Tietzen on Bozo, 'A History of the Iraq Crisis: France, the United States, and Iraq, 1991-2003'

Frédéric Bozo
Katelyn Tietzen

Frédéric Bozo. A History of the Iraq Crisis: France, the United States, and Iraq, 1991-2003. Washington, DC, and New York: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Columbia University Press, 2016. 408 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-70444-1.

Reviewed by Katelyn Tietzen (US Army Center for Military History) Published on H-War (January, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56795

In the wake of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Francophobia exploded in the United States. French fries were out, “freedom” fries were in. One could no longer order French toast on Air Force One, but only “freedom” toast instead (p. 273). References to the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” an insult first uttered by Groundskeeper Willie, the famed Simpsons character, now re-entered conservative US media discourse.[1] Alarmed by the rhetoric, French embassy officials sent their American counterparts lists of anti-French incidents, including one where a former Marine murdered a French-speaking bartender in Florida (p. 274).

How did the US-Franco relationship, an alliance that dated back to the American Revolution, devolve to this point? For Frederic Bozo, the invasion of Iraq played an integral role in this division. And yet, Iraq is not entirely to blame. In A History of the Iraq Crisis: France, the United States, and Iraq, 1991-2003, Bozo argues that it was competing visions for the post-Cold War era that laid the groundwork for this break. France was motivated by neither anti-Americanism nor financial interests. Instead, the French rejected American desire for a unipolar world with Washington, DC, at the helm. Iraq, therefore, served as the match for the firewood.

The book’s arguments are not entirely new. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration deemed that it must remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq to prevent the next attack on American soil. The United States subsequently tied weapons of mass destruction (WMD), al-Qaeda, and Saddam together. In contrast, the French did not believe that Iraq possessed WMD. They also considered the alleged Saddam-jihadi terrorism affiliation to be implausible. Even then, French officials contended that Saddam was a lesser threat than others, say Iran or climate change. Entering the new millennium, differences between Paris and Washington boiled down to two camps: regime change or changing the regime.

While the French wanted a legal and diplomatic solution, the Americans proved eager to rid Saddam with military force. Bozo offers a nuanced, sometimes tedious, view of how hard the French fought, both privately and publicly, to prevent war. Yet, no matter how frustrated, Paris never cut off communications or channels with their American counterparts. To be sure, the French resented American efforts to manipulate NATO and the United Nations, moving to thwart American intentions more than once. And yet, it was extremely difficult operating in a climate where the Bush administration abhorred any opposition or hesitation to remove Saddam.

In all, Bozo narrows down the French attitude to three things. For one, France did not intend on becoming an American puppet in this new era. It disliked America’s philosophy that it alone could both define and then solve the world’s problems. Citing the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq, the French called for significant changes to the sanction strategy. In fairness, they also blamed Saddam’s corruption for creating these conditions. However, many French diplomats believed that the US was hell-bent on bullying Iraq, no matter the consequences. Second, Paris feared a post-Saddam region without proper contingency and policy plans in place. French officials were stunned to learn that the Bush administration did not consider these procedures as necessary. Finally, France rejected being considered an afterthought by the Americans. As a crucial ally, the French did not take lightly the idea that their opinions did not matter, especially in a region with which they had historical familiarity.

As Bozo persuasively demonstrates, diplomacy was not easy. While the Americans forged ahead with invasion plans, the French scrambled to shore up allies in Europe, Africa, and the United Nations. But even in Paris, this was a difficult task. How to handle the Americans and their allies split French officials. Moreover, the French military felt shut out by their French civilian counterparts and their American military partners. Iraqi actions also complicated matters. Saddam miscalculated American objectives and overestimated how long the global community could hold back the Bush administration. Despite French efforts to facilitate negotiations or generate extra time for weapons inspections, Baghdad’s intransigence only galvanized the American cause. French officials were enraged with Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with UN inspectors. They were also dismayed when Baghdad selectively granted access to their weapons program. Paris waged a two-front political war in this sense: tempering American desire to invade and weathering Iraqi ambivalence and noncompliance.

This study stresses the influence of intelligence on strategy and diplomacy. Bozo spends a considerable amount of time illustrating how intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMD ambitions and capabilities divided the two allies. Differences concerned how that intelligence was collected, assessed, and analyzed. The French believed the Americans purposely distorted and presented false intelligence. In addition, frustrations grew in Paris when the Americans disregarded any and all evidence that challenged their assessments. A notable example is the “Curveball” source, the alleged Iraqi informant who lied to German intelligence about Iraq’s mobile bio-laboratories. In another instance, a forgery convinced the Americans that Iraq attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. Not only skeptical, France believed this incident showed proved that the Bush administration was nefariously manipulating intelligence.

The book also highlights the importance of key individuals. Vice President Dick Cheney’s August 2002 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention galvanized the neoconservative agenda and its proponents. US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in early February 2003 helped convince many that the Bush administration was on to something. And yet, it cost him his credibility with the French. Caught in the middle, French diplomats, notably Jean-David Levitte (France’s ambassador to the UN) and Dominique de Villepin (France’s foreign minister) tried to navigate American political circles and balance them with the UN and France. For Bozo, there are heroes, and there are villains in this story. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, is among the former. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is among the latter.

Reconciliation began soon after the invasion commenced. The deteriorating situation in Iraq only hastened the return of the Franco-American relationship to antebellum status. By 2007, both Washington and Paris came to regard Iraq as a periphery concern. Administration changes and other events—Hurricane Katrina, climate change, Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria—helped to shift these priorities. As Bozo notes, the Americans treated several French diplomats harshly, both publicly and privately, before the invasion (e.g., p. 199) Condoleezza Rice famously commented that the Americans would “punish France, forgive Russia, and ignore Germany” (p. 276). Now, however, the US acted as if everything were normal once again.

This is an excellent book for undergraduates in upper-level classes and graduate students. It joins recent histography that traces the First Gulf War (1990-91) through the decade to the 2003 invasion.[2] In other words, the road leading to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM does not begin with the 9/11 attacks. Whereas recent publications have focused on the internal workings of the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations,Bozo’s French perspective gives the reader greater insight into the ten-plus years of diplomatic wrangling.[3]

Second, to narrate the decade and the immediate months and days leading up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bozo consulted multiple non-American archives. These include the National Archives in Paris, Archives of the French Embassy in Washington, numerous French foreign affairs (and Quai d’Orsay) archives. In addition, he conducted over seventy interviews with French officials in Paris and Washington as well.

The author uses several memoirs and biographies to balance out these archival sources. He treats them fairly and objectively. Using evidence from the archives and interviews, he shows numerous instances when narratives are distorted, accidentally or on purpose. This treatment extends to all subjects—George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and more. He illustrates the power of these memories and the inherent danger of believing them wholeheartedly without the proper context. This is arguably the book’s most significant contribution.

In Jacques Chirac’s view, President Bush was already trying to rewrite the narrative in September 2003. The American president’s attempts to justify the chaos in Iraq fell flat with his French counterpart. Undeterred and unconvinced, Chirac responded with “history will judge” (p. 286). Frederic Bozo’s A History of the Iraq Crisis joins fresh scholarship that is delivering such judgment.


This review does not represent the Department of Defense or the US Army. These views are mine alone.

[1]. The episode, “Round Springfield,” first aired on April 30, 1995.

[2]. Samuel Helfont, “The Gulf War’s Afterlife: Dilemmas, Missed Opportunities, and the Post-Cold War Order Undone,” Texas National Security Review 4, no. 2 (Spring 2021), http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/13200.

[3]. Joseph Stieb, The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990-2003 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration took America into Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2021).

Citation: Katelyn Tietzen. Review of Bozo, Frédéric, A History of the Iraq Crisis: France, the United States, and Iraq, 1991-2003. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56795

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.