Former French Ambassador Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, who recently published a remarkable book entitled "The Others Don't Think Like Us," experienced the US invasion of Iraq "first hand."
Gourdault-Montagne served as the diplomatic adviser to late French President Jacques Chirac and his representative at the G7 and G20 in the summer of 2002 and until the end of Chirac's second term.
The diplomat participated in all presidential meetings that preceded the US military operation in Iraq. Paris tried to dissuade Washington from its military "adventure," asserting that the UN Security Council must back any military intervention.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Gourdault-Montagne, revealing many of the meetings he attended in Washington and worldwide, which led to two contradictory visions.
The first, backed by the US administration under President George W. Bush, wanted war at any cost. The second centered around France, which hinted at resorting to its veto right against any US draft resolution.
The ambassador also recounted the details of several summits he attended alongside Chirac, namely the NATO summit in Prague in 2002, which revealed Bush's desire to overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein, claiming he possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Asharq Al-Awsat asked the diplomat about the last chapter of his book, which detailed the confrontation between Chirac and Bush during the Prague Summit.
Gourdault-Montagne recalled that the summit occurred when the Middle East was on the verge of war. Chirac sought to discourage Bush from embarking on an adventure with miscalculated results.
During the meeting, Bush did not even look at Chirac, said the former official, adding that what the French President said can be summed up as follows: a war against Iraq would destabilize the region, bringing Iran-loyalist Shiites to power in Baghdad and strengthening Tehran's influence in Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah.
Chirac told Bush that his war didn't have legal grounds and would create division within the international community, warning that it would be a source of chaos leading to terrorism.
Gourdault-Montagne said that, even before Prague, France was convinced that Washington was going to war at any cost. He recalled Bush's famous speech at the West Point military base, where he spoke of the "Axis of Evil," which included Iraq.
Washington believed at the time that the Middle East was necessary for global balance, and it was essential to impose a "new Middle East" as it envisioned. However, things did not go according to their vision.
He noted that the US might have successfully formed a coalition of 49 countries to intervene in Iraq. Still, major countries led by France, Russia, and China rejected their plans.
"We adhered to a clear position, which states that there is no legitimacy for military action in Iraq without a Security Council resolution."
Chirac believed that Saddam's acceptance of the inspection meant that he lost part of his authority, which would collapse due to the structure of his regime, meaning there was no need to rush into a military operation that lacked legitimacy.
Gourdault-Montagne also recalled the widespread rejection of the war and the worldwide demonstrations against it.
Asharq Al-Awsat asked the diplomat about his analysis of Bush and Chirac's meeting. He indicated that it was clear Bush was refusing dialogue, and the French delegation came out of the meeting convinced that the US was proceeding with its plan.
He noted that the US accused France of lying, adding that the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told him, "we know that you know" that Iraq possessed WMD, but "you want to cover up and protect the regime."
The US pressured France, seeking to legitimize the military intervention, said Gourdault-Montagne, adding that Paris resisted, which led to the differences between the two countries.
At the beginning of 2013, Chirac asked Gourdault-Montagne to travel to Washington to clarify the situation and inquire about the latest US position.
The French diplomat asked Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, about their demands to abandon the war.
"What are your conditions?" he said, and Rice replied firmly: "For Saddam to step down."
Paris then realized that Washington wanted a regime change, and the issue of weapons of mass destruction was just an excuse.
The US administration did not notify France of the launch date of the military operation, for which preparations were in full swing, according to Gourdault-Montagne.
At the beginning of March, Chirac held a press conference warning that the war was coming and that France did its best to prevent it but failed.
Regarding weapons of mass destruction, Asharq Al-Awsat asked if it was just an excuse or whether the US had evidence.
He asserted that France did not receive any information confirming Washington's claims. He indicated that US Secretary of State Colin Powell is a respectable man and was sincere in his speech at the Security Council, during which he gave false information about the war.
Gourdault-Montagne believed that Powell thought the information he received from the intelligence services was reliable and accurate. In 2008, Powell expressed disappointment and shame at what he said.
After 20 years, France was right in trying to prevent the war, and although it failed, it did not violate international laws, said the diplomat.
The war led to the emergence of new powers, the so-called "emerging" countries, and created imbalances in the existing alliances, as NATO member states, such as France and Germany, refused to support the US.
Asked about the US mistakes after occupying Iraq, including the disbanding of the Iraqi army at the hands of the US envoy and Iraq's ruler, Paul Bremer, the French diplomat noted that Saddam's regime was a dictatorship that ruled Iraq with an iron fist.
The decision of Bremer, who lacked experience, had consequences after soldiers took up arms in their communities, according to Gourdault-Montagne, who said that weapons with complex problems could lead to civil wars.
Addressing current events, Gourdault-Montagne believes the next two years will be challenging amid the US-Chinese competition. He referred to the presidential elections in Taiwan at the beginning of 2024 and the US elections in November 2024.
He also indicated that Washington would seek to drag the Europeans and NATO into a confrontation with China, and Beijing would seek to mobilize its trade and economic partners.
Last June, the final statement of the NATO summit warned that China poses a "systemic challenge to the Euro-Atlantic region," and Gourdault-Montagne cautioned that it could drag the Alliance into a US-Chinese competition, despite the opposition of some European countries, including France and Germany.
The visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing and that of the French President next month are essential because they present views different than that of the US, said Gourdault-Montagne.
He concluded that the US plan was based on framing global security around NATO.