Reading the papers from both sides of the Atlantic, I sometimes wonder whether the impending war is not between France and the United States. I would like to strongly reaffirm what, in the heart of the French people, is a longstanding reality: the friendship between France and America began in the early days of your fight for independence and has endured throughout the centuries.
America rescued my country twice in the last century–something we will never forget. Today we stand side by side in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan. France is the largest contributor of troops to NATO operations. Our friendship is a treasure, and it must be maintained, protected, enhanced.
However, the polls are clear: 78 percent of French people oppose a military intervention in Iraq. Polls are similar in most other countries, including in Eastern Europe. European governments may be divided over the use of force in Iraq, but public opinion is united.
There are, in my view, three reasons the mood is so cautious. The first relates to our assessment of what is far and away the biggest threat to world peace and stability: Al Qaeda.
French intelligence is clear that not since the Algerian war 40 years ago has my country been under such an immediate threat. Last May, 11 French citizens were killed in a suicide bombing in Karachi, Pakistan. In the fall a French tanker was attacked by Al Qaeda off Yemen. And in December, near Paris, we arrested several suspects who were suspected of close links to Al Qaeda and of planning terrorist attacks in France.
Terrorist suspects have also been arrested elsewhere in Europe–in Britain, Spain and Italy–belonging to groups connected with networks active in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Algeria and Bosnia. Yet we haven’t seen any evidence of a direct link between the Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda.
A second reason for the reluctance of the French people is that Iraq is not viewed as an immediate threat. Thanks to the determination of President Bush and the international community–and to the inspections that destroyed more armaments between 1991 and 1998 than did the Persian Gulf war itself, and which have now been reinforced with stronger means and bigger teams–Saddam Hussein is in a box. And the box has been closed with the inspectors in it.
Europeans consider North Korea a greater threat. Imagine what a sense of security we all would feel if, as in Iraq, 100 inspectors were proceeding with unimpeded inspections throughout North Korea, including the president’s palaces.
A third reason for the cautious mood relates to the consequences of a war in Iraq. We see Iraq as a very complex country, with many different ethnic groups, a tradition of violence and no experience of democracy. You can’t create democracy with bombs–in Iraq, it would require time, a strong presence and a strong committment.
We also worry about the region–considering that no peace process is at work for the moment in the Middle East, that none of the great powers seem able to foster one, and that a war in Iraq could result in more frustration and bitterness in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
People in France and more broadly in Europe fear that a military intervention could fuel extremism and encourage Qaeda recruitment. A war could weaken the indispensable international coalition against terrorism and worsen the threat of Islamic terrorism.
The inspections should be pursued and strengthened, and Saddam Hussein must be made to cooperate actively. War must remain the very last option.
Jean-David Levitte is French ambassador to the United States.