The recent war in the Persian Gulf has at least had the merit of dissipating one or two myths, even if it has also helped to generate new mirages.

One of the most pernicious of these myths was the belief, shared by France’s former defense minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, and other members of the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Association of which he was the vice-president, that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a truly “progressive” country. Not only because Saddam Hussein and his valiant countrymen were protecting other Arab countries from being overrun by the fanatical Islamic hordes of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, but because—as anyone who visited Baghdad could see with his or her own eyes—in Iraq women were no longer veiled.

This particular myth was splendidly punctured last February in a devastating article written for Le Figaro by one of its correspondents, Patrick de Saint-Exupéry. After ten days in Iraq, during which he kept his eyes as well as his ears fully open, he was flabbergasted by the astonishing backwardness of the country beyond the suburbs of Baghdad. Notwithstanding their sun-blessed (or sun-cursed) land’s enormous natural advantage in being irrigated by two important rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Iraqis, he discovered, were “a poor people, so poor that nearby Jordan, bereft of all resources, appears rich and opulent in comparison.”

Most of the fertile lands are fallow. An agricultural plan was indeed launched in 1975, but it remained a dead letter and was put into effect only after the start of the embargo. Today the irrigation canals, most of them dug since August 2, have remained in the blueprint stage and lead nowhere. Here and there greenhouse plantations rise from the level plain, but the furrows left by plows are virtually nonexistent. In villages far removed from the display window city of Baghdad there is still no running water or electricity. The highway alone is tarred; most of the alleyways and even the streets are stinking mud-holes bordered by rustic houses.


While visiting a cheap apartment block, “built by the government” near the oil depots of Nassiriyah . . . one thing leapt to the eye: the houses had been built next to a pestilential salty marsh, and it required real effort to imagine anyone being able to live there.

Even in Baghdad he was amazed by the wretchedness of ordinary habitations once he left the areas dominated by ultramodern hotels, ministries, and luxurious apartment buildings. Invited by a friendly official from the Ministry of Information to share a cup of coffee in his home, Saint-Exupéry was appalled by the leprous state of the walls, by the rickety condition of the furniture, only fifteen years old, and dumbfounded to find that the kitchen, though it had a refrigerator, contained no stove but only a small Butagaz burner.

Today, thanks to the blaze of publicity suddenly focused on Iraq, we know the reason for this poverty and squalor. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was little more than a huge, 20th-century Potemkin village (Baghdad), glitteringly erected to dazzle foreign eyes and to conceal the extent to which the country’s resources were being taxed and strained to support an extravagantly large and costly war machine.

The second alluring myth, to which so many French businessmen succumbed, was the belief that because of its vast wealth—15 percent or more of the world’s known oil reserves—Iraq was an “ideal” business partner, one that was scrupulously correct in honoring its contracts, punctually paying, as the French picturesquely put it, rubis sur l’ongle—like a ruby on the nail, or, translated into the rougher language of our cowboy West, cash on the barrel.

For years, prior to the invasion of Kuwait, the French public had been vaguely aware that Iraq was a kind of El Dorado for French businessmen, engineers, and, of course, weapons manufacturers. But it was not until last autumn and even more this spring that certain Paris weeklies began to reveal the crazy extremes to which this Iraqophilia had been carried. Thus it was the Spie-BatignoUes firm that built Baghdad’s brand-new airport, Bouygues (the world’s largest reinforced-concrete construction company) that erected Saddam Hussein’s neo-Babylonian palace, Dumez that built barracks for the Iraqi army; just as it was a team of French engineers and technicians who built the nuclear plant at Tammouz, in the suburbs of Baghdad—which the nervous Israelis reduced to rubble in a bombing raid staged in 1982. It was also a French firm, Protec, based in Alsace and working hand in glove with two German concerns, Karl Kolb and Wet, that helped to supply Iraq with chemicals for “pesticides,” easily diverted for the manufacture of toxic gases.

During 1989 alone—that is to say after the conclusion of the “heroically defensive” war against Iran, which justified massive military support—the Soviet Union, West Germany, and France are estimated to have furnished Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with 15 billion dollars’ worth of arms—and this at a time when Iraq was already staggering under an international debt of close to 80 billion dollars. If George Bernard Shaw had lived long enough to witness these developments, he could have stroked his patriarchal beard and chuckled, “Reread Major Barbara.” Seldom in modern times have the Undershafts of this world had it so good! At any rate in appearance. For once France’s governmental underwriters began to peel away the layers of euphoric camouflage enveloping these matters, they discovered the bitter truth: Saddam Hussein’s “progressive” and “scrupulously punctual” Iraq had long since ceased paying cash on the petroleum barrel. Payments for delivered goods and services were no longer being made on time or even at all, with the result that French firms were having to apply for compensation from the French State’s official credit-insuring agency (the so-called COFACE). The total loss in poorly honored contracts has been reckoned at 29 billion francs—not far from six billion dollars, at an exchange rate of five francs to the dollar. Once again, French taxpayers will have to pay the bill for these financial follies.

The third myth, like Johnny Walker, has yet to stumble and fall on its face. This is the appealing notion that the war in the Gulf was essentially fought to establish what George Bush somewhat rashly called a “New World Order”—the latest in a series of neo-Utopian prescriptions (Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”) to which American Presidents seem incurably addicted. Because they are socialists and members of a party that, like the Labour Party in Britain, has had a long and intellectually compelling pacifist tradition, both President Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Roland Dumas were more than happy to embrace this planetary program, since the idea that international law could not be flouted with impunity and that naked aggression practiced by the strong against the weak had to be punished provided France with a valuable moral basis for its support of the United States and, more specifically, of George Bush, who, like Ronald Reagan before him, is regarded with instinctive suspicion by many French left-wingers. This was particularly important for Mitterrand and Dumas, given the strong ideological aversion felt by many French socialists for a war that was going to be fought (and which was eventually fought) to protect capitalistic and, in particular, American petroleum interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Nothing, in the eyes of such anticapitalistic diehards, could seem more iniquitous than a war “fought for petroleum.”

The simple fact of the matter, however, is that the recent war was not primarily fought for petroleum. One of the first to point this out, within days of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, was Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the able managing editor of Le Figaro and, incidentally, the author of what is probably the most devastating analysis in book form of François Mitterrand’s nine-year reign. What was basically at issue in the Gulf conflict and what made it so serious, Giesbert pointed out, was that Saddam Hussein was well on his way to developing atomic weapons. No amount of pacifist hand-wringing or vociferations could alter this ominous reality.

This lucid appraisal was fully borne out by subsequent events. If the underlying issue had simply been a moral one (defending the weak against the strong), or one of keeping Iraq’s dictator from sitting on top of 35 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, economic sanctions and an embargo would probably have sufficed to bring him slowly to heel, and a war could have been avoided. But the stark reality was that the world did not have that much time, and that meanwhile the atomic clock was ominously ticking.

The basic issue was admirably summed up last February by another best-selling author and a dedicated myth-buster, the TV commentator François de Closets. This is what he had to say in an article published in the left-wing (and often stridently anti-Bush) weekly, L’Evénement du Jeudi:

A nuclear war was brewing in the Middle East; it would have become inevitable if the West did not, no matter what it cost, undertake to defuse this atomic bomb.


These particular conditions did not exist when the Chinese invaded Tibet, when the Red Army penetrated into Afghanistan, or when Syria intervened in Lebanon. They are the ones that played a determining role in the evolution of the crisis. For the Americans, the annexation of Kuwait offered an opportunity to destroy the power of Iraq before the Israelis did it with atomic bombs.

It would be difficult, I think, to formulate a more succinct and penetrating resume of the basic issue involved: not one of fighting for oil, but of forestalling a desperate resort to atomic weapons. In this respect the recent Gulf war differs radically from the other wars in which the United States has been involved—in Korea and Vietnam, and in the brief campaigns conducted in Santo Domingo (under Johnson), Grenada, and Panama.

In George Bernard Shaw’s day the Undershafts of this world were already a troubling lot; today, they have become an international problem, and indeed a menace. “On n’arrête pas le progrès” (there’s no stopping progress), the ironic phrase has it, and the same goes for science. As Alexandre de Marenches, the former head of France’s secret intelligence agency, pointed out during a televised roundtable discussion last January: “The miniaturization of atomic bombs has long since begun, and it is going to pose an increasingly grave problem for the responsible governments in the world to keep crackpot dictators from laying their hands on such destructive weapons for blackmail, terrorism, or other aggressive purposes.”

Much as one may regret it, the fact remains that the world is steadily shrinking. The planet—as Jean-François Revel pointed out in his most recent book, La Connaissance inutile (“useless” in the sense of “thwarted” knowledge)—is now bound from one pole to the other by an increasingly dense network of communications and international standards, particularly in the fields of economics, mathematics, and the “exact” sciences, which have “objective” validity—in the sense that rulers who reject these standards, in the name of “cultural identity” or “ethnocentric values,” inevitably condemn their subjects to varying degrees of backwardness, poverty, and state-sponsored stupidity. A facile piece of rhetoric though it is, the alternative to George Bush’s New International Order is almost certain to be a New International Disorder, and on an ever more dangerous scale for the future of the human race.

Nietzsche, for once, was being overly optimistic when he spoke of die fröhliche Wissenschaft—le gai savoir, “cheerful knowledge.” Baudelaire, no friend of progress, may have been closer to the truth in referring to knowledge as “bitter”—”amer savoir” (in his famous poem, Le Voyage)—and to the world as “monotone et petit.” Monotonous the contemporary world certainly is not, but small, alas, it has most definitely become.