The Washington Diplomat / March 2003
By Larry Luxner
Barely three months into his new job, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte finds himself at the center of the most serious policy rift between the United States and France in decades.
With President Bush preparing to declare war against Iraq and France threatening to veto a UN Security Council resolution approving such a war it's easy to sympathize with Levitte when he says he's had a "rough start" in Washington.
"Our long history of friendship has been strained by many difficulties, and we are in one of these difficult periods now," he told The Washington Diplomat in a lengthy interview. "My duty as French ambassador is to do whatever possible to try to solve this difference of views in a friendly way. My hope is that soon we'll again be working hand in hand to promote our common values."
Levitte was quick to point out that, despite the latest round of UN bickering over Iraq, "I've seen only friendship in the many meetings I've had here. When I presented my credentials to President Bush only three days after my arrival in Washington, he greeted me with words of great friendship for France and for President [Jacques] Chirac.
"In the past, we've had such moments of frustration. And in my view, it should be considered a dispute among members of a family of democracies. To me, there is nothing more important than our cooperation. When I say cooperation, I mean not only between the U.S. and France, but also between the U.S. and Europe. We are the two pillars on which we can build this new century."
SOLIDARITY WITH AMERICA
As Paris's envoy to the United States, Levitte presides over 400 employees making the modern French Embassy complex on Reservoir Road one of the largest diplomatic missions in Washington, and France's largest embassy in the world.
Levitte, 56, is well-prepared for the job. A native of Moissac, in southwestern France, he joined the French Foreign Ministry in 1970, serving in Hong Kong and Beijing before landing assignments at the Foreign Ministry's economic affairs bureau and later the Office of the President of the Republic.
In 1981, Levitte was posted to the permanent mission of France to the UN as a counselor, returning to Paris in 1984 as deputy director of the ministry's West Africa division. In 1995, following various postings in Paris and Geneva, Levitte became Chirac's diplomatic adviser. He remained at that position until 2000, when he was named France's permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.
A graduate of the National Institute of Political Science in Paris, Levitte has a law degree and speaks fluent English, Chinese and Indonesian.
But all that education and diplomatic experience didn't prepare him emotionally for Sept. 11, 2001 the day France's top diplomat at the UN watched the twin towers crumble from his 44th-floor office window.
"This will be in my heart for the rest of my life," said Levitte, recalling the moment with great sadness. "After 9/11, the French people, who are usually very divided, said by a margin of over 90% that they felt like American citizens."
That solidarity was exemplified by Chirac, who was the first head of state to visit Washington after the attacks. He later toured Ground Zero with Mayor Rudolph Guiliani in a symbolic show of support for the people of New York.
"France was side by side with the United States during the very early days of independence," the ambassador declared, "and France has been saved by the United States during two world wars. We will never forget this."
Yet these warm feelings do not translate into a ringing endorsement of the Bush administration's policies. On the contrary, France is deeply opposed to a war against Iraq precisely because the Chirac government worries that an invasion of Iraq would spark hatred in the Middle East and dramatically escalate acts of terrorism at home and around the world.
Levitte said the al-Qaeda terrorist network already represents the single most immediate danger to the 61 million inhabitants of France.
"A few months ago, 11 French citizens were killed in Karachi by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Then in December, the French oil tanker Limburg was attacked by al-Qaeda off the coast of Yemen. And a few weeks ago, we arrested a whole team of al-Qaeda terrorists near Paris. We are really together with the United States in this fight against terrorism."
Even so, France which has led a formidable bloc of countries calling for extended inspections wants to wait on a UN resolution authorizing force at least until Mar. 14. That's the day UN inspectors led by Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei are to report to the full 15-member UN Security Council. Then and only then, he said, would France even consider force as an option.
AGREEING TO DISAGREE
But it's not clear the White House will wait that long, especially given new U.S. intelligence that indicates a strong connection between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
"I have great respect for Colin Powell, but in our experience, we don't see these links," Levitte said. "All the al-Qaeda terrorists in our jails have been trained in Afghanistan. Some participated in the war against the Soviet Union, some went to Bosnia, some were in Chechnya. But so far, we have not confirmed any connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda."
Levitte personally helped draft the text of Resolution 1441, which threatens the use of military force against Iraq if it doesn't cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. He says "France devoted a lot of time and energy to convince other members [of the UN Security Council] to vote in favor of the resolution. President Chirac personally called President Assad of Syria so that Syria would join us."
Despite the two countries' differences, Levitte praises Bush for going to the UN last September to seek international approval for possible military action against Iraq.
"If the inspectors are back, it's certainly thanks to Bush and his determination, and the presence of American troops," he said, clearly spelling out where Paris agrees with Washington and where it doesn't.
"We agree on the nature of the regime in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein is a dictator. He's a disaster for his own people, and a danger for Iraq's neighbors. We agree on the goal disarmament of Iraq and we agree on the use of UN inspectors. We don't exclude the use of force. We say, and I think this is also the American position, that the use of force should remain the last resort.
"We disagree on one issue only: whether we should give more time to the inspectors. France says yes. The world is rarely black and white, and this is a gray zone. We have seen only passive cooperation from Iraq. When the inspectors want to inspect this or that site, they rush to the place and don't find closed doors. Compared with the 1990s which were marked by Iraq's refusal to cooperate or allow access to Saddam's palaces we must recognize that this time it's much better. We think the inspections are providing results. Each time Blix and ElBaradei go to Baghdad, they come back with some degree of progress."
He added that "with 150 inspectors deployed with better devices than in the past, and surveillance provided by satellites, and the addition of French Mirage jets and German drones, you can imagine that it'll be impossible for Saddam to develop more weapons of mass destruction. Iraq remains dangerous, but less dangerous today than it was months or years ago. We don't perceive Iraq as an immediate threat because Saddam Hussein is in a box, the inspectors are in the box, and the box is closed. Unfortunately, that's not the situation in North Korea."
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
For Levitte, there's little doubt that the Communist regime in Pyongyang is a much greater threat to Western interests than is Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Baghdad.
"Compare the two situations," he said. "First, North Korea claims it may have one or two nuclear bombs. Iraq wanted to build a nuclear arsenal but was prevented from doing that, and what they had was destroyed by UN inspectors.
"Secondly, North Korea has long-range and medium-range missiles, while Iraq has been prevented from developing such missiles because there's a 93-mile limit. Third, North Korea exports its missiles and technology to Pakistan, Yemen and other places. To my knowledge, Iraq doesn't. Fourth, North Korea tried to assassinate the whole South Korean leadership in Burma a few years ago.
"Finally, North Korea has a very powerful, well-trained army, while the Iraqi army has been weakened by both the Gulf War and because the inspectors destroyed more arms than the Gulf War itself."
Yet French opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq has triggered a wave of anti-French feeling at the highest levels of government here despite the fact that Franco-American bilateral trade exceeds $50 billion a year, that France is the sixth-largest foreign investor in the United States, and that the top 1,000 French companies here employ over 430,000 Americans.
In mid-February, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, in one of the most extreme examples of jingoism seen in years, threatened to restrict imports of French wines and bottled water as punishment for standing in the way of American military action.
Levitte, ever the gentleman, seems to take it all in stride.
"There's a lot of French-bashing in the U.S., and a lot of American-bashing in Europe," he acknowledged. "I'm distressed when I read the press on both sides of the Atlantic. But public opinion all over Europe is by a huge margin against the war in Iraq. My message to my people is this: let's debate our differences as friends, with the capacity to listen to the other side with respect."
Levitte pointed out that France has more troops committed to NATO than any other country, including the United States and Great Britain.
"We're worried that if there is a war in Iraq and no progress on the Middle East peace process, we'll see a high degree of bitterness, resentment and anger which could fuel the recruitment of terrorist networks and, in particular, al-Qaeda. This explains in part why people not only in France, but all over Europe, are so preoccupied."
Asked whether France would offer Saddam Hussein exile as it has with a number of African and Caribbean dictators as a way to avert war, Levitte didn't answer directly.
"Any peaceful solution is better than war, which should remain the last resort," he replied. "War could have long-lasting consequences on Iraq, a very fragile country composed of many ethnic components. They have no tradition of democracy, but a long tradition of violence. We want to see democracy bloom in Iraq, but we don't underestimate the difficulties of reaching that goal."
FRANCE'S ROLE IN THE WORLD
Levitte, a sensitive man who speaks lightly accented English, seems happiest when talking not about the differences between U.S. and French foreign policy, but about France's accomplishments around the world.
Two in particular stand out in his mind: the lead role Paris has taken to bring peace to its former African colony, Cτte d'Ivoire, and French efforts to reverse the scourge of AIDS in Africa.
At the moment, he said, France has 12,000 troops deployed overseas, including just over 3,000 in Cτte d'Ivoire. The rest are in Afghanistan where French and U.S. troops are training the new Afghan Army and in the Balkans, as part of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
"Our troops are deployed in Cτte d'Ivoire at the request of President Gbagbo, the legitimate president," he said. "Their duty is to protect all foreigners, but also to help maintain the ceasefire. We have insisted that our troops work as soon as possible with African troops. We have also organized a meeting which produced an accord, and which has been supported by African leaders from across the region."
Even more important is France's central role in the European Union, and the EU's imminent expansion from 15 member states to 25.
Late last year, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing caused a stir when he said publicly that Turkey should be excluded from the EU because it is a large, poor Muslim country which belongs geographically more to Asia than to Europe. Giscard's comments angered many Turks, though Levitte took pains to explain that the former head of state was expressing his personal views and not that of the French government.
"The official French position expressed by President Chirac is that we strongly support full membership for Turkey in the EU, as soon as Turkey is ready," said Levitte. He noted that the EU at a Dec. 13 meeting in Copenhagen has decided Turkey could begin accession talks to join the exclusive club in 2005, if by the end of 2004 it has shown sufficient improvement in human rights and economic reforms.
The very concept of a European Union is "quite amazing," said Levitte, especially when
"One year ago, we introduced the euro the first time since the Roman Empire that the Europeans have a common currency," he said. "It's a real breakthrough, a miracle. Now 300 million European citizens have the same currency in their pockets. That's good news not only for us, but also for the United States. If you're an investor, you don't have to worry any more about currency devaluations. This is over forever. It's as if the United States had decided to abandon the dollar and establish together with Canada and Mexico a new monetary union with a new currency.
"Second, we have decided to start the most ambitious enlargement ever of Europe. We are 15 member states. In 2004, we'll be 25. That's an addition of nearly 100 million relatively poor Europeans" comparable to the United States throwing open its borders with Mexico and allowing the entire Mexican population to enter the U.S. and live and work wherever they want.
Finally, said Levitte, ex-President Giscard has been put in charge of preparing a constitution for Europe, which calls for not only a president but a foreign minister.
"We are now doing what the American convention did in 1787 in Philadelphia," said the ambassador with obvious pride. "It's been ignored in the United States, but if we succeed, this will be yet another breakthrough."