Jacques Chirac isn't looking for a ladder to climb down from his opposition to a military intervention in Iraq. In fact, he's offering George W. Bush a ladder to climb down from the brink of conflict. "If they were to ask me for my friendly advice, I would counsel against [war]," the French President said during an interview with TIME Saturday at his office in the Elysee Palace. If the reinforced inspection regime Chirac has proposed is taken up, and if against experience and widespread expectation it proves effective in disarming Saddam Hussein, Bush could claim a double victory: "Mr. Bush can say two things. First, 'Thanks to my intervention, the goal was obtained; it was our 150,000 soldiers who assured that Iraq has been disarmed,' and second, 'I achieved that without spilling any blood.' In the life of a statesman, that counts no blood spilled."
Chirac's unsolicited counsel may smack of French pride, or just plain grandstanding, but he speaks with real weight. Chirac deliberately reappointed his gilded office at the Elysee Palace with the desk and furnishings first installed by his political mentor, General Charles de Gaulle, the embodiment of French grandeur. Like de Gaulle, Chirac is determined to put France back on the map in international affairs. And outside in the streets of Paris, as in dozens of other cities throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators loudly affirmed their agreement with the French leader's contention that "The first consequence of war is death." A poll in last week's New York Times suggests that even a majority of Americans think the inspectors should be given more time.
Chirac is taking the lead against an imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, but at formidable cost. What once might have seemed a cordial difference of approach, neatly finessed last fall in Security Council Resolution 1441, has become a nasty diplomatic rift that is already poisoning French-American relations and threatening to destroy the U.N., NATO and the credibility of the European Union. By leading an alliance against the war with Germany and, for now at least, Russia, Chirac is giving President Bush fits. "The transatlantic mood has been rubbed so raw that now we have electrodes attached to each other's private bits, and people on both sides are throwing big electric switches every day," says a senior American diplomat in Europe.
Why is the 70-year-old Chirac, whose career until now has been marked more by political glad-handing than steadfast principles, giving America such a jolt? Is it mere vanity, a desire to reclaim for France some of its lost glory? Is it all about oil, a motive many impute to President Bush but which could equally apply to France's lucrative Iraqi ties? Or does Chirac really have a better plan for dealing with Saddam? There's no doubt that Chirac's opposition is sustained by a deeply held conviction that the consequences of a war to dislodge Saddam Hussein would be far worse than any potential benefit. "Chirac thinks he understands the Middle East very well," says one Western diplomat in Paris, "and truly believes that military action will have a destabilizing effect on the region." Chirac may turn out to be the last bulwark of sanity or a tiresome whiner, but either way he's the indispensable man right now in the opposition to an attack on Iraq.
Friday's report to the Security Council from chief U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix and director of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei could have been a key opportunity for France to get back in line. But it did no such thing. Instead, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin made an impassioned plea to give inspections more time: "No one can say today that the path of war would be shorter than the path of inspections. No one can claim either that it might lead to a safer, more just and more stable world. For war is always the penalty of failure." After de Villepin finished, the chamber erupted into spontaneous applause, a rarity at the U.N.
Blix's report, in fact, offered a mixture of mild censure and faint praise for Iraq; de Villepin's ears were clearly tuned to the latter. "In no case have we seen convincing evidence that the Iraqi side knew in advance that the inspectors were coming," Blix said, sidestepping Washington's central contention that the whole affair is a charade. Many of Chirac's powerful allies were equally disposed to accentuate the positive.
Chirac bristles at suggestions that he's motivated by instinctive anti-Americanism. "When I hear people say that I'm anti-American, I'm sad not angry, but really sad," Chirac told TIME. "Often insults say more about the person saying them than the target." He actually knows the States quite well, having spent time in the early 1950s working as a forklift operator for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Boston's Harvard Square and attending summer school at the Harvard Business School. "I've hitchhiked across the whole United States," Chirac says. "I even worked as a journalist and wrote a story on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. I know the U.S. perhaps better than most French people, and I really like the United States. I feel good there. I love junk food and always come home with a few extra pounds. I've always worked toward and supported transatlantic solidarity, and that unity is a major element in global equilibrium. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow."
Part of Chirac's fondness for the U.S. has to do with his youthful experience of Americans during World War II. "Like most of his generation, the most vivid memories he has are those of the liberation of France, the arrival of American troops, and the later reconstruction of France and Europe under the Marshall Plan," says Denis Tillinac, a personal friend of the President's and author of a memoir about him. "He has a great fondness and respect for the energy, innovation and courage of America to believe in itself and take risks."
Still, Chirac sees the risk of falling too far inside America's gravitational pull. "Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one," he says. "That's why I favor a multipolar world, in which Europe obviously has its place." Not everyone accepts that explanation. "The sinister part is a wish to be the leader of the anti-American world," says an aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "[Chirac] is trying to see the world in bipolar rather than unilateral terms, which is absolutely at odds with Blair's vision of Europe and America working together." Ennio Di Nolfo, an international relations expert at the University of Florence, concurs. "Chirac's position is manipulative and Machiavellian," he says. "France is taking the opportunity of a clash with the U.S. over the war to seek preeminence in Europe."
That view has become scripture in Washington. "It is French policy to diminish our influence in Europe and in the world, and to shape the European Union as a counterweight to the United States," says Richard Perle, chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board and a superhawk close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The current crisis will fuel the resolve of many U.S. leaders to bypass the U.N. on important matters, including attacking Iraq with a "coalition of the willing" instead of the Security Council's blessing. It would be ironic if France, by flexing its muscles in the U.N., helped weaken the venue in which some of its last real power resides.
It doesn't take a partisan eye to see a desire to check American power motivating France's recent maneuvering at NATO. Last week, the corridors of the alliance's headquarters in Brussels resembled the waiting room of a hospital emergency ward, as packs of officials and journalists heard that the 19 member states failed to resolve one of the most serious disputes of its 54-year history. France, Germany and Belgium balked at their treaty commitments to deliver antiaircraft missiles and surveillance aircraft to defend Turkey against a possible assault by Iraq. The trio argued that their agreement would amount to sanctioning a war by the back door. Now that U.N. arms inspectors Blix and ElBaradei have made their reports, a compromise could be reached as early as this week. But the credibility of the alliance is in tatters.
Blocking NATO is a well-known propensity for France, which exited its military commission in 1965. But many feel Chirac has also played a key role in scuppering hopes of forging a common foreign and security policy for the E.U., a goal he has lobbied hard for in the past. As Chirac gleefully leads the Continent where public opinion wants it to go, he has paradoxically alienated the leaders of many other European allies especially Tony Blair, who was left staring wanly from the sidelines last week. Chirac's vain presumption that France and Germany could speak for all of Europe against the war and the answering volley of support for America from 18 other European nations leaves the E.U. looking silly and feckless. "The Europeans have been telling us for a decade that they're on the verge of getting their foreign policy act together," says Robert Kagan, neoconservative author of Of Paradise and Power, a new book on U.S.-European relations. "The Iraq case shines a bright light on the disunity of Europe." "Constructing Europe is not an easy thing," Chirac admits. "There are a lot of obstacles on the way, and we have to get over them one by one and move forward." But France's claim to leadership in that effort no longer enjoys the support it once had.
Many see Chirac as an unlikely crusader for peace and justice. His 18-year stint as mayor of Paris was marred by allegations which, because of presidential immunity, he has never had to face in court that he presided over a lucrative kickback scheme to fund his then political party, the Rally for the Republic. The allegations inspired the popular satirical television show Les Guignols de l'Info to assign him the moniker Superliar. And he's never been a pacifist. As President in 1995, he defied international protests and worldwide demonstrations to test French nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.
To his supporters, though, none of this adds up to a lack of principle, and certainly doesn't disqualify him from taking a passionate stance on Iraq. "There should be no mistake that Chirac's biggest concern in opposing war is that it will have truly dire consequences in the Middle East," says writer Tillinac. "This is a stand Chirac is taking because he feels he must." His Middle East experience can't be dismissed, either. Like previous presidents of France, Chirac has traveled extensively in the region. On a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem in 1996, television cameras captured him rebuking Israeli security guards for their gruff treatment of Palestinian bystanders, an episode that increased his credibility at the time among France's estimated 5 million Muslims.
Like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Chirac had personal dealings with Saddam before the Iraqi dictator became a pariah, which some speculate may make the idea of attacking him less of an abstraction. "Chirac has no illusions about the danger Saddam poses," says conservative legislator and long-time Chirac supporter Pierre Lellouche. "He just doesn't see the same sense of urgency as the Americans do." But Chirac does feel a sense of urgency if an attack takes place. "A war of this kind cannot help but give a big lift to terrorism," he says. "It would create a large number of little bin Ladens." The aide to Tony Blair acknowledges that Chirac's pessimistic view of the fallout is one genuine motor of policy. But he also says that Chirac expressed similarly dire views before the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan and his fears were proved unwarranted.
Oil seems the least likely motivation for Chirac, though the effect of war on France's already struggling economy must certainly be an unwelcome prospect. According to one Western diplomat, "If what France really cared about was getting the spoils in a post-Saddam Iraq, they'd be taking a very different tack," cozying up to America rather than defying it. A spokeswoman for TotalFinaElf, the French firm that until last year spent a decade negotiating still unconcluded oil contracts with Saddam's regime, says that all they want is "a level playing field so that all players can put forth their bids in accordance with international norms."
In the end, it all comes down to one question: Can Chirac's plan for an open-ended commitment to more rigorous inspections work? The French President still has a lot of convincing to do, given that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made an uncontested case before the Security Council two weeks ago that Saddam is still refusing to come clean. And last week, Powell passionately reminded the Security Council that the thrust of Resolution 1441 is for Saddam to proactively report weapons programs and eliminate them, not to evade inspectors until he's caught. "We don't need more inspectors with flashlights," Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week. "We need Saddam to turn the lights on."
Chirac's alternative is clearly intended to keep Saddam in the glare of international attention. The plan calls for increasing the number of inspectors from 110 to as many as 360, and broadening their expertise to include customs and accounting. France proposes that aerial surveillance be intensified with overflights of French Mirage IV aircraft, and that a permanent in-country coordinator be put in place. Chancellor Schrφder leaked to the newsweekly Der Spiegel a version of a "Franco-German" plan that included the now disavowed notion that thousands of U.N. peacekeepers would protect the inspectors. It wasn't until later that he shared the plan with his Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw lambasted the Chirac plan, arguing that it would do nothing to tackle the problem of persistent noncompliance. "As it happens, we did examine these ideas in preparations for what became 1441," he told an audience of foreign policy experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "There was wide appreciation that they were simply not feasible in the absence of complete Iraqi cooperation and not necessary with complete Iraqi cooperation. The fact that those proposals are now being aired represents the clearest admission yet that Iraq is not cooperating. Nothing in Saddam's performance can give any confidence that any of these proposals would in any way change his behavior. Instead they are a recipe for procrastination and delay."
Even if the Chirac plan is less than perfect, is it still better than a full-blown war? As the applause at the Security Council indicated, many believe it could be. But the biggest players, the Americans, are not disposed to wait much longer to see just how hard France and its sympathizers are able to push it. Washington is eager to get beyond diplomatic dancing, and might move as quickly as this week to introduce a resolution for armed intervention in Iraq.
The weather will heat up soon in Iraq, troops are deployed that cannot be kept on alert indefinitely, and the further Powell's presentation of evidence fades into memory the less compelling it becomes. "We're willing to work this through with the French," says a senior State Department official, "but we're not willing to slow it down to the point of inaction." The U.S. plan is to steam ahead on the assumption that Paris will cave. If the French do veto a second resolution, so be it Washington is comfortable with "a coalition of the willing." But the Americans believe the French will get onboard before it's time to rebuild Iraq and divvy up the oil contracts.
No one is willing to dismiss the possibility that Chirac could veer back into line and endorse a second resolution authorizing force. But for now the French President is not backing off. "In my view there's no reason for a new resolution," he says. "We are in the framework of 1441 and let's go on with it." If Washington pushes ahead with another resolution if for nothing else, to protect their staunchest foreign ally, Tony Blair it would put Chirac's vaunted steadfastness to the test. The French President can't expect the Bush Administration to make it easy for him. But he's taking a long-range view. "One image chases the last one in our media-dominated world," he says. "Once there are no real reasons for contention, it disperses rapidly. So I'm not worried about the relations between our two nations."
If he's right, the current spat may end with nothing more than resigned exasperation at the vagaries of French diplomacy. But if America rolls ahead against French opposition and without a second U.N. resolution basic assumptions about the transatlantic alliance could be overturned. Chirac, ever the politician, is leaving his options open: "If Iraq doesn't cooperate and the inspectors say this isn't working, it could be war." So the man who wants to give peace a chance may yet give war a chance instead.