President Jacques Chirac is not keen to take up my invitation to discuss what I call l'apres-Saddam in Iraq. He shifts in his chair and, in a manner that is reflective and even grave, stresses that U.N. inspectors must be given "the time and means to do their job" and avert an American-led attack on Iraq. Chirac urges me to focus instead on the enormous risks that he says a war now would create for all Western nations.
"In the current state of things, time is not an essential element. Not when the alternative is war. War for me is always the worst of solutions. It brings misery, death and injury. War creates upheavals that are difficult to manage both in the region affected and internationally. War has to be a last resort."
Psychologically, the time gap between Washington and Paris is much greater than six hours at this moment. Cross the Atlantic eastward and you leave behind a zone in which time is palpably racing toward war-or-peace decisions on Iraq. In a recent White House meeting on Iraq, President Bush seemed to one observer to be relentlessly moving down a rapidly shortening checklist of steps leading to invasion.
In Europe you enter a grayer, slower world more tolerant of letting the status quo linger in Iraq and elsewhere. Instead of the White House's best-case scenarios in which democracy in Iraq serves as a demonstration project for the Arab world, you hear only worst-case scenarios: Iraq coming apart, Iran taking over or bungled American war-making inspiring new and unending jihads against the West.
The White House, it seems to me, is rapidly moving into l'apres-Saddam -- thinking through how to topple the dictator and the benefits that will come from that action. The Elysee Palace holds back from such creativity. When I asked Chirac if the current status quo was acceptable to him, he responded:
"I will not answer that question until we have the conclusions of the inspectors. . . . What is essential is that the disarmament of Iraq that was voted unanimously by the Security Council of the United Nations be effective."
And yet there is enough common ground between the determinedly optimistic Bush and the questioning-to-skeptical Chirac to suggest that they can avoid a French-American clash over Iraq. The two leaders worry about many of the same problems, such as minimizing Iraqi civilian casualties and the backlash an American invasion could cause. And Chirac sounded stern when he used our conversation to warn Iraq that interfering with U.N. inspections this time could be fatal:
"Of course, there are limits. If the behavior of the Iraqis toward the strategy of inspections and the inspectors becomes obviously unacceptable, the Security Council will have to discuss that and meet its responsibilities," which could include a resolution authorizing military force.
Chirac took pains to avoid presenting his doubts in an obstructionist spirit or as criticisms of Bush. Reelected in the spring to a new five-year term, he has assembled a foreign policy team that knows and understands the United States better than any I can remember. But even that team seems to underestimate Bush's natural impatience with complicated maneuvering -- and this president's determination to cut through it.
The accelerating and deliberately menacing U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf has made time itself a bargaining chip. Chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix swings frenetically from trying to slow the United States down with one set of interviews to warning the Iraqis to speed up in the next set. This tactical use of time as a lever could easily backfire with Bush and precipitate the very actions that Blix, Kofi Annan, Chirac and others want to put off.
But Chirac's broad concerns should be taken into account in an American war strategy that must center on keeping Iraqi suffering and destruction to an absolute minimum as it unfolds before a watching world.
"In the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, rightly or wrongly, the difference in behavior of the West toward Israel and toward Iraq is totally incomprehensible. That contrast is creating an anti-Westernism that includes but goes well beyond the Arab and Muslim world and which is much more serious than is generally recognized," Chirac said, adding:
"It is totally incoherent to fight against terrorism and, at the same time, think serenely about a war that will raise new storms of anti-Western sentiment in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. This is a ticking time bomb that will explode."
On this at least Bush and Chirac agree: The stakes in this conflict are enormous. But they differ on whether time is an ally or an enemy in the global search for security and peace.