement President, that might be easier if his quarrel with Bush has not been so intemperate.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.