PARIS -- Ten years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003, which succeeded in ousting the dictator Saddam Hussein but plunged Baghdad into a decade of instability, France stands behind its refusal to participate in the coalition that sent more than one million soldiers, mainly Americans, to fight on Iraqi soil.
According to an exclusive poll by the YouGov institute for HuffPost France and Itélé, 46 percent of French respondents believe that France was involved “as much as necessary” in the conflict, versus only 7 percent who consider its investment was insufficient. And 27 percent find that French involvement in the war was excessive, though France took the lead in the axis of peace at the United Nations, alongside Germany, Russia and China.
At the time, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech at the UN marking France’s refusal to support the war in the Middle East gained rare national consensus and was applauded from one end of the French political spectrum to the other. It remains today a benchmark speech in international politics.
The outcome of the war, which left more than 4,000 dead on the American side and more than 100,000 on the Iraqi side, is also judged severely by French public opinion. Only 32 percent of respondents believe that the Iraqi people live better now than under Saddam Hussein. Twenty-three percent believe that on the contrary, Iraq was better off under the dictator’s rule, while 45 percent prefer not to express an opinion.
These responses are a sign that, 10 years later, the American offensive strong-armed by President George W. Bush, despite a veto threat from France, Russia and China in the UN Security Council, is still perceived as a hazardous war, the benefits of which the public has difficulty grasping.
That feeling is shared by many military strategists who believe that the human, financial and political cost of the war in Iraq continues to influence American diplomacy today.
“The Iraq experience has taught the United States to watch out for the slightest misstep,” said Steven Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank.
“Without even questioning whether a genuine democracy is viable or sustainable (in the Middle East), the United States did not derive any strategic benefit from the war in Iraq,” said Ramzy Mardini, of Beirut's Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.
This largely explains the reluctance of President Barack Obama -- elected in 2008 on the promise of withdrawing “our boys” from the Iraqi quagmire -- and the American public to engage militarily on other fronts. Regarding Libya, Mali and Syria, Washington has now assumed a political discourse that is certainly proactive but generally rules out any military intervention.
This reluctance is not, however, shared by France, despite the mixed results of its participation in the war in Afghanistan. In 10 years, France has not hesitated to commit its troops in three major conflicts: in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and in Mali on the decision of President François Hollande.
According to the same YouGov study, 45 percent of respondents support the French military strategy to eradicate terrorist cells in Mali, despite the threat it poses to the lives of French hostages held by the Islamist cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Having just announced plans to deliver arms to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, France is nonetheless measuring the risk of having its forces bogged down abroad. Hollande, whose popularity saw a slight rebound with the French military intervention in Mali, has made it known that the withdrawal of some 4,000 French soldiers from Mali will begin in April.
That, perhaps, is a sign that certain lessons of the war in Iraq have also been remembered on this side of the Atlantic.