Move by France Ups the Stakes

Times Staff Writers

With its threat of a veto, France has sharply escalated the war against a war on Iraq.

Insisting that it would block U.S. efforts to use force to disarm Iraq while inspectors can still do it peacefully, France has drawn the support of veto-holders China and Russia in the U.N. Security Council, as well as influential allies such as Germany. France’s stance provoked a testy response from President Bush in Washington on Tuesday and the hasty launching of a U.S. diplomatic counteroffensive.

In Brussels on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin raised the stakes further, saying he will rally the rest of the European Union members to oppose an early war against Iraq.

“It is important that Europe speaks on this issue with a single voice,” he said. “We are mobilized; we believe war can be avoided.”

That stance sets France on a collision course with the United States and risks a damaging disagreement inside the EU with Britain. And it is a bold step beyond France’s previous policy: Even in the tough negotiations last autumn over the U.N. resolution requiring Iraq to disarm, France never explicitly threatened to veto. But in private meetings this week with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, De Villepin refused to rule it out.


So why is France getting tough now? And how far will it go in leading the allies to oppose the U.S.? The answers to those questions may well determine whether the U.S. launches a war against Iraq with the authority of the Security Council behind it, or opts to act outside the council’s purview.

France’s public challenge to the U.S. may be partially in response to a growing unease in France -- and across Europe -- about a war. A Jan. 12 poll by France’s weekly Journal du Dimanche showed that 76% of respondents didn’t want French troops to take part in a U.S.-led operation. Spain, Germany, Italy and even the United States are facing greater popular opposition to acting against Iraq without U.N. approval. De Villepin told Powell in their private meeting in New York on Sunday night: “Listen to the world’s people.”

But France is not just responding to growing antiwar sentiment at home.

“The French president will do what he thinks is right for France and won’t be excessively swayed by polls,” said David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy, an independent think tank in New York focused on U.N. issues.

French President Jacques Chirac last year won another five-year term and is in a strong enough political position to join a military campaign against popular wishes, Malone said. The French public was also strongly opposed to participating in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but France nevertheless joined the effort.

There is also an important international element. The French have staked out a role as the defender of international law and are committed to keeping the United Nations at the center of the decision-making process on Iraq and other issues.

The stance grants them a greater voice in Europe, especially since Germany, which until the end of the summer was playing a greater role in the EU and the Middle East, has begun focusing more on domestic issues. However, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has maintained the popular antiwar line that helped him win reelection in September. On Tuesday, he gave his clearest signal yet that Germany would reject or abstain in a Security Council vote on military action.

“Do not expect that Germany will agree to a resolution that legitimizes war,” Schroeder told a state election rally in the central city of Goslar.

Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Schroeder’s position probably influenced Chirac and allowed France to strengthen its position in the Security Council without taking the hardest line there or in the EU.

As the time draws near for the Security Council to make the difficult decisions on the next steps -- on Monday the council will hear U.N. weapons inspectors’ assessment of Iraq’s cooperation -- the reality of a potentially destabilizing war is setting in.

Serfaty said the French government is worried that the campaign could escalate beyond the widespread predictions and could involve a million refugees, a high casualty count, great damage to Baghdad and spillover effects in the region and across the Mediterranean.

“Since we can disarm Iraq through peaceful means, we should not take the risk to endanger the lives of innocent civilians or soldiers, to jeopardize the stability of the region,” De Villepin said at the United Nations. “We should not take the risk to fuel terrorism.”

But as tough as France talks, some diplomats and experts don’t believe that the nation can afford to exercise its veto -- something it hasn’t done since a vote on the Suez War in 1956.

Both France and the U.S. are very aware of the risk to the Security Council if Washington acted without its approval.

In the 1998-99 Kosovo crisis in Yugoslavia, the U.S. faced a certain Russian veto of military intervention. Washington assembled a coalition that included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and left the United Nations behind. That move seriously weakened the U.N.'s role as an international player. If the U.S. skirted the U.N. again, it would cast the Security Council into irrelevance and, along with it, France’s great standing that derives from its veto-holding status.

“Would France kill the goose that laid the golden egg of international prestige?” said Malone. “I doubt it. They are skeptical, they want to defend their principles, but the last thing they want the Americans to do is act outside the council.”

Even -- or perhaps especially -- if France is willing to use its veto, the issue will probably not reach that point.

“Of course, we prefer to have the council’s go-ahead,” said a senior U.S. administration official, acknowledging the popular and political cost of going around the U.N. “But if it were clear that a resolution authorizing force would be rejected, we wouldn’t bring it to the council in the first place. It would be much harder to go on our own in the face of a clear U.N. rejection than to just go ahead without asking for approval. We already have the authorization.”

At the least, France’s strong stance puts even greater pressure on the United States to defend its position.

So far, U.S. diplomats have argued that they might not have a single, conclusive piece of evidence but that a series of smaller violations -- illegal weapons imports, undeclared warheads and giant gaps in Iraq’s arms declaration -- have shown that Saddam Hussein’s regime has demonstrated no intention of truly disarming.

The U.S. began its orchestrated case-making this week, beginning with Powell’s admonition to the Security Council that it “cannot shrink” from the difficult decisions it soon faces on how to deal with Iraq.

On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage delivered a lengthy argument on why the world cannot wait any longer to find a “smoking gun” when there is already evidence of plenty of smoke.

“We must not let the sensible reluctance to fight drive us into wishful thinking,” he said at the Institute of Peace. “Sept. 11 taught us that there can be a high cost to inaction -- or to ineffective action.”

Indeed, France has not closed the door to military intervention if it is prepared legitimately, with Security Council backing and clear legal cause.

Some diplomats believe that France’s goal is to buy more time for inspectors to continue their work, to help make the case for war, which France says the U.S. and Britain so far have failed to do.

“The purpose of [De Villepin’s] statement was to make things clearer than they were,” said a French diplomat. “We had a feeling there was confusion about what Jan. 27 was about. Does it have to be a defining moment?

“If there is no material breach, you have to go on with the inspections,” the diplomat said.

U.S. officials hint that they would be willing to extend inspections in the hopes that inspectors stumble on to something that Security Council members could agree is clear-cut evidence that Hussein is not disarming.

“Even if we say next week that it is clear that Iraq is not complying, and so there’s no need to continue inspections, it does not mean that we’re going to pull inspectors out and invade tomorrow,” said a U.S. official. “We’re not going to go unilaterally.”