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War in Iraq:
Germany & France

With Robert McCartney
Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, April 9, 2003; 10 a.m. ET

How do the French and Germans perceive the U.S.-led war in Iraq? What is the mood of the average citizen of France and Germany? How are the two governments advancing their view that the United Nations should play a significant role in rebuilding Iraq once the current government is swept away?

Washington Post foreign correspondent Robert McCartney was online to discuss the reaction in Germany and France to the war in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Robert McCartney: Hi, this is Robert McCartney of The Washington Post. I'm a correspondent based in Paris, but I'm currently in Landstuhl in southwestern Germany where I covered a news conference yesterday with the family of rescued POW Pfc. Jessica Lynch. I've been traveling back and forth between Germany and France a fair amount recently, looking at reaction to the war in Iraq. As you know, both countries were leaders of diplomatic efforts to prevent the war. As in much of Europe, their populations are overwhelmingly against the conflict. I'll be replying to questions about sentiments in continental Europe regarding the war.

Rockville, Md.: As an American who supports our action in Iraq and who has been saddened the deaths of our troops over there, I have been getting angrier and angrier by the French and German yammering to get involved in the reconstruction of Iraq.

They disingenuously state that the UN has to have a big role when they are using that as a cover to get their companies a piece of the pie.

The French companies, especially, have benefited greatly from Saddam Hussein's regime and had assisted in his efforts to get nuclear capability (thankfully eliminated in the early 90's by the Israelis).

Please explain how the French and Germans can vigorously oppose our efforts to free Iraq and then, now that we've almost won, are trying to convince the US they deserve a role. How galling. Why should the U.S. accede?


Robert McCartney: There's no question that the French and Germans don't want their companies to be cut out of a share of business deals and contracts in reconstructing postwar Iraq. There's money to be made, and they want a share of it. Also, they are trying to get support for business deals for themselves by suggesting that the United States will look pretty crass and self-interested if it keeps all the deals to itself afterward. That would strengthen the image that many Europeans have that the U.S. and Britain waged the war for their own private interests, rather than to liberate the Iraqi people.

I think it's important to keep in mind that the French and Germans (and Russians and other countries) have another motivation for wanting countries other than the U.S. and Britain to be able to do business in Iraq. These countries are arguing that only the United Nations has international legitimacy to decide what kind of government Iraq should have after the war. This is basically a kind of continuation of the debate before the war. If the UN has the top position, then presumably the business deals would be shared more widely than if it's just the U.S. and British.

Tempe, Ariz.: France and Germany seem so entranced with their own apparent virtue, that they entirely disregard U.S. opinion about themselves, while insisting that their opinion of the United States should matter to Americans. Do they comprehend the depth of dislike for them in this country, or do they think it is just a storm in a teacup? Or have they decided that it is worth being disliked in the United States in exchange for gaining favor with certain other governments?

Robert McCartney: France and Germany are acutely aware of the explosion of dislike for them in the United States. The French newspapers have done front-page stories about what they call "Francophobia" in the United States. The renaming of French fries as "freedom fries," and the move in the U.S. House of Representatives to block France, Germany, Russia and Syria from benefiting from U.S.-funded postwar contracts in Iraq attracted much attention. The Germans are secretly happy that most of the anger in the U.S. is focused on the French, rather than themselves. So they're well aware of U.S. feeling on this.

It is too early to know the answer to your second question, which is an extremely important one. The Germans, especially, but also the French, do not like seeing relations with the United States in such bad shape. The governments are hoping that the dispute over Iraq can be isolated, and prevented from affecting relations in other fields. I think that is wishful thinking, but it's not clear how much damage will be done in the long term. The result will depend partly on whether the French and Germans ultimately go along with however the U.S. and Britain organize postwar Iraq. If Paris and Berlin choose to continue to fight over this issue, then the breach will be prolonged and widened. We will know more about that this weekend, when French President Chirac, German Chancellor Schroeder and Russian President Putin meet in St. Petersburg to discuss just this issue.

Essen, Germany: I know, that even U.S.-citizens are very discordant about the war in Iraq. On the other hand, people abroad opposed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq are seen too often as "anti-American."

I disagree, and would like to say, that I was very impressed by a speech of Senator Robert C. Byrd, who said:

"But, today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many. We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe which might be suspect in the war on terrorism. We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place. "

I agree with Senator Robert C. Byrd.

He and many other people in the United States prevent me from becoming anti-American, and there is hope, that America becomes a nice place again.

Good luck.

Robert McCartney: I think this reader makes a good point, which is often not fully realized in the U.S. The large majority of French, Germans and other European opponents of the war say they are not anti-American. They are against U.S. policy in the war, certainly. And, it has to be said, they are pretty strongly against the Bush administration. They see the administration as having led the U.S. to more unilateral positions in international affairs. The war in Iraq is the main example, but others are the U.S. position on the Kyoto treaty on global warming and on the International Criminal Court.
This doesn't mean that anti-Americanism doesn't play a part in this, and certainly anti-Americanism has been increasing. However, most Europeans still view Americans as friends and allies, and hope this dispute over Iraq will go away eventually.
Two more points: the Europeans, for their part, don't seem to have fully understood the impact of Sept. 11 on the United States. The Europeans don't seem to get it, that American attitudes have been transformed by this event, and the U.S. is much more willing than in the past to act on its own in fighting Islamic terrorism and the risk posed by rogue regimes possessing weapons of mass destruction.
Also, as the tone of some of these questions suggest, this issue seems to encourage both sides to feel particularly self-righteous and aggrieved by the other. There's a dysfunctional relationship, and unhealthy codependence, growing between the U.S. and Europe in which each side blames the other for the troubles and feels it's the virtuous one.

Arlington, Va.: Is there any support for this war within France or Germany? If so, what are the demographics of the supporters. Thank you.

Robert McCartney: There is some support for the war within France and Germany, but opinion polls suggest it's only around a fifth of the population. I haven't seen anything authoritative on the demographics, but I can talk about it a bit. In France, there's a pro-Atlanticist wing of Chirac's right-leaning majority party. It has supported Chirac's position, but has warned increasingly about the risks of failing to patch things up with Washington. Interestingly, though, even right-leaning newspapers in France like Le Figaro have been against the war. That's partly out of support for the president they support, Chirac. It also goes back to the independent foreign policy stance taken by France under Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s. He pulled France out of NATO's military wing, and warned the U.S. against involvement in Vietnam. He enjoyed tweaking the Americans, and reveled in trying to establish France as an independent voice within the Western alliance. Chirac is a political heir of De Gaulle's, and that strain is evident in this whole debate. It's a different story in Germany. There, the government is left-leaning, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. So it's not surprising, on purely ideological grounds, that Schroeder would be against the U.S. However, it IS surprising that ANY German chancellor, Socialist or otherwise, would break so starkly with America on a major foreign policy position. No chancellor has done that, in the postwar period. This has been possible only because Germany feels less vulnerable since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and less dependent on U.S. military support for its own defense. On the opposition side in German politics, the right-leaning Christian Democrats have opposed Schroeder's policy -- but only somewhat. They were not for the war, which would risk hurting them with public opinion. But they suggested they would have supported the U.N. resolution that France and Russia opposed, before the war. Even within the conservative opposition, though, there is antiwar sentiment. The governor of Bavaria, Mr. Stoiber, was the conservative candidate for chancellor last September. He has made noises suggesting he's more against the war than the overall conservative leader, Ms. Merkel. Why is he breaking with the party on this? Because local elections are coming up soon in Bavaria, and he wants to be against the war for risk that a pro-war position would hurt him in that balloting.

Arlington, Va.: The current scenes of liberation must be very difficult for those in the America-bashing business.

How is the European press dealing with the current scenes of liberation and jubilation we currently see throughout Iraq?

How do Europeans think their role in perpetuating the reign of Saddam will be perceived by the newly liberated populace of Iraq?

Robert McCartney: I'm very interested, too, in how the Europeans react to the scenes of liberation. I haven't seen much reaction so far. There was a column in a Berlin newspaper(the Berliner Zeitung) yesterday under the headline, "Bush was right." The Paris and Berlin governments have positioned themselves for just this possibility, by saying in the past two weeks that they favored a U.S.-British victory, and hoped for the demise of Saddam Hussein's government. Still, though, it's pretty clear that they will have some explaining to do if the war ends quickly -- as appears to be happening -- and if it's clear that the Iraqi people welcome the change.

I suspect that the reaction here will be something like the following: We always knew the U.S. would win, and we're as glad as anybody to see Saddam go, but that doesn't make the war legitimate under international law. Inspections should have been given more time to deal with the problem of weapons of mass destruction peacefully, and, anyway, why haven't the American and British yet found any of these weapons of mass destruction? While many Iraqis are jubilant, we (the Europeans) think there's still a lot of hostility there to the U.S. and Britain. There's major concern in Europe that the occupation of Iraq will be tense and violent, like the situations in Northern Ireland, the West Bank and Gaza, and Chechnya. There's also huge worry -- and this is a big factor in European opposition to the war -- that the Arab and Muslim world has been angered and that the result will be more terrorism. That's how I think the Europeans will react to the scenes coming out of Baghdad today.

I don't think the Europeans have thought much about how their role will be seen by the newly liberated populace of Iraq. I do think that France and, to a lesser extent, Germany, hope that their antiwar position will help their relations with other Arab countries, particularly in North

Chicago, Ill.: You may have been hinting at this in your response to the question, but I wish there was some way to get the writer from Essen to understand how appallingly arrogant and self-righteous he or she came across, in wishing us luck in becoming a "nice country" again. I'm a Democrat, I think W's done virtually nothing beneficial for this country, but that certainly doesn't mean that I judge my virtue, or that of my country, by whether the Europeans agree with me. From my perspective, it really doesn't seem to occur to many Europeans that it's possible for Americans to disagree with them while still remaining good people. Is it your perception that Europeans have as much of an "our way or the highway" mentality as we Americans are accused of having? Thanks.

Robert McCartney: As I said earlier, I think the relationship has become dysfunctional. Both sides feel self-righteous themselves, and blame the other party for being excessively self-righteous. There's a difference in the European position, though. They see themselves, correctly, as the junior partner in the Atlantic alliance. They are much weaker militarily than America, and their economies are not as strong. They want Europe to act as a counterweight to America in a "multipolar" world. So it's not so much "my way or the highway," it's "please take my way into account, because we don't want America by itself to dominate the highway."

On France and Germany: Germany as a pacifist nation doesn't particularly bother me.

But the rampant hypocrisy of the French government (as separate from the French people) is astounding. It's all a matter of principle, not the contract they had with Saddam Hussein for 25 percent of the Iraqi oil reserves (a contract with Total-Fina negotiated in part by Chirac). It's "the UN must sanction all military action", while intervening in Sierra Leone.

The UN did sanction the war. Resolution 678 is an open ended blank cheque to enforce "all future relevant" resolutions by "all necessary means." The only ally we needed to have UN sanction was the Government of Kuwait, and we have it. France may not like it, but this is one of only three wars in the UN period formally authorized by the Security Council.

Robert McCartney: I think you're absolutely right that the French are hypocritical when they insist that UN must sanction military action in Iraq, while they send troops regularly to Africa to assert their interests in former colonies.

I don't agree that the oil contract with TotalFinaElf played such a big role in this. First of all, it was never signed -- because the French government didn't want to violate UN sanctions at the time. Also, and more importantly, France's economic relations with the United States are vastly more important to it than its economic relations with Iraq. Iraq is something like France's 60th trading partner. The United States is #2, after the rest of the European Union. If France were acting solely in its economic self-interest, it wouldn't have risked its business interests with the U.S. over Iraq.

The French, Germans and Russians (and a lot of other countries) don't agree that Resolution 678 justified this war. However, they have danced around the question about whether it is technically illegal under international law. They say that'll be for lawyers to decide later. Chirac has said it was divorced from international "legality," but the term they prefer to use is "illegitimate."

Somerville, Mass.: Thanks for doing this. What sort of passive support are both countries providing now (air bases, etc.)?

Robert McCartney: France is allowing U.S. and British military planes to fly over French territory in support of the war effort. It acts like this is no big deal, and is something any country would do for its allies. This is baloney, because in the 1980s France's Socialist President Francois Mitterrand barred Ronald Reagan from sending U.S. planes over French territory from bases in Britain to attack Libya to punish it for supporting terrorism. I believe the U.S. planes had to go all the way around Spain, and through the strait of Gibraltar, in order to reach Libya.
France also has sent a chemical and biological weapons cleanup crew to Qatar. That crew will be available to help U.S. and British forces if Iraq uses chemical or biological weapons.
Germany also is allowing overflight rights, and is doing a lot more as well. First, it's allowing U.S. military bases in Germany to be used for supply flights and other support of the war effort. That has attracted criticism for the government from the most vocal antiwar activists in Germany. Germany also has lent security personnel to help guard U.S. military bases, so the U.S. can deploy more staff to the Gulf. Germans make up about a third of the crews of NATO AWACS planes guarding Turkey. Germany also sent some Patriot missiles to help guard Turkey, but I believe it insisted that somebody else provide the crews. I think the Dutch ended up doing that.

Washington, D.C.: How much do you think the experience of two horrific world wars, fought on European ground, plays into the anti-war attitudes of the Europeans? Isn't that something that we here, in America, just "don't get" (as you said the Europeans "don't get" 9-11 for us...)

Robert McCartney: There's no question that the experience on European soil of the destruction and death of two world wars contributes a lot to antiwar sentiment. This is particularly true in Germany. There's been a lot of attention there recently to remembering how much Germans suffered in the allied air raids in the latter part of WWII. Also, as a German politician mentioned to me recently, one of the big emphases in education in Germany after the war was on teaching the risks of militarism. The U.S. encouraged this after WWII, and with good reason, given Hitler's responsibility for WWII.

Washington, D.C.: I was amazed that the French stuck to their veto threat past the time when it became clear that neither Saddam nor Bush would blink. What, if anything, do they think they won by their actions in the U.N.? And do they still think it outweighs the damage done to international institutions and trans-Atlantic relations?

Robert McCartney: This is one of the biggest questions to emerge from this whole debate. I think the French feel they accomplished a number of things. They put the United States on notice that they will not automatically go along with it acting as the world's policeman. This helps the French create the European 'counterweight' to the U.S. and the 'multipolar' world that they so desire.
They also rekindled good relations with Germany, and hope that they can reinvigorate the Franco-German axis that they would like to see as the dominant power bloc within the European Union.
They appeased their Muslim population, the biggest in Europe (not counting Turkey, of course). There are between 4 million and 5 million Muslims in France, out of a population of 61 million. That's more than in Germany, even with all its Turks. And most of the French Muslims are Arabs, from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and identify with Arab Iraq. (Turkey is Muslim but not Arab.)
The French also sent a message to the Arab and Islamic world, and to some extent to the Third World as a whole, that Paris should be viewed as a friend more than the U.S.
They satisfied a streak of French vaingloriousness (a tendency to which other nations are not immune).
The huge, overriding question is whether all of this outweighs the damage done to international institutions and trans-Atlantic relations. The French would say, of course, that it was U.S. unilateralism that caused the damage. But regardless of who's to blame, how severe will the damage be? This could be a watershed in trans-Atlantic relations, leading to a permanent cooling of ties between the U.S. and continental Europe. There are a lot of countervailing forces, though. For one thing, the absorption into the EU of eastern European countries will bolster pro-U.S. sentiment within the EU. The eastern European countries are deeply pro-U.S. because of American support for their freedom from Soviet dominance. Also, even on the continent, a number of European governments -- Italy and Spain, especially -- are supporting the war over the opposition of public opinion. And of course Britain is in the EU, is a major power in Europe, and is America's ally in the war.
I think an important factor to watch is whether the most hawkish wing in the Bush administration will lead the U.S. to wage more preemptive wars of this sort. A huge fear in Europe is that Iraq is only the beginning. If the U.S. goes on to use force to try to topple governments in Iran or Syria, for instance, I think it will be impossible to repair the trans-Atlantic rupture.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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