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:: Saturday, March 22, 2003 ::

Danger, Will Robinson!

I've seen a bunch of posts lately that are dismissive of France's actions at the UN. Some regard it as a failed attempt to muscle in on lucrative reconstruction work while others think that Chirac is marginalizing France by hammering the last nails in the coffin of the UN and wonder how they could be so blind. Steven Den Beste describes a rather detailed scenario in which France is humbled and powerless. The consensus seems to be that the UN is a dead man walking which can safely be more-or-less ignored from here on out.

I think the consensus is wrong. The reality is much more volatile than most seem to believe, and Chirac is operating according to a plan and it's dangerous to just dismiss him.

While everyone else is glued to their TV sets, France is busily setting up for the next battle in Cold War II, and those preparations are dangerous. Although Chirac et al would like to muscle in on reconstruction, their primary goal is to force a wedge between Blair and Bush. Postwar UN participation in Iraq is the perfect opportunity.

The first important thing to note is that most of the participants in the second cold war are democracies, which means that public opinion is the deadliest weapon. On that front, Chirac has an arsenal while Bush is practically unarmed -- most of his allies are going against strong domestic opinion. The news from Iraq will certainly give them a boost, but it would be a fatal mistake to assume that it will be enough to instantly reverse the tide of public opinion. That will take time and patience and is only possible if the reconstruction of Iraq is handled and presented properly. If it starts out as a fight with the UN, it'll be perceived badly no matter the real outcome.

The next thing to understand is that so many people have such a strong attachment to the theory of the UN that they are all but blind to the ugly reality. I stand by my assertion that Bush will regard the UN in its current form as a danger to the United States, but the response to that post has convinced me that he will have to be extremely careful in how he handles that. The "street" in most countries is predisposed to distrust Bush and anything short of immediate capitulation to (France in its capacity as defender of) the UN will be easy to spin into bullying. Bush needs time to get some positive results in Iraq to help restore his credibility before he can deal with the UN, and France isn't going to allow him that time.

So here's the game:

Chirac is pushing at the UN now because it puts Bush and Blair in a bind before they have a chance to recover any popularity. Bush doesn't trust the UN and doesn't particularly want it to be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq and most of his constituents would probably be okay with that. Blair likes the theory of the UN but is fed up enough with France that he would probably go along with Bush if he could, but he can't. British voters would be outraged (especially Labour voters) and he'd be out of office in a week.

Forcing the issue now leaves Bush and Blair with a bunch of mostly unpalatable scenarios:

  • If they go ahead and ignore the UN, Blair (and probably other allies) fall. The transatlantic rift widens and France assumes effective leadership of an EU that sees itself in opposition to the US, and we're into a variant of scenario four; if Chirac is really lucky, Bush falls too and the his replacement returns to the UN as a supplicant.

  • If they go the UN, France will try to stick the US and UK with most of the bills while depriving them of all authority and claiming the credit for any postwar success.

  • If they get into an ugly fight, Chirac gets to play the noble defender of the international order, which will nullify or reverse any gains in public opinion and could end up toppling Blair or other allies.

  • All in all, it will be an ugly mess if Bush and Blair are distracted long enough for France to dictate the terms of the looming fight at the UN. To prevail, Bush and Blair will need to react soon an they'll have to be clever, subtle and diplomatically astute. I sincerely hope they let Tony Blair take the lead on this one.

    I have a couple of ideas on this percolating and will try to get them posted over the weekend.

    Update: Jaed at Bitter Sanity comments. She also has a bad feeling about the activity at the UN but disagrees with the notion that it's intended to drive the allies apart, on the grounds that the same thing was said about the pre-war manuvering. I'll have a longer post on this tonight or tomorrow, but the short answer to that objection is "exactly." It almost worked this first time and Chirac is trying again.

    And this time is much, much more dangerous for Blair. The question of whether to remove Saddam is a moral no-brainer and Blair was clearly fully committed to the goal and he still faced an unprecedented revolt from the backbenches. The question of whether to let the UN distribute food just isn't going to light anyone on fire, and actually attacking the UN is (still) political suicide. Blair understands this, which is why he's so publicly pissed at Chirac -- as long as it's "Tony vs. Jacques" the people (and the politicians) will back him. Everything changes if it becomes "Bush vs. the UN," which is exactly what Chirac is manuvering for. If it comes to that, it is not at all clear that Blair could or would side with Bush.

    Update: This is exactly what I'm talking about and why it isn't possible to just write off the UN. Europeans, including the British public and probably even Tony Blair himself are not prepared to do so, and if Washington forces the issue, Blair will either fall or bolt. If that happens, it will become the United States against literally the entire world.

    Update: More here.

    :: Erik | 3/22/2003 12:03:00 AM | | ::
    :: Friday, March 21, 2003 ::
    Russell Working has some suggestions for people looking for new and interesting ways to protest (and achieve inner peace).

    Update: His words were, sadly, prophetic (4th paragraph).

    :: Erik | 3/21/2003 02:01:00 PM | | ::
    The Sueddeutsche Zeitung ran an opinion piece (article is in German) which amounts to a call to arms for Old Europe to rise up and oppose the brutal American Hegemony (okay, I'm exaggerating a bit). It also pretty much confirms the world view I attributed to Chirac here:

    The European political classes are busily constructing the mythology of a "wise" Europe, a narrative in which European nations have moved on to the next stage of (trans)national evolution and set aside the animosities of the past to create a harmonious brave new world. In this view, the cold war wasn't really Europe's affair -- Europe was the plucky mammal evolving in the shadows while prehistoric titans clashed overhead, oblivious.

    Found via Perlen Taucher (Thanks, Heike!), a handy site for keeping up with the German press and events.
    :: Erik | 3/21/2003 02:51:00 AM | | ::
    :: Thursday, March 20, 2003 ::
    For the most part I plan to leave the military, technology and blow-by-blow reports to more qualified bloggers. That said...

    I've seen a couple of reports that Iraq is firing Scuds at Kuwait. They're firing something alright, but the missile described by the CNN correspondent doesn't sound like a Scud to me.

    As I understand it, the Scud is a ballistic missle, which means it boosts to altitude and then falls back to the ground. The CNN correspondent describes a missle that flew noisily about 300 ft overhead at high speed and landed quite far away. Sounds like it was still under propulsion, which makes it something other than a Scud. It's probably not a big deal, but I wonder if these were a Al-Samoud 2 missiles or something else that Iraq isn't supposed to have. Maybe an Exocet:-)? This is hardly my area of expertise, so I could well be wrong.

    CNN is also reporting that they were given the all-clear with respect to chemicals but that were casualties (no details yet). What is Iraq up to? Are these ranging shots for something nastier? If so, the something nastier will probably be coming very soon, as I'd expect the life expectancy of an Iraqi missile launcher to be pretty short. Given that "Chemical Ali" is in charge in the south, I think the odds are good that it'll be getting ugly very soon.

    Update: CNN is no reporting a second and maybe a third wave of missiles, including one likely hit in downtown Kuwait city. They're identifying the missles as Scuds. Sanjay Gupta is with the Marines in the restricted area of Northern Kuwait -- they've had four bunker calls and the last flight seems to have come pretty close. Another reporter with a different group of marines also heard several nearby thuds and was told to put on his chemical suit. There are also reports that Patriots took down at least one incoming missile.

    Update: Kevin Sites just reported that Iraq fired at least one artillery shell at Kurds in the North.

    Update: Now they're reporting that a small plane (a "cessna") just flew out of Iraq and crashed within view of a Marine position. They're also reporting that Iraq is supposed to have modified small planes to deliver chemical weapons and for remote piloting.

    Update: In response to a question at a press conference, the Iraqi Information Minister denied that Iraq has Scud missles.

    Update: The CNN talking heads are confused by the Information Minister's claim that Iraq has no Scuds. I think I might've called this one but time will tell. Oh, well. Off to bed.

    :: Erik | 3/20/2003 02:11:00 AM | | ::
    :: Tuesday, March 18, 2003 ::
    Don't Kiss That Frog!

    Jacques Chirac seems to want to kiss and make up. He has announced that if Iraq uses chemical weapons, everything changes and France will of course send specialist soldiers to clean up evidence of French collusion.
    That offer seems redundant, considering that coalition members from "new" Europe have sent or are sending highly regarded chemical specialist units to the Gulf. IIRC, even Germany has left a chemical weapons team in Kuwait under UN auspices (this is all based on recollection, so corrections and/or citations are more than welcome).

    Is it just me, or does this seem like the perfect setup for another Rumsfeld moment:

    Reporter: Mr Rumsfeld, can you comment on the French offer to send troops if Saddam uses chemical weapons?

    Rumsfeld: We don't really need French troops, we have Poland.

    Update: I've found articles confirming that Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, yes, Germany are all providing specialists in dealing with chemical (and, in some cases, nuclear and biological) weapons and that the Ukraine is thinking about doing the same.

    Update: In fact, Germany is sending 170 additional specialists to join the 90 soldiers and an unspecified number of "Fuchspanzer" (tanks which function as mobile chemical, biological and nuclear detection and cleanup labs) that are already in Kuwait.

    :: Erik | 3/18/2003 05:58:00 PM | | ::
    Chirac's efforts are starting to bear fruit. The cherished French goal of a "unified" European foreign policy (dictated by France, of course) is receding from view, thanks in large part to Chirac's polished diplomatic tact.

    :: Erik | 3/18/2003 12:03:00 PM | | ::
    Don't confuse happiness with gratitude, or gratitude with trust.

    The people of Iraq will undoubtedly be happy to be free of Saddam, but don't expect instant gratitude. Gratitude might come someday, if the reconstruction of Iraq is just and proper and the occupation forces tread very lightly. Trust is another matter entirely -- the people of Iraq have suffered and been lied to enough over the last century that it will take generations for the absolute certainty of imminent betrayal to recede.

    If you don't understand why this is true and justified, read Salam's post one more time.

    :: Erik | 3/18/2003 02:33:00 AM | | ::

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