I talked to a veteran diplomat and an expert on world energy markets about these and other issues last week, and my main purpose this week is to report what they said rather than try to impose my own views on them. Don’t be surprised, however, if some of my own views creep in.
A FRENCH VIEW
I talked first with Mr. Jean-Luc Sibiude, the Consul General of France in the Los Angeles office, who was visiting Orange County under the auspices of the county’s protocol office. I was pleased to be able to get his perspective because Mr. Sibiude began his diplomatic career in Iraq, in 1971. He has also served in Jordan, at the United Nations covering the Middle East, and as the French foreign ministry’s Ambassador in charge of the Middle East peace process. Although, like any diplomat, he is by definition an exponent of his country’s interests and policies and must usually speak carefully, he does have relevant experience.
We talked first about the Israeli-Palestinian mess. Mr. Sibiude laments that the insight of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israelis must fight terrorism as if there were no peace process and simultaneously conduct the peace process as if there were no terrorism seems to have been forgotten by all during the current violence. He believes that eventually the outcome most experts hope for two independent states living sometimes uncomfortably but mostly peacefully side by side, probably without a Palestinian right-of-return and with most Israeli settlements on the West Bank disassembled will happen eventually. But he doesn’t anticipate it happening any time soon, especially given the leaders of the two entities. The political will is simply not there.
Mr. Sibiude notes that Ariel Sharon was elected on a security platform, but Israelis have to be asking themselves now if they feel safer than before he was elected. But the main deterrent to progress, he believes, is the inability on the Palestinian side as well to try to pursue two goals that some might view as incompatible security and peace negotiations simultaneously. But national leaders are supposed to deal in difficult goals and possess some subtlety.
When it comes to Iraq, where he has spent considerable time, Mr. Sibiude is emphatic that the Iraqi people, with whom France used to have close relations, would undoubtedly be better off if this dictator were not running their lives. While maintaining a certain appropriate diplomatic discretion, however, he noted that that is just the beginning of the questions that need to be considered.
Granted that Saddam Hussein is a bad ruler, is it the responsibility of the Western world or the United States to get rid of him? Even if he has developed weapons of mass destruction, under what conditions do we the United States or Europe or both have a moral right to initiate military action against him? If we have a moral right, what risks will be involved? Even if a military campaign is successful, how complicated will the situation be in the aftermath? Will U.S. or European troops be required essentially to occupy Iraq for a number of years to ensure stability?
The situation in Iraq is nowhere near so clear-cut as was the case before the first Gulf War, when Iraq had invaded its neighbor Kuwait. Nor does the situation have the moral or political clarity that seemed to be the case after September 11. At that time it quickly became clear that the attack had been orchestrated by al Qaida, which had been harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.
Saddam Hussein has unquestionably been brutal to the people he rules, but he has avoided overt aggression of the kind that might provide an impeccably defensible justification for military action against him.
SICK OF SADDAM
Mr. Sibiude believes that most of the Iraqi people are sick of Saddam Hussein perhaps even more sick and tired than Western nations are with his cat-and-mouse international machinations. But he notes that this is a regime that rules by terror and the price for speaking out is often death. So it would be foolish to predict whether the regime will ever change from within before Saddam, who appears to be in reasonably decent health and takes care of that health, departs the scene by assuming room temperature.
Still, Mr. Sibiude notes, Iraq has a long history and a rich cultural heritage. When he served there in the 1970s, he was especially impressed with the ability of Iraqi architects, scientists, engineers, doctors and other professionals. He believes that despite the long years of dictatorship there is plenty of talent in Iraq to fill whatever void would be left by the ending of Saddam’s regime. And his sources say there is an increasing hunger for more freedom and personal liberty. The implication is that it might not be as "necessary" as some have predicted that an occupation force stay in and run Iraq for years if Saddam is ousted.
What does all this mean the United States should do? Mr. Sibiude responded with Gallic reserve reinforced by the fact that his government doesn’t yet have an official position that it’s not his place, but he hopes U.S. leaders will consult with friends and allies.
All in all, perhaps because of his personal knowledge of how bad Saddam has been for country, he was less hostile to the idea of some kind of action against Saddam, perhaps up to and including military action, than I had expected. Whether this means that the French government, despite some of the usual taunting, is more interested in cooperating with the United States than in baiting the "hyperpower" in the wake of recent French elections I do not profess to know.
I also talked at some length with Ann-Louise Hittle, Senior Director at Daniel Yergin’s (author of The Prize on world oil markets and The Commanding Heights on economic changes and globalism) Cambridge Energy Research Associates about the possible effects on the oil market. I came away believing that a war in Iraq is more likely to destabilize the region and drive up oil prices than to increase stability, although Ms. Hittle was careful to remind me that there are so many variables and unknowns that hard-and-fast predictions are the stuff of foolishness.
A war would almost certainly take the 2 million barrels a day Iraq now exports off the market, Ms. Hittle said. While that may not seem like that much in a world that uses 75 million barrels a day, it would nudge prices up perceptibly. In fact, she believes that talk of a possible war has already pushed oil prices to artificially high levels.
Furthermore, if Iraq tried to sabotage Saudi or Kuwaiti facilities during a war, or if Iraqi oil facilities were seriously damaged, oil prices could rise dramatically. In addition, it would not be safe to assume that a successor regime to Saddam would be as friendly to U.S. interests as some assume. Ms. Hittle noted that Iraqi oil facilities have been stretched to their limits and have received little in the way of upgrading or even routine maintenance over the last several years. So even if a successor regime wanted to increase oil exports it might take a considerable amount of time before this would be feasible.
When I suggested that Saudi Arabia had been somewhat back-and-forth in its attitude toward American desires to take out Saddam, Ms. Hittle hastened to remind me that there was no back-and-forth at all. The Saudis have consistently opposed the idea of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the announcement last week that they would resist U.S. use of facilities on Saudi soil in such an effort was consistent with previous attitudes.
This is another contrast to the situation prior to the first Gulf war. Back in 1990 and 1991 (whether wisely or opportunistically) the Saudis invited almost insisted on U.S. military help in resisting what it then saw as the threat from Saddam Hussein, who had invaded and occupied their mutual neighbor, Kuwait. Ms. Hittle noted that for better or worse, the Saudis, for all their shortcomings, have been a key player in keeping oil prices fairly steady over the years. We may deplore the OPEC cartel (I certainly do) but U.S. policymakers have generally depended on and supported its efforts to prevent big surprises in world oil markets. The RAND report on Saudi Arabia as an enemy could undermine this role. In the long run that might not be such a bad idea, but in the short run it could mean unpleasant oil-price surprises.IRAQ ATTACK QUESTIONS
All this is most interesting. As the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq becomes more imminent, we’re beginning to see voices and not just anti-establishment voices raising concerns and cautions. President Bush and his advisers on Wednesday made a concerted effort to assure Arab and European countries that the U.S. would weigh its options carefully before launching a military invasion.
Perhaps most fascinating, as mentioned earlier, is that House Majority leader Dick Armey, perhaps as consistent a conservative as Congress has seen in recent years, warned that an unprovoked attack would violate international law and "not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation." Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, a close associate of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has urged caution, as have Republican Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
All this does not seem to be a response of fear in the face of blowhard warnings from Saddam Hussein, or even doubts that the United States could prevail in a military engagement (though it might be messier than some pundits predict). Instead, it stems from concern about what kind of country the United States is and should be, what kind of example it sets for the world.
In times past the United States has taken pains to at least appear to be on the side of the angels in military conflicts; even the Gulf of Tonkin incident, dishonest as it was in retrospect, arose out of a desire to seem to be operating defensively rather than aggressively. The idea has been to appear to confront clear-cut examples of aggression or to make it clear that our actions are defensive and taken more in sadness and from concern for justice than in anger.
The drumbeat for an attack on Iraq has abandoned this tradition, which leaves an increasing number of Americans uncomfortable.