Remember French President Chirac's Address to Congress on Iraq?
The Associated Press on Friday reported on the latest developments in the "increasingly nasty grudge match" between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over the Israeli Prime Minister's March 3 speech to Congress designed to sabotage American negotiations with Iran. But the real issue with the GOP's invitation to the Likud leader isn't about a clash of personalities. No, for Americans the stakes involve nothing less than war or peace, and who--the President of the United States or a foreign leader linked at the hip with one U.S. political party--should make that decision.
Nevertheless, back in 2002 the roles were reversed. French President Jacques Chirac addressed both Houses of Congress to warn against launching "an unnecessary war" on Iraq that would "inevitably open a Pandora's box from which the United States and the world would have no escape."
The path to that now-forgotten speech was twisting and painful. As the momentum built towards an American invasion of Iraq throughout that summer and fall, Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone pleaded with the Bush administration to meet in Washington with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Bush, who on October 7 warned that "we cannot wait for the final proof--the smoking gun--that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," refused. Within four days, both the House and Senate voted overwhelming to authorize the looming invasion of Iraq.
But two weeks later, Wellstone was dead, killed along with his wife in an airplane crash during his reelection campaign in Minnesota. Despite his own "yes" vote on the Iraq AUMF, a heartbroken Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) chose to honor his friend's memory by belatedly granting Wellstone's request. So on December 6, 2002, just as America was marking the anniversary of the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, French President Jacques Chirac made a final plea to halt the march towards a new preventive war, this time in Iraq.
Speaking to a packed House chamber, Chirac began by proclaiming, "I would like to start by saying that personally, I'm very attached to the United States. It's a country that I love, that I admire, that I respect, naturally, and it's a country that I know rather well." But after explaining that he had lived in the U.S. on several occasions ("I studied there; I worked there as a soda jerk and a forklift driver; I was a chauffeur; I was a journalist"), the French President then spoke of the two nations' intertwined destinies and enduring relationship:
But that's not the reason I was the first foreign leader to come to America after September 11, 2001 to declare "total solidarity" with the American people. As the President of the French Republican, it was my sacred duty to reassure the United States that "America's First Ally" will always come to its defense.
During the times of ultimate peril, each of our nations has depended on the other for its very survival. Lafayette and the French navy helped make American independence a reality in 1783. In time, Jefferson's Declaration didn't just inspire liberté, égalité, fraternité in France, but in the hearts and minds of people around the world. And when our freedom was in the greatest danger in two world wars, Americans fought and died by the tens of thousands at places like Chateau Thierry and Pointe du Hoc to ensure that liberty and democracy would not vanish from the earth. The French people will never forget these sacrifices. Simply, the bonds between the France and the United States are unshakeable, unbreakable and eternal.
President Chirac was greeting with a thunderous standing ovation. But the applause soon stopped when his speech continued. "It is precisely because of that shared commitment to our mutual security, to our common values, and to upholding international norms that I beseech America to show patience and restraint." Calling the looming invasion of Iraq "unwarranted" and "unjustifiable," a grim-faced Chirac warned it could well be remembered as "a world-historical mistake."
I don't need to tell you that I condemn the regime in Iraq, naturally, for all the reasons we know, for all the dangers that it puts on the region and the tragedy it constitutes for the Iraqi people who are being held hostage by it. Saddam Hussein is especially dangerous to his own people.
But Iraq does not today present an immediate threat warranting an immediate war. Unilateral American action to destroy Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and topple Saddam would not represent the "pre-emption of terrorism," but a preventive war without modern precedent.
Time, the French President insisted, was on America's side. International law was not.
I'll be very frank with you. As I've already told President Bush, I have great reservations about this doctrine. As soon as one nation claims the right to take preventive action, other countries will naturally do the same. And what would you say in the entirely hypothetical event that China wanted to take pre-emptive action against Taiwan, saying that Taiwan was a threat to it? How would the Americans, the Europeans and others react? Or what if India decided to take preventive action against Pakistan, or vice versa?
The discomfort on both sides of the aisle was palpable. And with good reason; less than two months before, a massive, bipartisan majority in Congress had voted to authorize military force against Saddam on the very grounds Jacques Chirac rejected outright. But for the Bush administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill that day, the worst was yet to come:
I am totally against unilateralism in the modern world. I believe that the modern world must be coherent and consequently, if a military action is to be undertaken, it must be the responsibility of the international community, via a decision by the Security Council. Now, the Security Council has decided that Iraq must not have weapons of mass destruction; it did not say that a regime change was necessary there. So if the objective is to prevent Iraq from having weapons of mass destruction, we have to go along with what the United Nations has done, that is, impose the return of inspectors in Iraq without restrictions or preconditions...If it refuses, then it's up to the Security Council to deliberate and decide what must be done and notably whether a military operation should be undertaken or not.
To act outside the authority of the United Nations, to prefer the use of force to compliance with the law, would incur a heavy responsibility.
Chirac's first mention of the United Nation prompted hissing. When he finished that last sentence, boos could be heard, as well as one representative's shout of "you lie."
But Chirac still wasn't done. "If you invade Iraq, you will quickly win a military victory in the narrowest conventional sense." However, he warned, getting into Iraq will be much easier than getting out of it.
There are those in the present administration and in these chambers who have boasted that "we will be greeted as liberators" by the Iraqi people. They are wrong. No people on earth would react with anything other than fear, hatred and feelings of violation upon the occupation of their country. And in the case of Iraq, decades of bottled up sectarian tension will explode when the iron hand of Saddam is removed.
One prominent American columnist recently dismissed as "pop psychology" the notion that somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime." He went to boast, "There's almost no evidence of that at all; Iraq's always been very secular."
That view is simply wrong. It does not comport with history. It does not comport with the dynamics in the region. When you Defense Secretary voice his concern that "US could fail to manage post-Saddam Hussein Iraq successfully, with the result that it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran," he was nearer the truth.
I say these things not from some misguided sense of pacifism, but from the painful past of my nation. In Lebanon, in Syria and most of all in Algeria, France learned that religious and tribal divisions combined with national liberation sentiment could only be quelled--and only temporarily--with extreme violence. Ultimately, France resorted to torture and brutality that shocks the conscience and haunts us to this day.
And still we lost.
Chirac concluded by reminding Congress that America had always been a "beacon of freedom" to the world. But to act so precipitously and without broad support from the international community, would put "the power of the idea of America" at risk:
And to say America must do this because "God told me to end tyranny in Iraq" or because Saddam's reign and terrorism in the Middle East show "Gog and Magog at work" will only make matters infinitely worse for both of our nations. The resulting wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world will translate into a storm of anti-Westernism that will affect France.
Chirac concluded his remarks with a spirited "Vive la France, Vive Les Etats-Unis" that was met with near total silence. But outside, the reaction was fast and furious. While a handful of liberal Democrats said it was "important to hear" from a "patriot" representing "our oldest ally," Republicans were apoplectic. House Speaker Dennis Hastert called the "shameful episode" an "insult to the President of the United States." Rep. Paul Ryan went even further, calling the Democrats' "embrace of a foreign leader" designed to "undermine President Bush's foreign policy and American national security" nothing short of "treachery." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mocked what he described Chirac's "cries of 'henny penny, the sky is falling' as typical of "Old Europe." As for John McCain, he shrugged off Chirac's visit by joking, "The Lord said the poor will always be with us. The French will always be with us, too.""
As for the American people, they ate their "Freedom Fries," laughed at the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and went off to war.
Note: None of the above actually happened, for the simple reason that neither the late Paul Wellstone nor his Democratic colleagues would ever have imagined providing a foreign leader with a Congressional stage to wage war against the sitting President of the United States. But on March 3, that is precisely what the Republican Party will do when it gives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the opportunity to not just insult President Obama, but to give war with Iran a chance.
Note that the remarks attributed to former French President Chirac are fabricated. In some cases, actual statements from Chirac's speeches, statements and interviews have been interwoven in the bogus text of the mythical Congressional address which never occurred.