Opinion | Columnists

Sarkozy 'corrects' Chirac's errors

By improving relations with the US and clearly indicating which side France is on in the 'war on terror', the French president has already repaired part of the damage done by his predecessor.

  • By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:13 August 22, 2007
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

One of the key promises that Nicolas Sarkozy had made during his presidential election campaign last spring was to "correct" foreign policy "mistakes" made by his predecessor Jacques Chirac.

Chief among these was Chirac's desperate efforts to prevent the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussain's regime of terror.
Chirac failed to save his friend's regime but managed to do serious damage to relations with the US, Great Britain and more than 40 other nations that joined the coalition of the willing to liberate Iraq in 2003.

Sarkozy's moves to correct the mistake started even before his election when he met President George W. Bush at the White House in 2006 and described Chirac's policy as "arrogant".

The surprise visit paid to Iraq by France's new Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner this week is another move by Sarkozy to shed Chirac's disastrous legacy.

No better man than Kouchner could have been chosen to signal France's change of policy. For Kouchner is one of a handful of people in the West who recognised the murderous nature of Saddam's regime and called for its overthrow as early as the 1980s.

In fact, Kouchner, a medical doctor by training, made his public career by helping the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled from Saddam's tyranny.

For years, Medecins Sans Frontiers, known in English as "The French Doctors", the organisation that Kouchner and his friends founded, was one of the few Western charities that publicised the sufferings of the Iraqi people.

As a result, when he arrived in Baghdad the other day, Kouchner was among friends. He also had an opportunity to lay a wreath at a monument to one of his oldest friends Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations' first emissary to Iraq who was murdered by Al Qaida terrorists almost exactly four years ago.

Kouchner's visit, full of symbolism, shatters one of the key points in Al Qaida's analysis: that the Western powers will never find enough unity to develop a common strategy against terror.

At one point, when Chirac invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin to a gathering to forge an anti-American triple alliance, Al Qaida's analysis appeared to have some basis in reality.

Now, however, both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy understand the stark fact that the perception of Western disunity may be one of the factors that prolongs the conflict in Iraq.

As long as Al Qaida and the Ba'athist bitter-enders believe that Western divisions might destroy the US-led coalition in Iraq they will have a clear incentive to continue the fight.

Once they lose that incentive they might well decide that, with Iraq unlikely to fall to them, they had better look for alternative strategies in their global jihad.

Beyond its obvious symbolic and psychological value, France's change of position on Iraq could also have a number of practical positive effects.

Free of constant French diplomatic sniping, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) could fully honour its commitment to help train the new Iraqi army and police force.

So far, the alliance has trained no more than one tenth of the quota allocated to it. (In fact, Hungary seems to be the only Nato member to have done its share.)

The European Union could review its policy towards new Iraq in a positive way, starting by inviting the new Iraqi leaders and treating them as the legitimate elected representatives of their people. With French opposition no longer a factor, the EU could open an office in Baghdad and appoint a special emissary.

The new French policy on Iraq could also inspire a change of attitude in Moscow. With Schroeder and Chirac gone, Putin may find it harder to pursue an Iraq policy based on nostalgia for Saddam and petty enmity towards the US.

New diplomatic trend

France's return to Iraq strengthens the new diplomatic trend in favour of a positive attitude towards the new Iraqi regime. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are among several Arab countries that have decided to reopen their embassies in Baghdad and extend official invitations to the new Iraqi leadership.

The dramatic change symbolised by Kouchner's visit to Iraq may have yet another positive effect. It sends a strong signal to the Islamic Republic in Tehran that it can no longer count on Western divisions to enable it to ignore the UN Security Council's resolutions. At the same time, the mullahs may re-think their current strategy of "bleeding the coalition" in Iraq.

The French change of attitude in Iraq destroys one of the key arguments of all those in the US who opposed the liberation of Iraq. The argument is that by toppling Saddam, the US alienated some of its key allies, notably France.

John Kerry, the Democrat presidential nominee in 2004, used the argument as a key campaign theme, echoing the views of other leading figures of the American left such as Michael Moore, Jane Fonda and Noam Chomsky, not to mention the financier George Soros.

Finally, French cooperation will also allow the US-led coalition to envisage an expanded role for the UN in Iraq. In time a new policy can be developed under which the UN will assume the task of protecting Iraq against its internal and external enemies over the period of two to three years needed for new Iraq to defend itself.

And that, in turn, would enable the US to withdraw the bulk of its troops before the next Iraqi general election in 2009. Sarkozy has made it clear that he wants France on the side of the US and other major democracies in the global war against terrorism.

No one expects France to send troops to Iraq; nor is that necessary. But by clearly indicating which side France is on, Sarkozy has already repaired part of the damage done by Chirac and his entourage.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

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