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French Official Takes Issue With U.S. Proposal on Iraq

The foreign minister defends a government demand that America cede more control over rebuilding to the people of the war-torn nation.

September 12, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — With a new U.N. debate threatening to revive U.S.-French tensions, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on Thursday defended his government's demand that the Bush administration cede more control of Iraq's reconstruction to Iraqis and the international community.

De Villepin used a meeting with U.S. and British journalists to reflect on the global repercussions in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks. He declared that France remained a friend of the United States -- and a close ally on vital issues such as counter-terrorism -- despite this year's bitter diplomatic conflict over the Iraq war.

"By definition we are allies and friends," De Villepin said. "We were yesterday, we are today and we will be tomorrow."

Nonetheless, he repeated French objections to a U.S. proposal to increase the United Nations role in Iraq while leaving power in the hands of American forces. He said the rapid return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people is "the point of departure" for French policy on the issue of reconstruction.

"The organization of things must be changed so that everything in Iraq is organized by the Iraqis around Iraqi sovereignty," he said. "We know Iraq well, we know the Middle East well. And we know that sovereignty is decisive.... It's not just about adding a bit more U.N., a few more foreign troops to the coalition force. That doesn't change anything."

At the behest of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, De Villepin will be in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the Bush administration's proposed U.N. resolution about Iraq with his counterparts from the United States, Britain, Russia and China -- the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. De Villepin said France intended to continue proposing changes to the text of the U.S. resolution in hopes of reaching an accord.

Meanwhile, President Jacques Chirac said during a trip to Spain that conditions in Iraq are "far today from a situation in which France could participate militarily in an action in Iraq."

De Villepin, 49, is Chirac's closest advisor and something of a star. His suave demeanor and impassioned antiwar speeches at the Security Council this spring won admiration, especially among Europeans and others who see the Bush administration as a Lone Ranger gone wild in its foreign policy approach. But to many critics in Britain and the U.S., De Villepin symbolizes the French government's haughtiness and intransigence in international affairs.

Pacing in shirt sleeves, expounding in a high-voltage style that mixes elements of professor and politician, De Villepin on Thursday offered a measured critique of U.S. policy in Iraq and beyond. The U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks has relied too narrowly on military force, proving insufficient and fanning the flames of anti-Americanism, he said. The emphasis on "a war on terrorism," rather than an approach mixing political, police and intelligence strategies, runs the risk of backfiring, he said.

"The temptation when you feel threatened, and obviously Sept. 11 created a sense of fear and insecurity, is to try obviously to respond," De Villepin said. "But the question is, what is the best way? And again, we don't think that an exclusively security-driven logic permits a response, because it creates reactions, it creates what many call anti-Americanism, it creates misunderstandings, it creates frustrations."

In an apparent allusion to the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration, De Villepin said: "Too often I believe certain American thinking, certain notably neoconservative thinking, thinks about the world today with yesterday's frameworks, especially power. It's not because one is the first power in the world, it's not because one is the strongest country in the world, that one can find the solutions to the world's problems."

De Villepin blamed the rise of French-bashing on a "caricature" that wrongfully convinced some Americans that French policy endangered their security. And he said that the aftermath in Iraq reinforces France's antiwar arguments: that Saddam Hussein's arsenal was not an urgent threat, that the regime had no significant ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and that an invasion could trigger sustained chaos and bloodshed.

"I think today we see what works and what doesn't work," he said. "We can all reflect on the situation of Afghanistan, we can all reflect on the experience of Iraq in the past few months, we can all reflect on the Middle East.... Is war the means for resolving problems all by itself? Is it the means for satisfying the desire of most of the international community for a peaceful disarmament of Iraq?"

The comments conveyed the sense that French leaders feel vindicated as the Bush administration finds itself increasingly on the defensive, a dynamic that could bolster France if there is a new tug of war at the Security Council. De Villepin suggested that French-bashers might be having second thoughts about Paris' position in the Iraq debate.

"I am convinced today that the American people see things today with much more clarity," he said.

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