Shadow Government

Bush, Chirac, and the War in Iraq

A heart-to-heart conversation between Bush and Chirac in January 2003 could have paved a much better way forward.

US President George W. Bush(L) and French President Jacques Chirac stand side-by-side during a wreath laying ceremony at the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, 06 June, 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach. World leaders paid poignant tribute to the Allied forces who stormed the Normandy beaches in the D-Day landings 60 years ago to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation and end World War II.   AFP Photo/Paul J.Richards        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages)
US President George W. Bush(L) and French President Jacques Chirac stand side-by-side during a wreath laying ceremony at the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, 06 June, 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach. World leaders paid poignant tribute to the Allied forces who stormed the Normandy beaches in the D-Day landings 60 years ago to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation and end World War II. AFP Photo/Paul J.Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages)

In recent months, Foreign Policy has featured a fascinating exchange over the legacy of President George W. Bush. The debate began with the publication this year of Jean Edward Smith’s critical biography of the former president, especially Smith’s controversial characterization of Bush as a militaristic religious zealot. In his review of Smith’s book, Will Inboden undertook a systematic rebuttal. Inboden particularly focused on Smith’s claim that in attempting to persuade French President Jacques Chirac to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the Iraq War, Bush told Chirac “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Citing several people with firsthand knowledge of the call, Inboden dismissed this anecdote as “utterly and completely false.”

In responding to Inboden’s review, Smith maintained that the story is true, based in part on the account of a French journalist who interviewed Chirac several years later. Ambassador Kurt Volker, the former United States Permanent Representative to NATO, who was personally involved with those calls, offers these following reflections on the debate.

As someone who participated in all of the calls between President Bush and President Chirac in late 2002 and early 2003 — the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq — I have been surprised in two ways by the debate in these pages over the content of those calls.

First, the notion that President George W. Bush — citing “Gog and Magog” and the Book of Revelations — had some kind of messianic vision that by invading Iraq, the United States was doing God’s will to eliminate evil, is a notion very far from reality. Never did anything like that come up.

Second, the real lesson from those calls — which I hope does inform future presidential decision-making — has scarcely been discussed at all. This lesson is that perceptions of legitimacy, and of the political unity among western democracies, can have an impact at least as great as the application of raw power on real-world outcomes. It is worth paying a high cost up front to get those perceptions right, because the consequences down the road can be severe.

A Good Habit

During the period of time covered by these calls, I served as director for NATO and Western Europe at the National Security Council. Part of my duties involved preparing briefing memoranda before presidential phone calls with European Allies, briefing the president orally just prior to calls, listening and taking notes on the call, and then preparing memoranda of conversation after calls concluded.

An underreported fact of the Bush presidency is that Bush had great relations with dozens of world leaders, and made it a habit to call at least two or three of them every morning at around 6:30 a.m. from the Oval Office. It turns out that because of time zones around the world, this is an ideal time to call leaders, whether they are in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Bush got an early start on the day, got his intelligence briefing, and knocked out this valuable bit of Allied coordination, all before 7:00 a.m.

In the normal course of business, this is a pretty intense workload. But with the pace of presidential communications with allied leaders during the effort to pressure Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to comply fully with United Nations demands on weapons of mass destruction issues — with Chirac, British Prime Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso, among others — it became difficult to keep up.

In full disclosure, I have not gone back to consult the memoranda of conversation from those calls in writing down these observations. And indeed, I would not be surprised if there are gaps in the written record due simply to the overload caused by the sheer volume of calls. So what follows here is my personal recollection. I did, however, consult a few individuals — both French and American — who also had direct, personal knowledge of those calls, and their recollections are consistent with my own.

No Religion

First, in all these phone calls, I can only recall one occasion when religion came up. Chirac brought it up, when he described the complex political balance among the various religious sects in Lebanon. (On another occasion, during Bush’s visit to the Elysee Palace, Chirac invited the first lady of Lebanon, Nazik Hariri, to dinner — a subtle signal that it is worth understanding the complexities of Lebanon if one wants to understand the broader region). His point was that looking at the Middle East through the prism of dictators, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism misses an essential dimension — that of how the religions in the region had established a fragile stability. Chirac argued that if the outside world were to upset that inter-religious stability, it could unleash all manner of chaos.

As I recall, Bush took the point, but also stated that his responsibility was to the security of the American people. Throughout 2002, concern gripped the White House that if terrorists could achieve the most significant attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812 using only box-cutters and civilian jetliners, they could and would inflict far greater damage if they had access to weapons of mass destruction. There was intelligence that al Qaeda was seeking weapons of mass destruction, and there was an (erroneous) Allied consensus on the intelligence assessment that Hussein had such weapons.

Given this, the administration launched an intense effort, through the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to force Hussein to give up any and all weapons of mass destruction programs. The idea was to create a credible threat of military force that would cause him to shut down programs and allow intrusive inspections.

As time passed, Hussein allowed inspectors access, but did not actively cooperate. As we now know, there were actually no weapons of mass destruction. The conclusion of Western intelligence services (including Germany and France) that such a weapons program existed was based on false intelligence fed by Hussein himself, with a view to creating an image of strength domestically, in the region, and in the West. By failing to cooperate fully with the inspectors, he was seeking to preserve the myth of his strength. This failure to cooperate, however, was interpreted in the White House as Saddam hiding a genuine weapons program, rather than hiding the absence of such a program.

There was never any conversation about prophecy, destiny, Gog and Magog, or anything of the sort.

Building Credibility

Second, whether in conversations with Chirac or others — Bush was careful to formulate his position as not having made a decision whether to invade Iraq or not. This is a fine point that is often misunderstood: Bush had clearly determined soon after September 11, 2001, that he was prepared to make a decision to go to war if necessary. But that is different from making the actual, actionable, decision to go to war in Iraq. As I saw events unfold, I believe that this final decision came only in the last weeks before the actual invasion. In November 2002 through February 2003, Bush was still looking to convince Hussein to comply without going to war.

Thus, in the period of late 2002 and early 2003, the entire policy was built around creating the realistic conditions whereby a decision to use force would be possible — it was not about actually launching a war at that point. This is what was meant by the phrase “a credible threat of force.” If none of the preparatory work had been done, the threat would not have been credible, because it could not have been acted upon. By creating a credible threat, the purpose was to convince Hussein to comply fully and unconditionally with demands to reveal and turn over his WMD program. (We only learned later that Saddam was bluffing.) A decision about whether to actually use force was a decision to be made only at the last possible moment.

Because of this, the notion that Bush would have been seeking to persuade Chirac to go to war is not plausible. He would have been (and in fact was) seeking to persuade him to pass a second U.N. Security Council resolution, this time under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which would authorize all necessary means to enforce compliance with the council’s prior resolutions, thus strengthening the credible threat of force.

The Two-Step Process

Key to this, a third point to remember, is that the dialogue with Chirac and others about a U.N. Chapter Seven resolution to authorize force against Iraq did not begin in the days before January 21, 2003. Rather, it was several months before. Bush had been seeking a vote on such a resolution as early as October 2002 (based on months of consultations before that). However, he was persuaded by Blair (who had consulted with Chirac), to go along with a “two-step process,” whereby a first resolution in November 2002 would set the demands and, if those demands were not met, a second resolution would be passed to authorize the use of force.

In January 2003, Bush and Chirac still shared a common goal of gaining peaceful compliance by Hussein — but they disagreed on the tactics of passing a Security Council resolution as a means to that end. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder thought that by blocking the second resolution, they could buy time and keep up the pressure on Hussein. Bush thought that passing the resolution was essential to convincing Hussein that the prospect of war was real, and thus that he should comply with the U.N. demands in order to avoid a war. In this view, delay in passing the resolution would only take the pressure off.

The Disconnect

At some point in the early weeks of January 2003, Chirac decided not to follow through on the second step of the “two-step” process of U.N. resolutions that had been set out in November 2002. There were probably many reasons for this. One is that Hussein had cooperated somewhat with inspectors, just not fully. So one could argue for more time. Indeed, a senior figure close to Chirac at the time told me that Chirac believed the Saddam regime would only last a few more months anyway, given the pressure it was under. Another possible reason is that popular protests had broken out in Europe that demonstrated popular opposition to a war in Iraq — a development which Chirac could use as a platform, boosting his personal popularity by opposing such a war. A third would be Schroeder’s own misgivings — and indeed a desire to see that the Security Council was truly united before a conflict was launched, something he did not feel was ripe in January 2013.

I have never seen any evidence to suggest anything more than this. But my knowledge of history, diplomacy, politicians, and of France as a culture (including having lived and studied there) tells me that Chirac was looking for two additional things before agreeing to support the second resolution.

First, he wanted respect. He wanted the United States to come to him before making a decision, to offer to brief him on a privileged basis about our information, to seek his input and guidance, to discuss the aftermath of the conflict — in short, to show that the United States knew and appreciated how important France was to a successful outcome.

Second, more specifically, he wanted to be sure that planning had been done for the aftermath of a conflict, and that France would have a role in it. For Chirac, knowing the complexities of the region, it was important to have a credible plan for how to put the various pieces back together. Moreover, Chirac felt that France understood these issues better than others — certainly better than the United States — and for that reason felt it necessary for France to be a full and equal player in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq after a conflict. Though no one has ever documented this, there may even have been in the back of his mind a sense that there would be major reconstruction and energy contracts after the war, and Chirac wanted France to be a major player.

Bush did not offer what President Chirac was looking for. On the “respect” point — Bush’s sense of “respect” was presenting Chirac openly with the facts, his own judgments, and urging him to make the “right” decision. In a U.S. view, it was not about offering gestures playing to a French ego — it was about substance. But this failed to give Chirac the sense of respect he was looking for.

One aside is terribly important: At the end of many phone calls, Chirac used to tell Bush, “Give my regards to your father!” This was in some ways a genteel courtesy from an old leader; yet in other ways it was a not-so-subtle way of telling Bush that Chirac saw himself as the peer and equal of Bush’s father, and thus that younger Bush owed some deference to Chirac. To American ears, this salutation came across as a jab, suggesting that in Chirac’s eyes, the president of the United States was somehow not ripe for the office.

So in effect, both leaders wanted respect, and both felt the other failed to give it. The jarring difference in perceptions made it impossible to bridge the “respect” line. And it prevented the kind of more sincere, “heart-to-heart” conversation that could have bridged the gap at the time.

On the second point, Chirac’s concern for the post-war reconstruction came across to American ears as a self-serving argument to seek contracts for France. As a result, Bush, who believed that such “transactional” diplomacy was inappropriate, did not bite. In his view, it was important — whether for the United States or France — to do the right thing for the right reasons. Offering any kind of promise or benefit to an ally compromised the integrity of the decisions that he was making.

For Chirac, however, the substance of the post-war reconstruction was a critical concern, and he believed the United States was not taking it seriously enough. He believed France could make a positive difference in the success on the ground, and Bush was failing to fully appreciate that. And this was exactly the kind of thing a French president needs to take into account. In mirror image to Bush’s response about Lebanon — Chirac’s responsibility was to France.

No Gog and Magog

The stories about Bush citing the “Gog and Magog” stories from the Bible are sourced from France. I do not know who would have said these things to journalists in France or why. I checked with a few former French colleagues who were present with Chirac at the time, and none recalled this kind of reference. One did say that Chirac, exasperated after one particular phone call with Bush, said, “it is hard to reason with someone who gets his instructions from God.” My sense is that this referred to Bush’s surety and determination — not a literal complaint that Bush said he was doing God’s will — but that, of course, can be a matter of interpretation.

I could speculate that some people in France may have wanted to protect the image of Chirac. After stepping down from the U.N. Chapter Seven resolution, France was later sidelined by the U.S. decision to go forward in Iraq without one. This left France out of a major issue in which France had vital national interests — a real blow to France. Perhaps his supporters wanted to portray him as the bastion of reason, in contrast to a portrait of Bush as a religious zealot. But that is pure speculation — who knows why they would suggest such a thing? The reality is that neither man was a zealot, and each acted in due respect to his own responsibilities.In the end, what happened was a tragedy, not a conspiracy, and not religious lunacy.

A Real Lesson to Learn

What can be said about the whole episode is this: The inability of Bush and Chirac to agree on a joint strategy in January 2003 started a chain reaction which is still reverberating today. Because these two great democracies did not agree, there was no second U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Without that authorization, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was perceived globally as illegal and illegitimate.

Subsequent protests and posturing reinforced this perception. This perception, in turn, empowered those who sought to overturn the initial invasion’s impact inside Iraq, and globally. The internal strife sparked the Sunni-Shia conflict inside Iraq. This internal strife has led to the growth of radical Sunni groups, including the Islamic State, and to the expansion of Sunni-Shia conflict throughout a wider Middle East.

It is impossible to prove that a different situation would have produced a different outcome. But just imagine that the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would have taken place with a second U.N. resolution. That France would have been on board from the beginning. The perceptions would have been fundamentally different — that the invasion was legal and legitimate, that it was inevitable that it would be successful, and that the only outcome going forward would be a successful, democratic, and secure Iraq. Had these perceptions been in play, the chance for real success in Iraq would have grown substantially. But with the opposite in play, the chance for success in Iraq was minimal.

And that is the real lesson from these phone calls. Nothing about Biblical prophesies or transactional diplomacy. It is that the unity of the Western world — democracies based on the application of universal human values of freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, and security — is a value in itself. It is a value that is at least equal to the application of direct force itself — probably even more valuable. These perceptions drive behavior, and behavior is the key to a sustainable outcome.

Whether it is making the extra effort to show respect, or the deference to the judgment of others, or to practicality in order to get things done, I hope the real lesson we learn from these phone calls is that perceptions of legitimacy and unity in the West really do matter. A heart-to-heart conversation between Bush and Chirac in January 2003 could have paved a much better way forward. But that opportunity was missed. Next time, we both need to do much better.

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Kurt Volker served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from July 2017 to September 2019. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009.

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