Back in Uncle Sam’s Pocket


One of the best known fables by the 17th century French poet Jean de la Fontaine tells of a fly that buzzed around a horse pulling a heavy coach up a steep hill. When the horse made it to the top, the self-important fly gave himself, and his buzzing, credit for getting the coach to the top.

The new French foreign policy of Nicolas Sarkozy looks like that. Flies buzz around, looking for some event they can claim to influence.

Act One : Cécilia and the Bulgarian nurses

In July, Sarko found something exciting for his visibly bored wife, Cécilia, to do. In a surprise trip to Libya, the former fashion model was photographed with Moammar Gaddafi, who also knows how to dress. This was a photo opportunity with a humanitarian message. According to the script, the Mona Lisa-like Cécilia (whose distinctive style is to wear no obvious makeup, no broad smile) charmed the old desert fox into sparing the lives of six Bulgarian medical workers unjustly convicted of infecting children with HIV virus.

Indeed, the five women nurses and the Palestinian-born male doctor were not only saved from the firing squad, they were allowed to leave Libya and go home, free, to Bulgaria.

The happy ending was real. But the rôle of Cécilia?

In reality, the release of the Bulgarian nurses was a foregone conclusion. It had been negotiated behind the scenes by European Union and German diplomats. But “behind the scenes” is not the Sarko way of life. Stealing the scene is more to the point.

When I was in Libya last January, I asked people about the Bulgarian nurses. Everyone assured me the death penalty would never be carried out. But what surprised me was the widespread belief among lawyers and other professionals, none of them great admirers of Gaddafi, that the nurses were “not altogether innocent”. How could intelligent, seemingly reasonable people believe what seemed obviously preposterous?

The explanation I heard was certainly not convincing, but did tell me something about the real story, which differs from the Western media tale of the evil dictator cynically holding nurses for ransom in order to extort money from the West.

When the story began eight years ago, Gaddafi was high on the U.S. hit list. After having unsuccessfully tried to kill Gaddafi in a bombing raid, the United States accused his agents of blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. To force Gaddafi to turn over two accused agents for trial, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Libya that seriously impeded its development. Gaddafi gave in, and in January 2001, Libyan agent Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted and jailed for 27 years. Without admitting guilt, Gaddafi agreed to pay out over two billion dollars in compensation to families of Lockerbie victims.

Back in 1999, Islamic militants were leading a violent insurrection against Gaddafi in Benghazi, the capital of the eastern end of the vast north African country. Benghazi, close to Egypt, is historically less developed and more troubled than the western part of the country around Tripoli. The insurgents were widely assumed to have been incited by outside agents, as part of what is seen throughout the region as a Anglo-American-Israeli subversion strategy to subjugate the Arab nation by breaking it up into sectarian fragments.

In this tense situation, the sudden infection of over 400 children with HIV virus in Benghazi hospital was quickly seen as yet another Western-instigated destabilization plot. Suspicion fell on foreign health workers in the hospital where the children were infected. The five Bulgarians and a Palestinian doctor who had treated the unfortunate children were accused of having deliberately injected the virus. But what could be their motive? Money from Anglo-Americans was the charge. Why? To discredit the regime and to carry out experimentation.

This sounds crazy in the West. But not in Africa, where several rare but highly publicized cases have been uncovered of European doctors using African patients for harmful experimentation. Western experts say that the HIV virus was introduced into the Benghazi hospital by guest worker patients from sub-Saharan countries struck by the AIDS epidemic. Re-use of insufficiently sterilized syringes did the rest. But in Benghazi, foreign sabotage seemed more credible. Anguished parents of dying children were outraged, and the police were under pressure to find perpetrators.

So they interrogated the medical workers. The hapless Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor were cruelly tortured into making confessions. The conviction of the Bulgarians took the pressure off the Libyan authorities to account for the tragedy. The Gaddafi family foundation moved in to provide more comfortable incarceration for the unfortunate scapegoats.

But then the Libyan regime found itself under a counterpressure, as the affair of the Bulgarian nurses turned into an obstacle to reconciliation with the West. Since 2003, to escape from sanctions, Gaddafi not only paid billions of dollars to Lockerbie victims, but officially ended a program of “weapons of mass destruction” (which may never have existed), turned his attention away from the explosive Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa, and in general showed himself to be cooperative with the United States and its NATO allies.

Very discreetly, the conviction of the Libyan agent for the Lockerbie massacre has been unraveling. It may well be overturned in the near future.

Last June 28, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission decided to let the case of the convicted Libyan go before an Appeal Court of five Scottish judges. The appeal court will not be under the heavy pressure from media, Western governments and victims’ families that weighed on the Scottish judges who convicted Al Megrahi in a special court set up in the Netherlands specifically to confirm Libyan guilt.

Indeed, the mainstream media that for years trumpeted Gaddafi’s responsibility for Lockerbie have so far looked the other way as leading actors in the case have openly admitted that the whole thing was a frame-up. [During the trial, CounterPunch’s Andrew Cockburn scooped the world’s press by detailing the whole deception and frame-up in our newsletter, Editors.]

The Lockerbie charges were trumped up to put pressure on Libya, according to Michael Scharf, who as a legal expert helped the State Department devise both the accusations and the sanctions against Gaddafi. Scharf said the case was based on testimony by a “nut-job” liar furnished by the CIA, was “so full of holes it was like Swiss cheese” and should never have gone to trial.

Scharf, who helped set up both the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the Iraqi prosecution of Saddam Hussein, explained that the case against the Libyans had a “diplomatic rather than a purely legal goal”.

“Now Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction, it’s allowed inspectors in, the sanctions have been lifted, tourists from the US are flocking to see the Roman ruins outside of Tripoli and Gaddafi has become a leader in Africa rather than a pariah. And all of that is the result of this trial,” Scharf said, as quoted in the Scottish newspaper, The Sunday Herald. “Diplomatically, it has been a huge success story.”

Robert Black, professor of Scots law at Edinburgh University and the principal architect of the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands,jas frequently described the Lockerbie case as “a fraud”, and the conviction as “a disgrace for Scottish justice”. Lies were told, evidence was planted, and now the whole flimsy structure is tumbling down.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian nurses posed a new problem. For Western governments, the plight of the Bulgarian nurses was a human rights violation that could inflame public opinion against the newly restored relations and business deals with Libya–especially since the public impression of Lockerbie guilt will outlast any legal reversal of the case. For the Libyan government, the families of the HIV-infected children posed a domestic political problem that had to be treated delicately.

So a solution was worked out. In return for compensation comparable to that paid to families of the 270 Lockerbie victims, the Libyan families of the 438 HIV-infected children would agree to the sparing the lives of the convicted Bulgarians. The symmetry was not perfect: most of the compensation to the children’s families was actually paid by the Libyan government itself. Bulgaria paid $44 million in the form of debt forgiveness. The European Union agreed to donate nine and a half million euros to upgrade the children’s hospital in Benghazi.

Cécilia was, as the French say, the cherry on the cake.

In France, criticism of the Cécilia show has been largely beside the point. Left-wing critics, cartoonists and commentators blasted the Sarkozys for “dealing with dictators”, not for stealing the show. In fact, the deals were happening anyway, and Sarkozy does not deserve either blame or credit for the arms sales or the French firm Areva’s important energy infrastructure contracts in Libya, which preceded his presidency. The French media have totally ignored the collapse of the Lockerbie accusation, and continue to portray Gaddafi as a bloodthirsty master-mind of international terror. The anti-dictator stance makes it impossible to observe that the outcome, which lets the Bulgarians go home and improves health care for children in Benghazi, is a reasonably humane compromise–which owes nothing to Sarkozy and his wife.

Act Two: The Thief of Baghdad

Bernard Kouchner was feeling left out. He is foreign minister, remember? To steal back into the limelight, on August 19 Kouchner arrived for a surprise visit in Baghdad’s Green Zone and started uttering the off-the-wall declarations for which he is renowned.

But what could this chronic Americanophile say in such a desperate situation? The situation is terrible, “sinister”, he recognized, while hoping that things may be starting to improve. “This is an Iraqi problem which must be solved by Iraqis”, he said, which is true enough in a way–but not in the way he meant. For, without reversing France’s official disapproval of the U.S. invasion, the thrust of Kouchner’s remarks was to suggest that the current chaos in Iraq is the fault of the Iraqis themselves, and their “6,000 years of violence”. He blamed the United States, not for its violence against Iraqi people, for its illegal invasion and destruction of Iraq, but rather for not applying the Kouchnerian doctrine of humanitarian intervention properly. Sometimes, he told Newsweek, the “right to interfere” has been applied well, for instance in Kosovo–alluding to his own stint as United Nations administrator of the occupied protectorate, which left the province a seething cauldron of ethnic hatred run by gangsters. But “in Iraq it was applied horribly”.

So what could Kouchner do for his American friends? Replacing U.S. soldiers with French soldiers was out of the question, although “the role of the international community should be developed”. What could Kouchner say that would make him sound like an influential insider?

Calls to dump Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki are growing in Washington. Here was a coach to help up the hill. Interviewed by Newsweek, the fly began to buzz: “I just had Condoleezza on the phone 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I told her, ‘Listen, he’s got to be replaced’.” Kouchner had a replacement in mind: Adel Abdul Mahdi, “not only because he studied in France. He’s solid. Of the people who are available, he’s widely seen as the one that ought to have the job.”

This undiplomatic statement aroused predictable protests. Kouchner was obliged to apologize to the Iraqi prime minister. But never mind, he was in the news. More important than his blundering words, the U.S. media interpreted his mere presence in Iraq as a sign that the French black sheep was back in the Uncle Sam’s fold.

First in the United States, with Reagan, and now in France, a population raised to identify action with appearing on television has elected leaders who share the same illusion. If it’s on television, it happened. Otherwise Serious reflection is not telegenic. In fact, you can’t see it at all. So what’s the point? Sarko’s Americanized Finance Minister Christine Lagarde summed up the new doctrine: France has been a country known for thinking. Enough of that, it’s time to stop thinking and get to work.

Kouchner is an extreme case. He seems oblivious to the fact that he is neither thinking nor really getting anything done. Words pop out like bubbles, burst and are followed by more words. Traditional diplomacy meant keeping options open by saying as little as possible. Kouchner’s way is to say as much as possible in order to make the TV news. Contradictions are the spice of life. As for facts, never mind, they’ll take care of themselves.

What is the use of Kouchner as foreign minister? So far, the main answer could be that he makes Sarkozy look serious in comparison.

Act Three: Let Them Bomb Iran

Back in Paris from his U.S. vacation and Kennebunkport lunch with the Bush clan, Sarkozy summoned French diplomats to lay down the new foreign policy line. The media focused on his statement that “a nuclear-armed Iran is for me unacceptable”. He called for tightening sanctions, as well as an “opening if Iran chooses to respect its obligations”, as the only way to avoid having to make a “catastrophic” choice between “the Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran”.

France was not threatening to drop bombs itself, but was indirectly accepting a future U.S. or Israeli bombing of Iran as legitimate, in contrast to Chirac’s refusal to endorse war against Iraq.

More fundamentally, Sarkozy’s policy speech subscribed to the U.S.-Israeli ideology of a “clash of civilizations” brought about solely by unprovoked radical Muslim aggressiveness. According to Sarkozy, the primary challenge confronting the world today is “how to prevent a confrontation between Islam and the West” — a confrontation for which he put full blame on the Muslim side: the “extremist groups such as Al Qaeda who dream of installing, from Indonesia to Nigeria, a caliphate rejecting any opening, any modernity, even the very idea of diversity”. There is no hint here that militant Islam might be, at least in part, a reaction to decades of aggressive Western intervention in Muslim countries, notably in Palestine and Iraq. The European Union must build a unified defense, first of all to meet “the threat of a confrontation between Islam and the West”. He cited the Danish cartoon controversy as a portent of clashes to come.

Sarkozy said he hoped to prevent the confrontation, notably by supporting “forces of moderation and modernity” in the Arab world. In practice, this means joining the United States and Israel in isolating and eliminating the Palestinian resistance on religious grounds. Sarkozy called for “reconstruction of the Palestinian Authority, under the authority of its President”, ignoring the fact that President Mahmoud Abbas has lost almost all popular support and that the Palestinians democratically elected Hamas. Sarkozy called Hamas’ successful resistance to the attempt by Israeli-armed militias to take control of Gaza “the creation of a ‘Hamastan’ as the first step in seizing control of all the Palestinian territories by radical Islamists.”

“We cannot resign ourselves to that prospect. France is not resigned to it”, he declared.

Openly abandoning any notion of a European defense independent of NATO, Sarkozy called for what in Washington is called greater “burden sharing” by Europeans. There was no more talk of a “multipolarity” in world affairs as an alternative to “unipolarity” around a U.S. hyperpower. Rather, like the Bush administration itself, Sarkozy rejected “unilateralism” as a failure, calling instead for “an effective multilateralism”–starting with the Franco-U.S. alliance.

Sarkozy better watch out. The coach he thinks he’s pushing up the hill may be about to go over the side of a cliff–taking the rest of us with it.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at




Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at