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Chirac Warned Bush against Overthrowing Saddam

Chirac Warned Bush against Overthrowing Saddam

Ambassador Maurice Gourdault-Montagne reveals secrets of Khomeini’s Paris reception
Tuesday, 28 February, 2023 - 07:30
Late former French President Jacques Chirac (R) and former US President George W. Bush. (Getty Images)

French Diplomat Maurice Gourdault-Montagne's memoirs are unlike those of any regular ambassador that fill French libraries year after year.

The author of “The Others Don’t Think Like Us” is no ordinary ambassador. Now retired, his long diplomatic career took him to Tokyo, Beijing, Berlin and London. He was France’s sherpa to the G20 and G7 groups and later was named diplomatic advisor to former French President Jacques Chirac, a post he held for five years between 2002 and 2007.

In short, Gourdault-Montagne held important positions that allowed him to be at the heart of diplomatic and strategic developments, representing France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. He had a front seat to international political changes, an experience that makes his new book not just a memoir, but a journey inside the comings and goings of international policy.

In 392 pages and 17 chapters, the former diplomat takes the reader behind the scenes of events that shaped the world from the 1970s to the early 21st Century.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the war on Iraq. It sheds light on the policies of then US President George W. Bush and how Washington dealt with European capitals, most notably Paris.

Gourdault-Montagne recalled Bush’s landmark speech in 2002 during which he spoke of the “Axis of Evil” that includes Iraq. It was apparent that the president was preparing the American public for war that would be aimed at toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein under the pretext that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Gourdault-Montagne said then President Chirac “quickly understood the danger of such a policy that would decimate the unity of the western world and regional balances, as well as lead to a confrontation with the Muslim world.”

Moreover, he revealed that Chirac was aware that the ouster of the Saddam regime through a military operation would without a doubt tip the balance in the Muslim world in favor of the Shiites, who are seen as aligned with Iran, at the expense of the Sunnis. This, in turn, would lead to new tensions. Such concerns prompted Chirac to dedicate the second half of 2002 in opposing the US plans.

Condoleezza Rice: Abandoning war in exchange for Saddam’s ouster

Gourdault-Montagne was present at the summit that brought together Chirac and Bush in Prague in November 2002. He wrote: “The two delegations sat face-to-face. The tensions were palpable. Bush stuck to his convictions, and when he spoke, he didn’t even look at Chirac.”

Chirac informed Bush that the “war will destabilize the region and hand over power in Baghdad to the Shiites who are close to Iran. It will also increase Iran’s influence in Syria and in Lebanon (through Hezbollah). The war will not have legal grounds and will create division in the international community, cost the West its credibility and become a source of chaos that will produce a wave of terrorism that will be hard to control.”

Chirac’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Still, he wanted to learn more about Washington’s intentions. In early 2003, he dispatched Gourdault-Montagne to the US capital for talks with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He asked her the question of the hour: “What could persuade you to abandon the war? What are your conditions?” Rice replied firmly: “For Saddam to step down.”

The French diplomat then met with then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Gourdault-Montagne would describe that meeting as one of the worst moments of his long career. He was made to wait a long time before Wolfowitz received him. The diplomat said his host showed typical American “arrogance”. He too did not listen to France’s concerns and went a step further by being offensive to it and accusing it of “maneuvering”. He added that Washington “knows what you know”, meaning Iraq possesses nuclear weapons while Paris claims ignorance over the matter.

Gourdault-Montagne returned to France with a conviction that the Americans “wanted to be free of military and diplomatic constraints. They did not want to be part of an alliance that follows UN rules and were convinced that they did not need anyone.”

Ultimately, Washington did not heed Chirac’s advice to show patience, so the French president sought to forge an international alliance against the Americans, and turned to Germany and Russia. On Russia, Gourdault-Montagne quoted Chirac as saying: “It is not a doormat on which we can wipe our feet.” Chirac enjoyed the trust and support of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The rest of the story is history: France threatened to resort to its veto power at the Security Council if Washington sought UN approval of its war on Iraq. Many still recall French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s famous speech at the council that was met with applause. Undeterred, American forces, backed British forces, invaded Iraq and overthrew the Baghdad regime and Saddam, who was executed.

Despite the deep differences between them, France and the US never severed ties. France was aware that the project of the “new Middle East” envisioned by Washington was doomed to fail. Again, Gourdault-Montagne was dispatched to Washington to meet with Rice with the message that Paris wanted to set aside their dispute and see how it can help in rebuilding Iraq and restoring stability. Rice’s reply, however, was decisive: “We don’t need you. We spent funds and paid the price in the blood of our soldiers.”

The two sides would eventually be able to work together in other areas, most notably in the Lebanese-Syrian file. They helped draft Security Council resolution 1449 that called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. They also cooperated over Iran whereby Paris, along with London and Berlin, kicked off the first negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Washington would later join the talks.

Khomeini, Hezbollah and Lebanon’s stability

Gourdault-Montagne recalled how Saddam had in 1978 sent a letter to his “friend” Chirac, warning him against receiving Iran’s Imam Khomeini, who at the time, was seeking asylum in Iraq. Khomeini was weighing whether to leave Iraq for Paris or Libya’s Tripoli. Saddam asked Chirac to warn then President Giscard d'Estaing against welcoming Khomeini.

Chirac conveyed the message to the president, who did not agree with Saddam’s assessment, but rather believed that it was in France’s interest to keep the deals struck with Iran and maintain cooperation with it. And so, Khomeini was welcomed in France.

Mockingly, Gourdault-Montagne said the only thing that France ever received from Khomeini was the naming of the Tehran street where the French embassy is located after the French town of Neauphle-le-Château where the imam was hosted. “Ever since, the Iranian regime has caused us a headache and our relations with it impacted our policy in the Middle East,” said Gourdault-Montagne.

Political developments in 2003 would push Paris to reconsider resuming communication with Tehran. It was driven by the need to curb Tehran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons and avoid an arms race in the region. It was also seeking to bolster economic cooperation with Iran and persuade it to adopt a positive policy towards Lebanon.

Gourdault-Montagne explained that France’s openness towards Tehran stemmed from its desire to reach a firm regional framework that would provide “peace, stability and prosperity” for all. Lebanon’s stability has always been a fixture in France’s regional policy. It is constantly concerned over Hezbollah’s rising influence in the country and the change in sectarian and demographic balances. Gourdault-Montagne explained that Paris believed that having a “direct channel of communication with Iran was the best way to rein in Hezbollah.”

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