Words vs. Weapons: Dominique de Villepin’s Address Against The Iraq Invasion

5 mins read

By Quentin Machado

“War is always the sanction of failure.” As the Middle East threatens once again to turn into a blazing fire, one may be tempted to opt for escalation, a solution deemed mightier than diplomatic wandering. The warning is indeed seldom listened to: leaders often recognize its wisdom afterwards, yet the scheme seems to repeat unceasingly — and the 2003 Iraq War is a textbook case.

IN FEBRUARY 2003, the Foreign Minister of France Dominique de Villepin caused a major diplomatic crisis with the United States by denouncing, in a historical speech to the United Nations, the American decision of a ‘preventive war’ against Saddam Hussein’s regime. A decision which was based on the unproven hypothesis that Baghdad would secretly build weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The esteemed career diplomat Dominique de Villepin, who had become minister after having served as Secretary General of the Presidency under Jacques Chirac, was warmly applauded at the end of his speech. This constituted a highly uncommon fact for the austere UN sessions, proving himself a laudable figure for peace and pushing millions of people out in the streets to protest against the new, ineluctable wartime.

From Kuwait to Baghdad, the way to discordance

In August 1990, Hussein’s army invaded and annexed Kuwait, a small coastal country located in the southeast of Iraq. In doing so, they seized its oil production, summoning severe international condemnations. The UN Security Council was swift to mandate a military coalition of more than forty countries to restore Kuwait’s territorial integrity. The Operation Desert Storm, led by the US President George H. Bush, faced little opposition. In accordance with international law, only the Council would authorise a war coalition, whose mission came into effect after several previous ultimatums made to Hussein. France, at the time, was one of the main contributors to this UN-led international military force.

With the United States still shaken by the events of 9/11, and the entrance of the neoconservative George W. Bush (the son of George H. Bush), the geopolitical and ideological sphere on the international stage was about to change rapidly. Amidst the turmoil caused by the War on Terrorism, democracy had to be spread in the Middle East, and the ‘Axis of Evil’ (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) dismantled. While the invasion of Afghanistan was clearly motivated by the presence of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda camps, apart from replacing dictatorship with democracy, no clear link to 9/11 could justify a war against Iraq. In collusion with the UK Prime Minister Anthony Blair, the Bush Administration started to spread the rumour of Hussein’s secret WMD program, emphasising the urgent need of removing him from power to eradicate the threat.

There was one issue however: such a program never existed. From the beginning the CIA expressed severe doubts on the likelihood of such a program’s existence, and no proof was found. The not-so-intelligent MI6 built fraudulent evidence on non-existing sources, which Blair used to urge for war. In September 2002, the Security Council reinforced the inspection regime over Iraq to determine whether WMDs were developed.

In the meantime, as the former top-ranked diplomat Gérard Araud retells, the French diplomacy had guessed that no matter the inspectors’ reports, the American decision was already taken. Then, the goal was not to dissuade the United States from invading Iraq, but to bargain for a peaceful solution based on inspections and sanctions to avoid meaningless casualties. Chirac and de Villepin inspired the resistance, aligning in an unprecedented diplomatic coalition Paris and Berlin with Moscow and, to a lesser extent, Beijing.

De Villepin’s address, a singular act of resistance

On February the 14th of 2003 Dominique de Villepin started his address in front of the Security Council. The chief UN inspectors, the Swedish Hans Blix and the Egyptian Mohamed El Baradei, had offered positive feedback about the cooperation of Hussein’s regime with regard to the inspection: Iraq had agreed to aerial reconnaissance, investigations on scientists, and access to military information. Still, nothing could prove true any undergoing WMD program. Deconstructing all the critiques from the warmonger camp, the majority of the discourse relies on a didactical prowess built on rational, unattackable premises.

Pleading against a military invasion, de Villepin brought forth the progress that had already been made by both UN inspectors towards pacifist means of disarming Iraq, adding that “the use of force would be so fraught with risks for people” — an always-welcomed reminder that beyond liberal discourses on the virtues of democratic liberation, war first concerns civilians, human lives that will suffer from the assertion of violence to defend international interests.

De Villepin would soon depart from his technical arguments to appeal to the pathos of the public, embodying the role of a Foreign Minister, using humanistic arguments to spread France’s own pacifist stance. The power of the discourse also laid in many prophetic arguments that would come true years later, many of them ever-so-obvious in the bitter-tasting withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, cruelly proven by the chaos left behind the American intervention:

“The option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest. But let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace. (…) No one can assert today that the path of war will be shorter than that of the inspections. No one can claim either that it might lead to a safer, more just and more stable world. For war is always the sanction of failure.”

To the US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reiterated alleged intelligence links between Hussein and Al-Qaeda in front of the Council, dramatically shaking a bottle of anthrax — a biological weapon (erroneously) believed to be stockpiled by Iraq —, he recalled the impact that a military action would have in “exacerbat[ing] the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism”.

But what merited de Villepin the unusual applauses from the UN-audience were his conclusive words, highly eloquent in addressing the Anglo-American critique of an old-fashioned Europe embodied by Paris and Berlin:

“In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The onerous responsibility and immense honour we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament in peace. 

This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from an old continent like mine, Europe, that has known wars, occupation and barbarity. A country that does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom-fighters who came from America and elsewhere. And yet has never ceased to stand upright in the face of history and before mankind.”

The aftermath: demonstration, invasion and retaliation

The legacy of de Villepin’s address was immense and manifold, provoking an earthquake in both the diplomatic and the international opinion. The very next day more than ten million protestors, sharing de Villepin’s concerns, marched in the world’s streets to pressure their leaders into peace. The ‘preventive war’ resolution was rejected by most of the UN Council, dominated by the French coalition. Ignoring the vetoes made in the council, George W. Bush, followed by the UK and Spain, ordered an illegal invasion of Iraq with a disproportionate force of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Once Baghdad had fallen, the Operation Iraqi Freedom promptly faced great turmoil, as the removal of Saddam Hussein from power led to a precarious transitional authority created by the occupants. With the US army too busy with asserting American private companies’ control over the Iraqi oil capacities, they were unable to avoid launching Iraq into a bloody, long-lasting civil war.

De Villepin’s intervention revealed itself a Pyrrhic victory — that is to say, a victory that didn’t come without its own set of dire consequences. France became famous for its respect of the UN values, whether in the global opinion or among Arab diplomats; on the other hand, Paris had to pay dearly for crossing the United States. Washington orchestrated a systematic blockade of the French diplomatic nominations and invitations to the international organisations, and the mediatic treatment of France was merciless in shaping a deeply negative image of the European country. The retaliation had such an impact on French diplomacy that de Villepin’s move was arguably the last real discordance from Paris, as the French would later align with Washington. For better or for worse?

By: Quentin Machado

Cover: United Nations

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