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Why is Australia's anti-war movement taking Chirac's word over Bush's?

By Keir Semmens - posted Monday, 24 February 2003

Scipio once remarked, "Politics makes for strange bedfellows". The current debate about Iraq proves no exception.

Recent opinion polls suggest that two thirds of Australians will support a war to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime if sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. However, fewer than one in ten Australians favour an attack if the Council resists a new resolution authorising force.

Clearly most Australians prefer a multilateral solution to the present crisis, rejecting President Bush's declaration that he will lead a "coalition of the willing" should the Security Council baulk. But would failure to secure another resolution truly reflect the will of the global community of nations?


Not at all. As it happens, the multilateral consensus that Australians crave relies, in this instance, on the whims of one man: Jacques Chirac.

To grasp the nuances, one must delve into the idiosyncrasies of UN decision making. After all, this is the same institution that recently selected Libya to lead its Commission on Human Rights and, incredibly, will anoint Iraq as chairman of the United Nations Commission on Disarmament in May.

In the first place, it is far more onerous to secure a resolution than to block one. For a resolution to be adopted, not only must nine of the 15 council members lend support, but also it must pass without opposition from any of the five permanent members - China, Russia, France, Great Britain or the United States.

What are the implications for another resolution on Iraq? Most diplomats concur that at least nine council members will authorise force to finally disarm Saddam Hussein's regime. Germany will almost certainly vote against, for reasons that have more to do with domestic political squabbles than internationalist moral conviction. But as Germany is not a permanent member, it cannot rebuff the motion on its own. Since both the United States and Great Britain have indicated they will vote in favour, only China, Russia and France may veto.

Although China has urged that inspectors be allowed more time to track Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their strategic interest betrays no allegiance to Saddam Hussein. Instead, the Chinese government has gone to considerable lengths in recent years to improve relations with the United States. President Jiang Zemin regards improved relations with the US as a critical legacy of his leadership, guaranteeing there is no chance that China will oppose a new resolution.

Russia has much closer links to Iraq, and remains concerned about both the strategic and commercial implications of regime change. Not least, the Russian government worries whether a successor Iraqi administration will honour the eight billion US dollars of debt incurred by Saddam in purchasing Russian weapons and developing oil fields. Although Russia strenuously opposes another war against Iraq, when the vote is taken Russia will abstain. As with Jiang, President Putin has invested too much time and credibility in cementing ties with the United States to squander all his gains over Iraq. Recognising that Bush means business, Putin will cut his losses so that Russia remains relevant in a post-Saddam Iraq.


Which leaves France the lone hold-out. But who decides for France? The choice, of course, will be made by President Jacques Chirac. This is the same Jacques Chirac whose first decisive foray into foreign policy upon entering the Elysée Palace in 1995 was to detonate unilaterally six atomic weapons in the South Pacific, igniting a firestorm of protest across Australia and around the world. The same Chirac whose most recent international endeavour was to invite Zimbabwe's tyrant Robert Mugabe to Paris for talks, demonstrating further unilateralism and defying howls of outrage throughout Europe.

How will Chirac interpret France's interest? To judge from his record, the indications are not encouraging. Over the past 30 years Chirac's relationship with Saddam, whom he has described as "a personal friend", has proven remarkably resilient. While Prime Minister of France in 1975, he inked a deal with Saddam Hussein to build the Osirak nuclear reactor, later dubbed "O'Chirac," completely disregarding the threat that it would enable Iraq to produce an atomic bomb. Israel destroyed the facility with an air strike in 1981.

Since 1997 Chirac's government has campaigned for all UN sanctions on Saddam's regime to be lifted, despite continued Iraqi defiance of UN resolutions to disarm. The money tells the story: French petroleum companies hold contracts worth $60 billion with Saddam's regime to tap Iraq's oil reserves. These deals remain on ice until sanctions conclude. Regime change, on the other hand, might see the contracts cancelled altogether.

For Chirac, this confrontation has never been about good global citizenship. As with all other participants, he has calibrated his response in terms of his country's national interest as he perceives it. But unlike George Bush or Tony Blair, who maintain that Saddam's weapons constitute a threat both to international security and United Nations' credibility, Chirac's calculus is more prosaic. He perpetuates France's strategy of currying favour as the most solidly credentialled friend of the Middle East in Europe, gambling that his stance will yield oil and weapons deals from many governments in the region. Far from being an anti-war humanist, Chirac is the world's leading unilateralist, navigating foreign affairs with ruthless guile.

Can it be possible that Australians would delegate their collective conviction so readily to this Frenchman? If Jacques Chirac proclaims "Oui", we will be with him? To judge by the debate so far, this is the majority view, shared too by many of our elected representatives. The logic is inescapable. Australians' desire for multilateralism lies in the hands of the globe's pre-eminent unilateralist.

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About the Author

Keir Semmens is an investment banker and longstanding member of the Australian Labor Party.

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