There are two ways to see the recent surprise visit paid to Iraq by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
One is to dismiss the whole episode as yet another example of Sarkozy’s notorious activism. The French leader has cultivated the image of a man who wants to be everywhere all the time. So, why not Baghdad at this time?
But there is another way of looking at this visit. To call it historic is more than afflicting it with a cliché. Sarkozy is the first French President ever to visit Iraq. The only time Iraq had hosted a high-level French leader was in 1976 when Jacques Chirac, then Prime Minister, travelled to Baghdad s guest of his old chum Saddam Hussein al-Takriti.
A presidential level, however, is something else. It symbolises France’s readiness to treat Iraq as an equal partner.
In the more immediate terms of political calculations the visit marks a dramatic change in a policy that France had pursued towards Iraq since 2001 when the issue of toppling Saddam Hussein was first raised in earnest. Chirac, then president, had deployed France’s diplomatic machine to prolong Saddam’s hold on power. Later, he even despatched his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, also an admirer of Saddam, on a tour of African and Asian countries to mobilise support for the Iraqi despot.
At the time all that was happening, Sarkozy, though a member of Chirac’s administration had distanced himself from France’s pro-Saddam policy. In 2003 as the US-led coalition prepared to enter Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, Sarkozy made it clear that he would shed no tears over the tyrant’s demise.
This week’s visit to Baghdad had three key messages.
First, Sarkozy made it clear that France, far from regretting the fall of Saddam Hussein, welcomes the opportunities it has created for a new deal in Iraq. In other words, Chirac’s pro-Saddam policy had been motivated by his personal considerations rather than any desire by the French people to help prolong Iraq’s ordeal under the Ba’athists.
The second message is that France is willing and able to seek a major role in rebuilding Iraq. No one expects France to quickly regain the privileged position it once enjoyed in Iraq when it was the country’s second major source of military hardware. However, new Iraq’s needs are so vast and varied that it should not be hard for France to find a suitable share in efforts to meet them.
In more immediate political terms, Sarkozy’s message may be even more important. The French leader has visited Baghdad to offer a long-term relationship at a time that the new US administration of President Barack Hussein Obama is preparing to disengage from Iraq as quickly as possible.
It is, of course, too early to know whether Obama really intends to squander the massive investment that the US has made in Iraq, in both blood and treasure, simply to prove that he had been right in opposing the toppling of Saddam Hussein as Jacques Chirac had done.
However, Sarkozy has made his move in accordance with his well-known foreign policy axiom that one should not wait and see what Americans do on all issues before shaping one’s own policy.
Sarkozy believes that one should always take into account the fact that US foreign policy is often determined by narrow and partisan considerations of domestic politics. What looks like fickleness from the outside is a natural attribute of a political system in which a leader must always keep an eye on Peoria.
Thus, Obama may be ready to feed Iraq to the dogs if that helps him get re-elected. On the other hand he may out-Bush George W Bush in his commitment to the new Iraqi system if Iraq begins to look like a strategic American success.
Throughout his short visit to Baghdad, Sarkozy was anxious to speak on behalf of the European Union as a whole. The subtext was that if the Americans decide to quit, Iraq would not be left with the sole choice of becoming a protégé of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. The European Union, backed by a powerful coalition of moderate Arab states plus Turkey, would be in a position offer new Iraq an alternative source of support.
The emergence of a new Iraq at peace with its neighbours is a major event in the region’s history. For almost half a century Iraq posed an ideological and military threat to the neighbourhood. The Baathist regime in Baghdad was responsible for a long low intensity conflict with its ideological siblings in Syria. It also provoked two wars with Iran, one between 1971and 1975, and the second between 1980 and 1988. It used a variety of means to interfere in Jordan’s domestic politics, armed and protected terrorists operating against Turkey, and in 1990 invaded and briefly annexed Kuwait.
Closing that chapter of Iraq’s history is a priceless achievement that should not be thrown away because of short-term political considerations.
New Iraq remains a process of development, not a finished product. Hegel would have called it a “becoming” s opposed to a “being.” However, to understand it, welcome it, and help it establish itself is in everyone’s best interest, except, of course, those who thrive on crisis and conflict.
Sarkozy is right in pointing out that helping new Iraq must become a strategic aim of the European Union in the Middle East. The moderate Arab states that Sarkozy visited after his historic stopover in Baghdad have an even greater interest in helping new Iraq’s return to the regional mainstream.