Fri, 21 Mar 2003

Issues between U.S. and Europe should not replace issues for war

Frangois Godement, French Institute of International Relations, Paris, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

There has been such a dramatic series of clashes across the Atlantic that it would be easy to forget the reasons for it all -- Saddam Hussein, proliferation, terrorism and its backers. Yet these cross-Atlantic divisions are not new. What to do about Iraq has indeed divided the allies -- and American policy makers as well -- ever since the mid-1990s, but until now some clever compromises had helped maintain at least a semblance of unity.

The Clinton administration was unresolved about Iraq. In 1995, even while the U.S. undertook bombings, the Oil for Food deal was being penned at the United Nations. By appearing to take into account humanitarian considerations, while maintaining sanctions, the program had something for everybody. The Security Council, however, remained divided on the issue of sanctions, with France, Russia and China essentially in the same camp as they are today.

The Oil for Food program papered over the differences between allies, and then failed miserably on the ground. Although some food and medical supplies did go to the Iraqi people, untold resources poured directly into the government's coffers, strengthening the hard core of the Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein was on the road again, rewarding Palestinian suicide bombers by donating money to their families, praising the Sept. 11 attacks, and treading a thin line over al- Qaeda by approving its actions while denying any involvement.

When George W. Bush became president, the administration was headed first towards a reversal of several Clinton era policies. China, North Korea, and Iraq were candidates for a review of previous engagement, as was the U.S. military presence in the Balkans.

Relations with Europe were more of an unforeseen consequence than a major consideration. The Asia-Pacific mattered more to the administration and to the Pentagon. It is this benign neglect of old allies that turned into a potential crisis, and Sept. 11 the trigger.

For revenge, for the sake of speed, because the world's mightiest war machine had gone into autopilot after it received, almost immediately, its marching orders into Afghanistan, the alliance faded while an ad hoc coalition appeared, as determined by the Pentagon's military judgment.

NATO was called upon just once, for a blanket approval of what was to come, and never played a role again, except for the issue of providing European replacement troops in the Balkans.

In a sense, what is happening today across the Atlantic is a major replay of this scenario. True, Bush has made two eloquent and convincing speeches: One to the Bundestag in May 2002 on NATO, the other to the UN in September 2002, where the legal rationale for an offensive against Iraq was spelled out.

But these were isolated instances in the face of pep talks and press conference quips that captured the domestic press and the faithful, but that did not reach out to global public opinion. And least of all to several European leaders who felt that they were taken for granted.

Tony Blair put himself on the line with European and even Middle East audiences much more clearly by robustly backing Bush, even though Washington paid scant regard to his concern about finding an Israeli-Palestinian settlement until very late.

He has been rewarded recently by Donald Rumsfeld's apparently nonchalant assertion that if the British could not deliver, that changed nothing. The administration gave the impression that it was far more solicitous of new potential coalition members than of traditional allies.

This is not to exonerate the responsibility of some Europeans in what is now a major rift. That responsibility started earlier with the unrealistic ambition to take a lead role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That ambition slowly expanded, even though Europe lacked two essential components for peace-making -- credible influence, and the use of force -- to back any settlement. Europe paid cash to the Palestinian authority and pressured Israel, thus fueling false expectations among the Palestinians and the Arab world.

By inventing a role for itself after the Clinton peace process collapsed, Europe put itself in the position of down-selling not only Israel's but also America's negotiating positions. There followed an unprecedented media barrage in Europe, leading to a movement of public opinion that announced today's near-consensus against the offensive into Iraq.

Since the Bush administration had decided to play a deaf ear, letting the situation run its course on the ground, Europe's diplomacy drifted into frustration against its own ally.

The second fiddle syndrome has blossomed again over Iraq. True, the Bush administration made the major effort of talking out the terms of Resolution 1441 -- when it can indeed be argued at any time since 1998 that Iraq is in patent material breach of its cease-fire obligations.

But that resolution was ambiguous over the issue of how "material breach" would be finally determined at the UN, and left unsaid the decision process for "serious consequences" -- e.g., war. Then French ambassador to the UN Jean-David Levitte explained afterwards to the French press that success in brokering a resolution has been based on knowledge of a "red line" which diplomacy should not cross. One wonders today what this "red line" might have been, if not the implicit promise not to filibuster the UN decision process.

All this has now gone overboard. While one side has apparently supplied false sources on Iraq's purchase of nuclear material from Nigeria, the other now sees major progress and positive cooperation of Iraq with the UN inspectors.

Indeed, threatened with imminent and overwhelming invasion, Saddam may well suddenly find on his laboratory shelves some of the deadly Vx and anthrax that he claimed no longer existed, to be used against the invading troops.

In form, the Bush administration has had it all wrong from the start. Belittling the alliance's value through its numerous official or officious spokesmen, mixing arguments at will, invoking most often the legitimacy of self-defense while failing to argue convincingly to international public opinion that its security is threatened too, the administration has painted itself into a corner.

Ever since 1945, allied politics have implied the need to politically convince allies. To renounce that effort and predict the advent of coalitions over the alliance proved a self- fulfilling prophecy.

In substance, however, the European naysayers are mostly wrong. French pronouncements have hovered between the legitimate defense of multilateralism and the much more disquieting quest for "multipolarity".

Should the world return to a 19th century Metternichian concert of powers? Can there be an "international community" without an international order, and who among the allies has the strength to provide such an order, apart from the United States? Germany's Chancellor Schroeder has exclaimed that Europe's "sovereignty" was at stake.

Indeed, U.S. high-handedness and neglect of the alliance warrant some irritation. Would European sovereignty, however, be better served by postponing forever the day of reckoning with Iraq? While it is legitimate for European leaders to play their hand in transatlantic relations, the issue of the alliance should not replace the issue of the conflict itself -- and that, to this day, remains Iraq, proliferation and the Middle East's powder keg.