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Saddam is what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. Like the top-secret formula in The 39 Steps or the uranium in Notorious, he's the pretext for the movie, but he's not really what the movie's about. Despite the best efforts of the French and Germans, the old butcher will be gone in a few weeks(Getty Images)...






It's not really about Saddam

 Mark Steyn         National Post

Saddam is what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. Like the top-secret formula in The 39 Steps or the uranium in Notorious, he's the pretext for the movie, but he's not really what the movie's about. Despite the best efforts of the French and Germans, the old butcher will be gone in a few weeks. The real debate in Washington is about the speed and scale of post-Saddam Middle Eastern reform: There are legitimate differences about that but the "post-Saddam" bit of it is taken for granted. As noted in this space many months ago, he's being taken out first because he's the weak link in the chain of Arab despots. All the other stuff -- the chemical weapons, the ties to Islamist terrorism, the material breaches -- is true but ancillary.

Likewise, for M. Chirac, Herr Schroeder and their little Belgian chum, it's not really about Saddam, either. To be sure, they would like him to remain President-for-Life and their joke "plan" to send in blue-helmeted UN troops was designed to achieve just that. This isn't because, as some have argued, they're worried that when the Yanks open up the filing cabinets they're going to find a lot of invoices from France and Germany. As must surely be clear after these last two weeks, Messrs. Chirac and Schroeder don't embarrass easily. The wily Continentals will shrug off whatever turns up in Saddam's basement: It's just business, nothing personal, c'mon, we're all men of the world here, right?

No, for them what this movie is about is much closer to home. To the dozy "experts" on this side of the Atlantic, the notion of a "split" between America and "Europe" is so appealing they don't seem to care that the only real split is between Chirac, Schroeder and Belgium's Manekin Pis, on the one hand, and everybody else. America has never been isolated. Oh, sure, concede the cynics, Bush's Anglosphere poodles in Britain and Australia are snuffling his gusset, but no one else. Well, there's those seven Continental countries that signed that letter to The Wall Street Journal. Hah! scoffed Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times, nothing but a bunch of nations "you can buy on eBay." Really? Italy? Spain? Next, the Vilnius Group got on board: That's pretty much every country in the Baltic and Eastern Europe. "Everyone's feeling better. Albania signed on," sneered Mark Shields on CNN.

Oh, dear, oh, dear. Are there no foreigners good enough for Shields, Scheer and the other "multilateralists"? Brits, Aussies, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians: none of 'em count. During the Great War, Irving Berlin wrote a song about a proud mother watching her son march in the parade: They Were All Out Of Step But Jim. In this war, according to the picky multilateralists, they're all out of step but Jacques. Well, President Chirac can do the math: On the Continent of Europe, the majority of nations support the Anglo-American position; Belgium supports the Franco-German position, and the rapid crumbling of support for the Schroeder government at home suggests, if he's not careful, that the axis of weasels is going to be down to Paris and Brussels, Monsieur Evil et Mini-Moi. Chirac is playing a high-stakes game -- Schroeder is merely the dumb moll who's along for the ride and way out of her league -- and it's important to understand that the swaggering Texan gunslinger is a mere proxy for his real target: Tony Blair.

To the French, something very astonishing has happened: "Europe" was supposed to be France writ large, a "union" built in France's image. To that end, they took it for granted that the entire Continent would inevitably come to be as semi-detached from NATO as the French have been since 1966. To M. Chirac, Tony Blair is the odd man out, with his strange Anglo-Saxon hang-ups about the transatlantic alliance. But, as has become obvious, to the Czechs, Poles, Bulgars, Romanians and everybody else, it's Chirac who's the misfit.

What to do about this appalling lèse-majesté?

Answer: Get rid of Blair.

Sounds crazy? Not necessarily. Look what happened a month before the last Gulf War. Mrs. Thatcher: riding high in October, shot down in November. She went to a big EU get-together, fired off a couple of rhetorical volleys that the Eurodefeatists in her own party found a little too vulgar, and next thing you know she was being carried out by the handles. The fact that she was George Bush's buddy availed her naught. Arguably, this changed the course of the war: It was Maggie who'd stiffened Bush's spine after the seizure of Kuwait in August 1990, famously telling him "this is no time to go wobbly"; I think it's safe to assume that she would have advised the President that calling it quits before Baghdad and leaving the thug on his throne was wobbliness of the worst kind, and she may well have carried the day. But by that time she'd been gone three months and the talk was all of "no-fly zones" and "UN-designated safe havens."

So look at it from M. Chirac's point of view: Why shouldn't that happen again? Blair's line on Iraq is unpopular with his own parliamentary party and its supporters throughout the country. Why not put the skids under him? Who knows what could happen in three or four weeks? After all, in some ways, Blair is more dangerous than Thatcher: the latter saw herself as an Atlanticist rather than a European; Blair sees himself as both -- which, to the likes of Chirac, is a contradiction in terms. But that's evidently not how Mitteleuropa and beyond views it. Let Blair emerge from an Anglo-American war on Iraq with his worldview resoundingly confirmed, and it's possible that Europe will develop in ways that are not in France's interest.

The EU is far more important to Chirac than NATO is. The EU is a French creation, NATO an American one. So the French decision to block Turkey's request for mutual aid is entirely consistent with its long-term priorities: It has no objection to NATO as a moribund talking-shop, but it has zero interest in supporting it as a functioning mutual defence pact dominated by the Anglo-Americans. For Turkey, on the other hand, NATO membership is an indispensable component of its national identity -- as a modern, secular, western Muslim nation. To flip the finger at Turkey is to risk doing grave damage not just to NATO but to one of the few functioning Islamic states. I think it's very difficult, after the Franco-German-Belgian mischief-making, to carry on dignifying them even nominally as "allies."

The German government is currently in the hands of some pretty grubby characters, the generation whose views on America and terrorism were formed in the student riots of 1968. Belgium is not a serious country: Its last performance on the world stage was the weekend before September 11th, when, in its capacity as President of the European Union, it was at Durban grovelling to Mugabe and Co. for the evils of western civilization. Is it worth maintaining the pretense that the Anglo-Americans and these fellows share common goals? My distinguished colleague John O'Sullivan gets very impatient with the surrender-monkey cracks and thinks the Continentals are still worth the effort. I seem to be making a lot of movie comparisons today, so here's one more: The O'Sullivanite tendency sees this as The Road To Baghdad with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as America and Europe: they snipe and squabble and scheme and pick each other's pockets and fight over the girl, but in the end they're there for each other. I don't think so. The French have an interest in a Europe that's a counterweight to America, but none at all in a Europe that's as pro-American as Blair and the Vilnius Group are. For them, that's what the picture's about -- and Saddam and Turkey and NATO are just MacGuffins.

For the rest of us, what's at stake since September 11th, since that Durban conference even, is the survival of "the West" -- an elastic term that has traditionally stretched from trigger-happy Texas to statist Sweden. If M. Chirac's vision of Europe prevails, we can pretty much guarantee, from his performance this last month, how the UN, NATO, the ICC, and all the rest will develop. Therefore, it is necessary that he emerge from the ruins of Saddam's presidential palace as dazed and diminished as possible. That's not the main reason for going to war, but it's now an important sub-plot.

© Copyright 2003 National Post


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