Interview with Hubert Védrine on US foreign policy
Interview in Paris conducted by Jana TAMER of L'Orient-Le Jour.
The former Foreign Minister in Socialist Lionel Jospin’s coalition government from 1997 to 2002, Hubert Védrine is esteemed in all political circles, both in France and abroad. He was recently sounded out by President Elect Nicholas Sarkozy, as well as other members of the French Socialist Party, about joining the new government. Author of a work that was published amidst the French presidential campaign, Mr. Vedrine has agreed to an interview with us to discuss the overall situation in the Middle East from the realistic standpoint contained in his book, “Continuning History” (Fayard).
Q - In your book you examine back to back US and EU policies toward the Middle East and you refer to these policies as unrealistic.
The overall theme of my book is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West went overboard with euphoria in the notion that it had won the battle of history. It believed that its notions would then be automatically applicable everywhere : its ideas of democracy, its conception of the market economy, its values –which it believes are universal. In its mindset, there will be no more policy problems because there will be no more fundamental disputes on anything. All that would remain is how the world would be organized. It has even been adopted World Bank jargon, talking about things like "governance" which suggests business management rather than policies.
This Western illusion is split into two branches: one is American and the other European. The American branch attributes primordial importance to military superiority. It is here where the Neocons suceeded in hijacking US foreign policy with their very peculiar understanding of the Middle East –an interpretation which they tried to foist on the rest of the world. In their minds, the Palestinian question is of no importance –it is merely a pretext invented by the enemies of Israel– and therefore it is necessary to transform Arab states willy nilly and make them democratic, which would naturally make them pro-Western. But this type of reasoning is borrowed from Dr. Strangelove. How in heaven’s name did the United States, a great country, –certainly very nationalistic but overall very smart– get hijacked in this way ? This is worth investigating.
The other branch, the European branch, is very different but I would lable it ingenuous. Modern Europeans believe that the world is made up of Boy Scouts who want to protect the overall well-being of humanity. They believe that we are part of an international community that works to prevent conflicts through the United Nations, etc.
These two irrealistic branches of thought, which are very different, really don’t work. Actually, a kind of multi-polar world is in the process of forming. This multi-polar world is not one of the grandiose rhetoric we deploy in France. And this world can very well progress without us, or even against us.
My main concern, –which regards not only foreign policy but also things that are more global and more historical in nature– is that Europeans do not possess the required energy to cooperatively build a power that could affect things. I try to redefine the contours of a modern school of realism. This is the work that I have been doing on the political and intellectual planes in France. With respect to Europe, I am also trying to introduce a more realistic approach. There is still quite a bit of irrationality and chimeric illusions. I’m one hundred percent pro-Europe myself, but there are several ways in which to be European. Moreover, I’m fighting against a sort of depressive tendency that has existed in France for several years. I maintain that it’s acceptable to look history in the face, including the darkest chapters –there are such episodes in the history of every nation– but it’s not a reason to sink into depression and permanent compulsive expiation.
As part of all this, I believe that Western policies over the last few years toward the Near and Middle East –spurred by the United States– have been completely idiotic. That’s quite clear.
Q - But how can the realism that you promote and which is similar to the approach offered to the United States by the Baker Hamilton report produce any better result? What comparison do you make between current US Middle East policy and that pursued by Bush Sr. And James Baker ?
You can’t compare the war waged for Kuwait with the events that are transpiring in Iraq. The war in Kuwait was impeccably managed with respect to legality and legitimacy. There was unanimity among the permanent members of the UN Security Council and many Arab nations in the Coalition. And this Coalition ceased combat to avoid exceeding its mandate.
Q - But there wasn’t only the war in Kuwait…
On the question of the Middle East, Bush père and James Baker were the only ones to put some pressure on Israel when they blocked financial guaranties at one point. They even succeeded in setting off a crisis in Israel and launched the process that led to Rabin's ascent to power. Without Rabin, there would have been no Oslo process. As we look back on that period, we see that Rabin was the greatest Israeli man of state in thirty years. Inside Israel, there is a cleavage between those who would use any pretext to avoid a peace process because, as they do not want to give back territory, they don’t want a process (they therefore claim that there are no partners for dialog) and those, like Rabin, who want to advance the process not through a sudden move driven by compassion for the Palestinians, but because they claim that the vital interests of Israel lie on making progress. While it is true that these two groups exist, Israeli foreign policy has been dominated by Likud for quite some time, a sort of twin of the American Neocons. We don’t know who influences whom.
The polices of Bush Jr. are the worst of any US policies since 1945. That said, the US reaction following 9-11 focusing on the Taliban and al Qaeda was completely justified and moreover, there wasn’t a soul in the world who criticized it. But the war on Iraq was a monstrous error, above all for the United States. The US should have done just the opposite –it should have pursued the peace process. We were told that Bush wasn’t interested in the subject (a Middle East peace process) but what really happened is that Bush backed Sharon to the hilt. Bush Jr.’s White House aligned with Sharon from the minute it took office, before 9-11.
Q - The so-called realist approach, such as the Baker-Hamilton Report, raises quite a bit of fear in the Middle East. Some think they will have to bear the brunt of any realistic policies pursued by the West which would then aim at transforming enemies into friends and striking deals with them.
I believe that the approach used in the past by Bush père and Baker, which was picked up by the Baker-Hamilton Report, is less insane and more serious. But there are several ways of implementing realistic policies. And within these realistic policies, there is plenty of choice. I’m with those who think that there should be no taboo on dialog. Realism means recognizing that Bush’s policies in the Middle East are ideologically-driven and Manichean. You should never tie your hands behind your back and declare, “I will never negotiate with the terrorists and the regimes which threaten us”. The United States and the Soviet Union negotiated throughout the Cold War despite the fact that they threatened nuclear annihilation on one another; Kissinger went to China…You should never prevent yourself from talking out of Manichean motivations, dogmatism or morality. You have to do what’s necessary, and not just out of obsession with discussion or diplomatic routine.
On the Israel-Palestine question, you have to adopt a realistic solution in the interests of the West but also in those of Israel. Not to mention that of the Palestinians, who live in deplorable conditions. Moreover, we know more or less what the solution looks like. Its a blend of the Taba Accords, the Clinton Criteria, the Geneva Accords... I recognize that it will be fraught with difficulty. To become engaged in the process, the Israelis need a powerful, reliable and convinced Prime Minister. Israel’s extreme right wing and especially certain actors on the Palestinian and Arab side will try to prevent a successful agreement. But if it is announced in advance that there will be obstacles but that there is determination to proceed… Well, it assumes another Rabin, who would be supported by another Clinton but in the space of a year the crisis would be under control ! Realism demands that the focus be placed there –not on Iraq or on other countries as the US Neocons would like. If their plans for Iraq had succeeded, they would have intended the same for Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia… Because of the glaring defeat in Iraq, they no longer know what to do. US policy should now enter a transitional phase, but it’s not clear that this will actually occur. Realism would also command not to invade Iraq –and everything that President Jacques Chirac said was basically justified. We could question his tone, or his methods or his rhetoric but at the end of the day, he was correct.
(To be continued...)