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
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
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.