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A History of the Iraq Crisis: France, the United States, and Iraq, 1991–2003, Frédéric Bozo

Reviewed by Stefano Recchia


The history of the transatlantic standoff between France and the United States over Iraq has been told many times. In 2004, Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro offered a useful first draft of history in their Allies at War. That was followed by numerous journalistic accounts, scholarly analyses, and insightful, if often self-serving, memoirs. Drawing on a wealth of French diplomatic documents, Frédéric Bozo presents a more fine-grained picture of French government thinking during the crisis than has hitherto been available.

Bozo shows that there were important intragovernmental disagreements between French policymakers at the Elysée palace (the French presidency) and the Quai d'Orsay (the foreign ministry) in the run-up to the war. From the fall of 2002 onward, senior foreign ministry officials—such as Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador to the United Nations, and Bruno Le Maire, senior adviser to Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin—emphasized the likely costs of opposition to the United States, which in their view risked “breaking the strategic link” between Paris and Washington (p. 135). Villepin seems to have believed that France should refrain from vetoing a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force (p. 139). After it became clear in early 2003 that the George W. Bush administration was determined to go to war, Villepin recommended that France specify the conditions under which it would support military action (p. 178).

But President Jacques Chirac and his advisers at the Elysée were rather more determined in their opposition to U.S. war plans. In Bozo's reading, for Chirac, this was primarily about upholding “a certain conception of the international order” (p. 135) based on international law and concerted management by the great powers. From about mid-January 2003 onward, Chirac realized that he could no longer avert a war. His main goal, then, became “to prevent the Americans and their allies from obtaining UN legitimacy” (p. 249).

The French wanted to avoid having to choose between actually casting a UN veto or letting a resolution authorizing military action pass. Hence, they worked hard to forge a blocking coalition at the UN Security Council that would dissuade Washington from requesting a vote in the first place. Chirac ultimately chose to publicly threaten a veto on 10 March 2003, in order to provide political cover to hesitant Security Council members such as Mexico and Chile and convince them to withdraw their support from the U.S.-sponsored draft resolution. This may well have been a bluff. However, as Bozo notes, Chirac and his advisers had not anticipated that the price to pay for dissuading Washington from trying to obtain a resolution “ultimately would prove just as prohibitive for Paris as the cost of actually casting a veto” (p. 233).

Perhaps the book is somewhat too generous to Chirac in portraying his opposition to the Iraq War as driven largely by principle, when less high-minded political considerations also seem to have played an important role. Furthermore, Bozo has had access to French diplomatic documents on the Iraq crisis thanks to high-level contacts in Paris; but the documents are still formally classified, which means that other researchers will not be able to replicate and check his findings for at least another decade. This poses a problem in terms of research transparency. But these are quibbles. We can only speculate about Chirac's deepest motives, and Bozo cannot really be held responsible for the limitations of French declassification policy. The book is well written and painstakingly researched. This is a valuable addition to the historical literature on the Iraq War, which also improves our understanding of intra-alliance bargaining and coalition building at the UN Security Council.

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