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Bill Orton
(D-Long Beach)

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March 6, 2003

PRESS CONFERENCES, U.N. VETOES AND JACQUES CHIRAC

by Bill Orton

Anyone listening to last night's White House press conference would probably agree that we shall soon be at war with Iraq.

Fifty minutes, 18 pre-arranged questions (16 about Iraq) and a stream of labored, repetitive and arrogant replies.

To paraphrase...

Q: Why attack Saddam?

A: September 11th was bad. Saddam is bad. I hope there is not a war.

Q: Will it matter if the UN does not approve a resolution authorizing armed force against Iraq?

A: No. The United States can do what it wants. Hope there's not a war.

Q: Will you tell us how much the war will cost?

A: When we're ready, we'll submit a supplemental [spending request]. Then you'll know how much we're asking for. But we hope there's not a war.

Q: France, Russia, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League, the EU, and millions of people around the world say they don't want this war. Don't you think that this is a problem?

A: We'll work with who we want and ignore the rest.

Q: Why attack now without world agreement.

A: Remember September 11th? Ooo. That was bad.

Q: Do you lose any sleep wondering if this will all result in more violence and attacks against Americans?

A: No.

Q: What about Korea having nuclear bombs and missiles capable of hitting the West Coast.

A: What's that? Couldn't hear you. Oh yeah, I'm concerned. Nuclear bombs are bad. Hope we can solve this by not doing anything. That's why we're talking to everybody except North Korea. Next question.

Around and around it went.

What carried through most of all was the impatience of the President.

Not one new word, not one new idea in 50 minutes.

I'm not one to deny a President latitude on his policy initiatives, but I do think that you ought to have a pretty good case when it is a matter of life or death.

I find it shameful that there is no clear answer about how much it will cost or how long the citizen soldiers (since half of the buildup are Guard and reserve units) will be away from their homes and jobs.

And I'd argue that it is a tad bit unconvincing to simply repeat, "The President wants war."But that is the only message I carried away: "The UN be damned, war it shall be."

Since you're taking us to war, sir, well, good fortunes. Please take good care of our troops and the innocent civilians. Don't stir the pot too vigorously.

Time will tell if I am premature in predicting war. (I'd say about five days and we'll know.)

But if the President's comments and Friday's vote in the U.N. Security Council show us anything, it is that the coming war draws us all into a deep clash between two men, two nations and two radically different world views.

We know what we're going to get from the first man.

But the second man is not Osama or Saddam. (Though to hear the President speak, those two have become one and the same.)

No, the true contrast is not with a Middle Eastern antagonist, but with the leader of one of our most long-standing and trusted allies.

From a humble start as Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac has spent most of his political career serving as the safe, conservative alternative to a series of high-profile, high-charisma leftist politicians.

Sometimes a winner, sometimes a loser, for more than 15 years, Chirac stood as the leading candidate of the mainstream right while all around him other conservative politicians crumbled against leftists like Francois Mitterand and Lionel Jospin.

Finally, eight years ago, Chirac, a former stormtrooper in the Algerian War, won the Presidency of France. Never terribly exciting, he muddled his way through the first term and went into last year's President election as the front runner, but with no great swirl of enthusiasm.

In a dramatic and unexpected turn of politics, Chirac's opponent in the final round of presidential voting in France turned out not to be the former prime minister, Jospin, but instead, like Chirac, another former stormtrooper from the Algerian War.

But Chirac's opponent -- Jean Marie Le Pen -- was not just any stormtrooper. He campaigned in his old military uniform, complete with jack boots, and made clear that he wanted foreigners out of the country.

France for the French.

In the brief national campaign against Le Pen, Chirac shed the limiting cloak of partisanship and united the left, right and center around him. Long a figure solely of the right, Chirac became the champion of a unified France, one that rejected the race-based politics that consistently had won for Le Pen the support of 1/7th of the French voters.

Long the dull conservative, Chirac has gone on to embrace the politics of unifying his country and, in so doing, has emerged as the first French leader since Charles De Gaulle with the stature in the world to pose a direct challenge to the political hegemony of America.

It is Jacques Chirac who now poses the most potent challenge to George W. Bush.Not since before Hitler crushed the Third Republic has a French government stood so tall in the eyes of so many.

On Friday at the U.N., when the French Ambassador casts a "no" vote against the war resolution, Jacques Chirac will complete his unexpected rise to the status of international leader.

Chirac's vision, so long blocked by his partisan status as just another right wing politician, is that France should again guide millions of people and scores of nations to a path away from domination by any one superpower.

Fresh from a trip to Algeria -- the first by a French President since the brutal war for independence ended in 1962 -- where crowds showered him with adulation, Chirac's stature seemed cemented.

He will reach his pinnacle on Friday, when the French ambassador vetoes the British and American war resolution before the Security Council.

Even Russia, which has worked for good relations with Washington since 9/11, is expected to join in the veto, precisely because Moscow sees that the worldwide gains are real for Chirac.

Vladimir Putin will gamble that his personal ties to Bush are strong enough that he can ditch Washington this time to compete with France for influence in the Third World -- a phrase, by the way, invented by De Gaulle.

The decision by Chirac to oppose the Bush Administration's push for war will clearly have a price, but the French know that the greatest toll is to collaborate against the will of the people.

Like the feisty De Gaulle, Jacques Chirac's independence -- this time over the war -- will merely be the first of a series of French challenges to American hegemony.

Long after Saddam Hussein is but a bad memory, we will feel the lasting effects of the showdown in New York on Friday that pits two conservative politicians from two western nations and two visions of the world against each other.


Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.