France didn’t say NO to military action, just not yet
“But in that case [when inspectors report failure], of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn't today.” (Jacques Chirac, 10 March 2003)
The prime example of what Clare short called the Prime Minister’s “honourable deception” to get us to war was the misrepresentation of the French attitude to military action against Iraq.
Blair had promised that he wouldn’t go to war without Security Council authorisation, or at least without a majority of the Security Council backing military action, albeit a majority overridden by a veto from France (and/or Russia or China).
After Hans Blix’s relatively positive inspection report on 14 February, Britain began the quest for a second resolution authorising military action with the lukewarm help of the US. On that day, only two other members of the Security Council – Bulgaria and Spain – were willing to vote for military action. A month later on 17 March 2003, when Britain finally gave up its quest for a second resolution, nothing had changed.
Britain didn’t come within an ass’s roar of convincing a majority on the Security Council to vote for war. That presented the Downing Street cabal plotting the course for war with a difficulty: how could Blair’s explicit promise not to take military action without, at the very least, majority support on the Security Council be reconciled with the fact that only 4 out of the 15 members of the Council supported military action?
The solution was to blame France, to claim that France was being utterly unreasonable: not only was she opposed to military action in principle, she had sabotaged support on the Council for a second resolution authorising military action by threatening to use her veto.
In that regard, a remark by President Chirac remark in a TV interview broadcast on 10 March 2003 was a godsend to Downing Street. The remark in question was:
“My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote 'no' because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, ie to disarm Iraq.” (see English translation of interview here).
What Chirac meant was that as things stood “this evening”, France would use its veto. But the use of the phrase “regardless of the circumstances” allowed Downing Street to pretend that he had ruled out force for all time – and by so doing had torpedoed a second resolution.
This proposition, wrapped in a remarkable outburst of anti-French hysteria, was repeated ad nauseam in the week leading up to the Commons vote on 18 March 2003. It covered Blair’s retreat from his promise not to take military action without, at the very least, majority support on the Security Council. It was referred to over and over again in the Commons debate on 18 March 2003 and played a major role in limiting the Labour backbench revolt that day.
The resolution for war itself contained a reference to it:
“That this House … regrets that despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty's Government it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances;”
And, in proposing the resolution, Blair told the awful story of how France’s perfidy had undermined support for a second resolution on the Security Council:
“Last Monday [10 March 2003], we were getting very close with it [the second resolution]. We very nearly had the majority agreement. If I might, I should particularly like to thank the President of Chile for the constructive way in which he approached this issue.
“Yes, there were debates about the length of the ultimatum, but the basic construct was gathering support. Then, on Monday night, France said that it would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances.”
On that Monday night, France said no such thing. On the contrary, in the interview that Monday evening, Chirac made it very clear that there were circumstances in which France would not veto a resolution for war. Early on in that interview, he set out two alternative circumstances, one when the UN inspectors report progress and the other when the inspectors say their task is impossible – in which case, in his words, “regrettably, the war would become inevitable”. That portion (which Clare Short pointed out in the Commons on 4 June 2003) reads:
“The inspectors have to tell us: ‘we can continue and, at the end of a period which we think should be of a few months’ - I'm saying a few months because that's what they have said – ‘we shall have completed our work and Iraq will be disarmed’. Or they will come and tell the Security Council: ‘we are sorry but Iraq isn't cooperating, the progress isn't sufficient, we aren't in a position to achieve our goal, we won't be able to guarantee Iraq's disarmament’. In that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn't today.”
From that, it is plain as a pikestaff that France that there were circumstances in which France would not have vetoed military action, namely, if the UN inspectors reported that they couldn’t do their job. But, with Blair having promised not to make military action without at least majority support in the Security Council, a little deceit was necessary to explain why this had proved to be impossible.
This deceit was the final element of a larger deceit about France’s behaviour in the Security Council in the six months prior to the US/UK attack on Iraq. The story told against France was that the international consensus on Iraq in the autumn of 2003, expressed in Security Council resolution 1441, had been sabotaged by France refusing to support military action in March, and that this made war unavoidable.
This leaves out a large fact about the consensus in the Security Council in November 2003: it was not for war. On the contrary, the unanimity was achieved because the US/UK backed down on their attempt to get the Council to vote for war. The unanimity was for inspection, followed by assessment of inspection reports by the Council, on the basis of which the Council would decide on further action.
France was demonised by the US/UK for refusing to vote for war, and a pretence was kept up that by so doing France had reversed its position of last autumn. In fact, France maintained a consistent position throughout, a consistent position with which a large majority of the Security Council, and the states and peoples of the world, agreed. It was that the inspectors should be allowed to do their job, until such times as they reported that they couldn’t, and then and only then should the Security Council consider military action. This didn’t suit those in Washington and London who were determined to overthrow the Iraqi regime, come what may.
Nevertheless, in a remarkable leap of logic, Downing Street blamed France for the war, even though she had opposed it. This proposition is, of course, ridiculous. It begins with the assumption that, had France agreed to vote for military action against Iraq if it did not account for its “weapons of mass destruction” within a few days, there would then have been a majority on the Security Council for the second resolution. It continues with Iraq, faced with this united front in the Council, coughing up weapons that probably don’t exist, or in a few days proving to the satisfaction of the US/UK that they had been destroyed, which it has tried and failed to do for the past five or six years.
But let us suppose that this highly unlikely sequence of events did occur. To believe that war could have been avoided, we have to believe that at this point George Bush would have reversed gear, and taken his troops home, leaving Saddam Hussein in power, having spent the past year telling the American people that he was an awful threat to US and the world (and whom around 50% of the US electorate believe was responsible for 9/11). That would not have been a sensible move for a President seeking re-election next year, and it’s an absolutely safe bet he would not have made it.
It is absurd to believe that if France had supported the US/UK in the Security Council, war could have been avoided. But three months later, Blair and Straw continue to tell us that France was responsible for the war – because she refused to vote for it.
Labour & Trade Union Review