In early November 1986, just as the Iran arms story was breaking, Washington Times editor Arnaud de Borchgrave interviewed French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. On November 7, de Borchgrave published a front-page story based on the interview highlighting Chirac’s suspicion, which the prime minister also attributed to West German leaders, that the well-publicized Syrian bomb plot against an Israeli jetliner was concocted by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Israeli and American officials and media were then playing up the London trial of suspect Nizar Hindawi in order to distract attention from the Iran arms scandal and the capture of American mercenary Eugene Hasenfus in Nicaragua. It is not clear if de Borchgrave violated some understanding with Chirac when he cited the prime minister as his source, instead of the usual “senior officials.” In any case, Chirac denied he ever said any such thing. Three days later, on November 10, de Borchgrave published the verbatim transcript We reprint it here in full, with the permission of the Washington Times, except for the last three questions and answers, which have to do with the Reykjavik summit. Chirac presents a European perspective on recent Middle East developments and US policy which is seldom aired in the United States. He is a leader of the conservative political forces in France, but by all accounts his scathing dismissal of the Israeli-American “anti-terrorism” campaign is one widely shared in European political and popular circles across the political spectrum. It is doubly ironic that this perspective was aired in the Washington Times, published by the right-wing Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon. De Borchgrave is a zealous exponent of the view, apparent in his questions here, that terrorism is essentially a Moscow plot, controlled by the Kremlin and carried out by Palestinians, Syrians, Bulgarians and other Soviet dupes.

A few days after the two truck bomb explosions that killed 319 US and French soldiers in Beirut on October 23, 1983, some Western intelligence services had the names of three Syrian intelligence officers who were directly involved in this terrorist action, which not only triggered the unraveling of the entire Western position in Lebanon but actually changed the course of history. Now a British court of law has established beyond the shadow of a legal doubt a direct link between Syrian intelligence services and the failed plane bomb which would have cost the lives of 376 people. The investigation also established that Syrians, as well as Libyans, were involved in the disco bombing in West Berlin which triggered retaliatory US airstrikes against Libya on April 14. So my question is why does the French government continue to play a charade designed to give the benefit of the doubt to Syria?

I must be frank and tell you that American reactions are at times a little primitive. I observed that for a long time and until quite recently Libya obtained much of its oil revenue from business transactions with American oil companies while at the same time, on the political level, Libya was subject to bitter criticisms, even the target of aggression by the Americans. I cannot say that American policy toward Libya was crowned with success. On the other hand, I have observed that public opinion in the Middle East — in moderate countries who are our friends and who are confronted with exceedingly difficult problems, whether deteriorating standards of living or the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, and who should therefore be protected — is being systematically incited by American initiatives to adopt anti-American and anti-Western attitudes and thus challenge their own moderate regimes. So I wonder whether certain American initiatives are really appreciated beyond their immediate quick-fix impact. Throughout this period, I have seen a US administration pursue a perfectly normal, open policy toward Syria — normal trade, normal discussions and relations.

Then, all of a sudden I see the US administration, in close liaison with the British government, launch a bitter accusatory campaign against the Syrian authorities. I cannot be suspected of aiding terrorism, but all of this calls for a few observations on my part which should not cause knees to jerk reflexively.

First let me explain the reasons why France is deeply concerned by what is happening in the Middle East. France has been present in the area a lot longer than the Americans — and beyond material considerations, France is present in Lebanon, at the very heart of the region’s complexities. We are also in the hearts of all Lebanese factions. So we are also the principal target of those whose objective is to expel the West, whether they are near or far.

We have seven centuries of common civilization. We have a vital interest, therefore, in seeing Lebanon recover its independence in a multi-religious society. We also must recognize that there is no Lebanese solution that ignores Syria and its own interests. So before charging forth like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, we should face the incontrovertible evidence that there is no peaceful solution in Lebanon without talking to Syria. All Lebanese factions have reached a similar conclusion — Christians, Druze, Shi‘a (Amal, not Hizballah of course), Sunnis — and all want France to maintain decent relations with Syria.

I am in complete agreement with the need to maintain Western solidarity, more specifically European Community solidarity. But those who believe that France is going to suddenly change its Middle Eastern policy without thinking it through because of one member’s initiative (i.e., Britain) are making a serious mistake.

It is said that Syria is implicated in a terrorist affair. I do not have the means to verify the accuracy of the charge. If the proof is irrefutable, France, of course, will express solidarity with Britain, and that will be decided one way or another on November 10 at our next Community meeting. I note, however, that despite the accusations against Syria, negotiations with that country are continuing. Another American hostage has just been released, and I am delighted. But my own motivations go beyond the liberation of hostages and are inspired by the urgent need to restore peace to the region, particularly to Lebanon.

Your own intelligence services have known for a long time what has been going on with state-sponsored terrorism. In 1978, at the headquarters of your external intelligence service, I was shown a huge wall map covered with multi-colored pins which represent known contacts between members of international terrorist cells and known agents of Eastern secret services. I also read one of your intelligence reports which explained in detail how the Eastern bloc decided in Havana in January 1966, at the first Tri-Continental Solidarity Conference, to organize, train and fund different international terrorist groups to destabilize Western democracies while at the same time practicing “peaceful coexistence” on a government-to-government level. Why then do governments continue to sweep all of this under the rug while knowing that certain states are waging a war, albeit by indirect terrorist means?

If you tell me that we are going to declare war on a number of countries and bring them to their knees, that is a strategy that could be debated, though I do not hear anyone suggesting such a course. But it if is merely a war of words, I say watch out. We are faced with a situation in that part of the world which is exceedingly delicate and explosive and requires a modicum of psychology and long-term thinking and planning. It is the lack of peace that brings us terrorism. The city of Paris, of which I am still mayor, has paid a heavy price recently with major acts of terrorism, so obviously my motives cannot be questioned in this regard.

So you feel that appeasement and accommodation are the only way to cope with the international terror network that our last two secretaries of state and your own intelligence service say is linked to the Eastern secret services?

Either I speak my own mind and you can’t quote me, or it’s on the record and I don’t speak my own mind. Which will it be?

I won’t quote you, but I must be able to reflect your thinking, especially in light of the bitter criticism that has been leveled against you on both sides of the Atlantic.

You can write what I believe, but I don’t wish to be quoted. And everyone will know that what you write after such a visit will be authoritative.

Well, you know what our own intelligence services believe to be the connections between the states that sponsor terrorism and those that carry it out. I first was shown very convincing evidence by Alexander de Marenches in 1978, and he ran your service for 11 years. Your services and our own are worthless. Moreover, they are penetrated. I’m talking about 1978. The era of Marenches and Roussin, who was once Marenches’ chief of staff and now serves you in the same capacity.

No different then. They’ve always been penetrated.

Aren’t you saying that because they’re telling you things you don’t want to hear?

I really don’t believe in their effectiveness — be it the CIA or ours — unless a country is at war. Not in peacetime. Today the Israelis are good. So are the South Africans and the Iraqis.

The Mossad certainly confirms the existence of a terror network and its international connections.

Yes, but we know the Israelis have special motivations.

Andrei Sakharov himself, in his political testament smuggled out to the West in early 1980, warned us to take seriously allegations of links between the KGB and its proxy services on the one hand, and international terrorist groups on the other.

That is self-evident. But let’s take the Syrian affair. I spoke to both [West German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl and [Foreign Minister] Hans-Dietrich Genscher about it. I don’t go as far as they do, but their thesis is that the [Nizar] Hindawi plot was a provocation designed to embarrass Syria and destabilize the Asad regime. Who was behind it? Probably people connected with the Israeli Mossad in conjunction with certain Syrian elements close to Asad who seek his overthrow. Things of this nature are infinitely complex.

But Asad is in complete control of his own secret services.

Yes, but it’s also a real can of worms. Nobody really knows what role his brother Rif‘at is playing. Is Rif‘at manipulating Asad? And who is manipulating Rif‘at? The experts who know the Syrian ambassador, who was alleged to have been part of the plot and who was expelled from Britain, say it is utterly implausible, nay impossible, that he had contact with Hindawi. That Hindawi had contacts with certain members of a Syrian service is another matter.

But the British are pretty good with electronic surveillance, and they know what happened between Hindawi and the Syrian ambassador.

Nothing is easier than to fake that kind of evidence without government leaders knowing about the real plot.

I know the British service chief. He’s a straight shooter, and such diabolical schemes to entrap his own prime minister are definitely not his cup of tea.

Be that as it may, I am always suspicious of this sort of affair, especially when it fits into a certain policy. First it was Libya, and now it’s Syria. Syria has certainly been involved, either directly or indirectly, in a number of terrorist actions. That I don’t doubt. But if one then adopts a confrontational attitude which translates into a lot of barking and no action, one only encourages them to pursue such terrorist policies. I am in favor of actions when they pay off. But when they are clumsy or purely verbal, it’s counterproductive.

Is that how you would characterize the US air strikes of April 14 against Libya?

Totally, completely counterproductive.

Didn’t Col. Qaddafi lie low for a few months?

If Qaddafi calmed down for while, it had absolutely nothing to do with the American raid. It’s because he has a real problem with his own army. This predated the air strikes and was so serious that Qaddafi felt compelled to assassinate Col. Hasan Ishkal, who was his own cousin, the leader of his tribe, a close confidant and comrade-in-arms since day one of the revolution. This was the man we had hoped would succeed Qaddafi one day. The army has been shaken to its foundations by the ongoing ill-fated Libyan military adventure in Chad, where Qaddafi’s troops have had to put up with appalling conditions. The economy was in dreadful shape. It was all these factors that destabilized Qaddafi, not US bombs.

I will always remember when I first heard that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was planning to attack Iran. As I knew him personally, I sent him a message to tell him I thought it was sheer madness. He replied that I was wrong because he knew from his intelligence services that the Iranian army was thoroughly demoralized, that the Arab minority in Iran would rise up and greet the Iraqis with open arms and that it would all be over in a week. He ignored my subsequent entreaty begging him not to proceed with his military plans, intoxicated as he was by his secret service. And what happened? Saddam Hussein has rendered a fabulous service to his enemy, Khomeini, by helping him consolidate his regime, creating the kind of regional destabilization that suits the Soviet Union and radicalizing the spread of fundamentalism from the Gulf to the Atlantic. By the same token, the Americans with their farcical air raid merely retarded the destabilization of Qaddafi’s regime and enabled the colonel to reweld his restless people against the “Great Satan,” as America is known in those circles. If at least the airstrike had killed him.

You mean if the US had submitted to you a plan for the overthrow of Qaddafi you would have felt differently about refusing overflight rights to US F-111s based in Britain?

I will not answer that question. All I’m trying to explain is that when you attack without the means to see an action through to a successful conclusion, all you’re doing is mobilizing opinion against you. Your image in moderate pro-Western countries like Tunisia, and throughout the Middle East for that matter, and therefore the Western image as a whole, is tarnished, diminished. This means that moderate, pro-Western countries who are, in effect, our allies in the area, are that much more fragile. It’s a feel-good policy, an upper that is followed by a downer. That one should do that in an election campaign I can understand, but it is still called demagoguery.

But surely states that sponsor terrorism against Western democracies consider themselves to be in a state of war, albeit undeclared and conducted by covert means.

Mention something specific.

[Italian] Prime Minister [Bettino] Craxi announced in February 1985 that 44 of Italy’s most dangerous Red Brigade terrorists were based in Nicaragua. It was also disclosed that five of them are serving as non-commissioned officers in the Sandinista army. Isn’t this yet another manifestation of the tacit alliance between like-minded radical states who practice terrorism against Western democracies?

I managed to change France’s policy toward Central America, and I explained to Secretary Shultz very clearly that this region was of vital interest to the US and, therefore, America’s policy should be shown the Western solidarity that it merits.

Just as the US has supported France during the 11 military interventions it has conducted in Africa since 1962 to defend what France regarded as vital interests?

With some exceptions. Chad, for example.

I thought we had backed you to the hilt in Chad during your two most recent operations to block Qaddafi’s Islamic Legions.

Not really. It wasn’t very wise of you to encourage [Chadian President] Hissene Habre to cross the sixteenth parallel, which we had agreed would be the dividing line between Libyan-occupied northern Chad and the rest of the country.

I’m not sure I understand why it is OK for France to intervene militarily to defend its interests, but not for the US to do the same.

The question in my mind is whether the US has the capability and the will to reduce Libya and Syria. If the US has the will to reduce these states to the point where they will not be able to do what they say they are doing, then it is incumbent upon the US to speak out and act. But, if all the US can do is bark, then it is better off to stay silent lest one be accused of demagoguery.

You are saying the US does not have the will to act?

That is self-evident. The first question we have to ask ourselves is: What is the objective?

Ideally, first of all, we want a situation in the Middle East that will be conducive to restoring peace — within present borders, of course. That is one objective. In other words, that Lebanon once again become an independent, peaceful nation, obviously in a close partnership with Syria; secondly, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict which presupposes a solution for the Palestinians, admittedly not an easy thing to achieve; and thirdly, we clearly want the Arab regimes that are friends and allies of the Western world, by definition the moderate ones, which are extremely fragile, to be supported and safeguarded — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Gulf Emirates. That is, after all, your policy as well as ours, and that is why you are giving substantial aid to Egypt.

And all of this, of course, presently rests on the fragile foundations of Arab public opinion which is only too willing to be fanaticized and susceptible to xenophobia and holy war, and who is constantly being asked to shoulder the burden of deteriorating standards of living, lower oil prices and an exploding birth rate. All this is, of course, by definition, destabilizing and all the more reason for outsiders not to be fanning the flames.

Surrounding the whole problem is a panoply of Muslim fundamentalism. The only conclusion one can draw is that the West must manage this enormous crisis with a lot of prudence and not allow itself to be deflected by a few bombs going off in the streets of their capitals. The big bomb is not the one that explodes on the Rue de Rennes, but the one that could explode all over the Arab world if Arab public opinion is pushed against the wall. That is the real bomb. And this one is not to be confused with Qaddafi’s latest hyperbole.

This is an extraordinary danger for all of us coming from Iran. Iran, since the sixth century BC, has been taking two steps forward and one step back. We are now seeing Iran taking a step back into the past. I remember when I was last prime minister in 1974 telling my American colleagues they were pushing the Shah and Iran too rapidly into the modern era. They simply do not have the capacity to absorb such a rapid evolution.

And our common objective here should be to prevent the stampede of fundamentalism throughout the region. France is doing its bit in this context by helping Iraq contain it. But Britain continues to sell arms to Iran, and we now hear the US does too, and they don’t even bother to conceal what they are doing. So much for Western solidarity. And what about the Israelis? They too, continue to sell arms to Iran despite all the denials we have heard.

So when I am accused of a lack of solidarity over this latest incident in London, permit me to say there are much bigger fish to fry. And the biggest fish of all is to prevent this religious anti-Western fanaticism from engulfing the entire region. And that, let me reiterate, is far more important than severing relations with Syria over some incident in London or some bomb that goes off down the street.

Insofar as these acts of terrorism are concerned, I have done everything that can be done, such as controlling our frontiers more strictly and deploying more security forces. But I don’t lose sight of the fact that even the wave of terrorism we suffered in September is small potatoes next to the major problem I am raising here today. And who in Europe is trying to dike the flood tide of fundamentalism? I have to conclude that France is alone in this regard. I don’t see anyone bringing up the flanks. We should lean over backward not to destabilize the moderate states of the Arab world. I mean those who are on our side: Mubarak, Hussein and the rest of our friends.

But they, too, would dearly love to get rid of Qaddafi.

Of course, but they will never say so publicly, and that is perfectly understandable. So what do you do? Lean over backward not to feed anti-Western feelings. Remember that each time one attacks an Arab anywhere, all the Arabs will feel compelled to show solidarity with what they perceive to be the victim.

Even when Iraq was clearly the aggressor against Iran, all the other Arabs closed ranks behind Iraq. So I am really astonished that a country like the US does not understand this and still goes for the quick feel-good fix. It is irresponsible. Or that a country like Britain wants us all to sever relations with Syria because of some obscure bomb plot that misfired. Do they really think that people will then say, “Bravo, they’ve got balls”?

More important is the reaction in the souks of Tunis. The little man there will see that once again the Arabs are being victimized by the West. Their perception of events is simply not the same as ours. Do you really think that the average Lebanese gives a damn about a bomb going off in Paris?

Two days after that bomb went off on Rue de Rennes, I went to visit some of the victims at the hospital. Two were young Lebanese girls in their late teens. One had her foot amputated and the other had multiple fractures in both legs. They were cheerful and elicited the admiration of the entire hospital staff and boosted the morale of the other 35 that were in that hospital. I asked the Lebanese girls how long they had been in France. They told me that they had arrived two days before, so I asked them why they had come to Paris, and they replied, “Oh, our parents told us it was time to take a break from all those bombs that were going off in Beirut, and they arranged for us to have a quiet month with friends in Paris.” They are used to this sort of thing. It has become routine for the Lebanese.

Here the Israelis get upset when a bomb goes off at the Wailing Wall, but they seem to forget that what the Arabs see is that the Israelis bomb Palestinian camps and kill and maim all sorts of innocent people. That is called retaliation. I suppose it makes them feel better. So, when they see Western countries retaliating against Libya or Syria — two countries they do not like for a host of reasons — for acts of terrorism, they suspect Western motives since they themselves have been victims of terrorism on a mass scale for years. Their perception is that Western countries are taking leave of their critical faculties. Each perceived act of aggression against the Arabs merely contributes to building up the pressure for the really big explosion. This merely plays into the hands of the people who are trying to radicalize the Arab world.

There are other ways of fighting terrorism besides self-gratification. We are courting disaster if we continue to undermine the moderate states of the area by taking initiatives that are perceived totally different in the Arab world than they are in the West. All we do is make them more vulnerable. The martyred people of Lebanon are certainly more deserving of our attention than the few bombs that the terrorists set off in Western countries.

But hasn’t Lebanon ceased to exist as a state?

Yes, but there is something called the Lebanese people, who have been around a lot longer than the American people and with far older traditions. These people must be backed up and helped and the state resurrected.

Three days ago, I received the new Maronite patriarch, and he pleaded with me not to go along with the British request for a break in diplomatic relations with Syria. And yet this man hates the Syrians. He insisted that we continue the dialogue with Syria even though he himself has refused to go to Damascus.

Surely we are not going to turn our backs on Lebanon and allow a Hitler-type “final solution” to take place there. And if the rest of the Western world doesn’t give a damn, France does. There is a large Christian population there, and we are obligated to ensure that they are not massacred. That means they cannot afford to ignore the Syrian factor in the equation. Just because a lot of dogs are barking does not mean that one severs relations with Syria and hang the consequences.

So for us, everything hinges on saving Lebanon. There is no other solution than to maintain our presence there, unless, of course, the US suddenly becomes serious about sending in the Marines and suggests to France a joint operation. That would be a serious proposal that would have to be taken seriously. It is a policy that we might not agree with, but at least it would be a policy. But if it is just going to go on barking, I am sorry, count me out.

The alternative, which we favor, is to continue to talk to Syria. Yesterday you barked at Libya, today you are barking at Syria, and meanwhile, bombs are still going off in our countries, and our hostages are still being detained. So let’s put everything back into context with a long-range plan with well-defined steps toward our ultimate objective. This means ignoring the apprentice witch doctors of our secret services.

And doesn’t it also mean that you feel free to sell arms to Syria?

That is total disinformation. When I took over as prime minister earlier this year, I discovered that France had arms contacts with Syria in 1982 and 1984. I suspended them before all this happened.

If I understand you correctly, prime minister, you are saying that if we don’t have the political will to send in the Marines, either with you or with others or alone, then there is no alternative to appeasing and accommodating leaders like Asad and Qaddafi?

I am saying that there is another policy to be followed toward them besides barking in the dark, which leads nowhere. I have made it very clear to the Syrians that I have no reason to suspect that Syria participated from near or afar in acts of terrorism on French territory. But I also made clear to the Syrians that if we should come upon irrefutable evidence of their involvement, we shall take measures that will not be verbal ones.

In other words, the evidence that came out of a British court of law is phony in your judgment?

No, I did not say that. I have not been given the complete file and, therefore, I am not rendering judgment. I merely told you what West Germany’s leaders believe and while I tend to share. I also noticed that Britain made certain proposals to its European partners and subsequently withdrew them, and I am confident in telling you that when the European partners meet again November 10, wiser counsels will prevail, and a common position toward terrorism in general, and toward Syria in particular, will emerge.

How to cite this article:

"Document: “American Reactions Are a Little Primitive”," Middle East Report 144 (January/February 1987).

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