France is now more gung-ho than America

As he threatens war on Iran, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner is living up to spiked’s warning that he is ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’.

David Chandler

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In comments calculated to generate publicity around the world, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner warned over the weekend that France was preparing to go to war with Iran. He also flagged up the possibility of European states taking action against Iran independently of the United Nations Security Council.

Whipping up international tensions wherever he goes, the intervention trigger-happy Kouchner, as spiked warned, is emerging as ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’. His tough line over Iran appears to be ahead even of the Bush administration in openly discussing the possibility of war and threatening to take action independently of the UN process.

The crisis with Iran over its nuclear programme has not been instigated by the UN itself. The IAEA (the UN’s nuclear watchdog body) reached a deal with Tehran in late August, based on the Iranian regime submitting to transparency over its nuclear programme. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei is due to give a report to the agency’s board of governors in November.

There appears to be little chance of a new third round of UN sanctions being imposed while the IAEA and Iran are operating on an agreed process of threat reduction. Russia and China are unlikely to support such an aggressive move against the Iranian regime in the absence of any evidence of Iran’s non-cooperation with the IAEA. However, the IAEA timescale has been publicly criticised by Kouchner ahead of the US-led call for discussions on a new Security Council resolution proposing additional sanctions before the ElBaradei report is published.

Considering the existing level of tensions between the US and Iran, it is hardly surprising that Iran’s state-owned media have responded scathingly to Kouchner’s remarks. Iran’s IRNA news agency has accused France of pandering to the White House, alleging that French president Nicolas Sarkozy has taken on ‘an American skin’, and arguing that: ‘The French people will never forget the era when a non-European moved into the Elysee.’ (1)

The views of the Iranian state media – explicitly trying to undermine a joint US-EU move to act against Tehran by suggesting that US and European approaches to foreign policy have traditionally been fundamentally different – are not so far away from those of many liberal critics of US interventionist policymaking, who have suggested that the US administration’s foreign policy is far more dangerous and bellicose than that of the Europeans. This is not true. Those who draw a sharp distinction between US and European foreign policy approaches tend to miss the underlying relationship between the two.

In fact, the foreign policy pronouncements of the new French government of Kouchner and Sarkozy have striking parallels to that of Blair and his foreign minister Robin Cook’s incoming Labour government in 1997. Kouchner, like Blair before him, is able to make grand statements of foreign policy mission in the knowledge that responsibility will have to be taken by someone else – the United States.

The US has got itself into a messy situation with Iran because of the failure of the Iraq war. The US administration has increasingly talked up the problem of Iran in direct response to the disastrous intervention in Iraq. Iran has been blamed for supporting the insurgency, and Bush has called for continued support for US military engagement in Iraq as a necessary measure to contain Iran. However, the US policy engagement with Iran has no clear direction at the moment: secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is known to favour a diplomatic approach to gain Iran’s support in restoring order to the region, while more hawkish officials, such as vice president Dick Cheney, have spoken about the possibility of military strikes against Iran (2).

For Kouchner and the new French Sarkozy government, it appears that US problems in Iraq and divisions over Iran are an opportunity to stake a claim of French leadership. Like Blair’s approach to the Kosovo crisis in 1999, this activist foreign policy depends on the fact that the US has already talked up the threat and is the only country with the capacity to carry out the threats that are made by others.

Over Kosovo, the Blair government was free to up the stakes against Belgrade – calling for intervention and, once the war had started, calling for ground troops – because there was little to lose. Blair could sound principled and take the world stage knowing that final policy responsibility would rest with Washington, and if intervention failed to meet the high moral aspirations then the US could always be blamed for policy failings. For many commentators, the biggest success of the Blair government was the 1999 Kosovo war, where Blair could bask in the reflective glory of the US bombing campaign.

Kouchner’s confidence in taking a warlike stance over Iran stems from irresponsibility rather than responsibility. Free from any final decision-making – or any substantial military role if there is a conflict – Kouchner’s warmongering rhetoric can only increase the tensions in the region, further destabilising the relationship between the US and Tehran. Rather than a moral or ethical stand, Kouchner’s position seems both craven and parasitical, both exploiting the US position and willing to risk thousands more lives in a region already torn apart by Western grandstanding.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Phillip Hammond warned that Bernard Kouchner’s ‘humanitarianism’ is a recipe for mayhem. David Chandler said Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband are aiming to restore the moral gloss of campaigning liberal interventionism. Chris Bickerton asked: How scary is Sarkozy?. Mick Hume looked at the arguments for intervention in Somalia. Philip Cunliffe slammed Bernard-Henri Lévy’s intellectual imperialism. James Heartfield said The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) France slammed by Iran after minister warns of war, AFP, 17 September 2007.

(2) In Bush Speech, Signs of Split on Iran Policy, Helene Cooper, New York Times, 16 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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