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Is Schröder Beating Around the Bush?

Is European criticism of the proposed U.S. attack against Iraq just an honest, open exchange of views among democratic friends?

August 22, 2002

Is European criticism of the proposed U.S. attack against Iraq just an honest, open exchange of views among democratic friends?

America's Western European allies have been nearly unanimous in their criticism of the Bush Administration's plans for an invasion of Iraq. Opposition has cut across ideological borders, bringing labor leaders together with politicians and members of the clergy — such as Rowan Williams, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has probably been the most outspoken leader — at least among NATO members — in his opposition to a U.S. campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Mr. Schröder has been openly critical of U.S. plans for military action, pledging never to commit German troops for what he termed an "adventure" in Iraq.

Of course many European leaders thought that they were just being honest, thus contributing to an open exchange of views among democratic friends. But this is not how it was taken by many in the United States.

Conservative publications have predictably accused European allies of being serial appeasers — not merely in the case of Saddam, but going back to Hitler, Stalin and before.

Political writer Walter Russell Mead, in his by now notorious article in the April 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, declared appeasement to be Europe's second nature. "Europeans have never met a ruler — Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein — they didn’t think could be softened up by concessions," he wrote.

Even the coverage of Schröder's remarks in the mainstream U.S. press has been unusually harsh, with criticism especially strong in the international and European editions of some major U.S. papers.

But, in the case of Schröder, Washington has gone from words to action. Dan Coats, George W. Bush's ambassador to Berlin, met with German officials to clarify Mr. Schröder's remarks, which particularly peeved the Bush Administration.

Some U.S. commentators have accused the German Chancellor of electioneering. They believe that he was stirring anti-American sentiment in order to enhance his support before the German general election on September 22.

Are Western Europeans so far on the left ideologically that they simply have nothing in common with the United States under a Republican administration? Both Germany and Great Britain, after all, have leftist governments.

It should be recalled that when the Cold War started, the one European ally that stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States was British Prime Minister Clement Richard Atlee, a member of the Labor Party.

Socialist and Social Democratic leaders in Western Europe got on well even with very conservative U.S. Presidents.

German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Francois Mitterand worked closely with Ronald Reagan. They stood up to Soviet expansionism in the 1980s — and helped bring the Cold War to successful conclusion.

Moreover, new voices are now emerging in the United States, repeating pretty much what Western Europeans have been saying. Amazingly, those voices come not from the Democratic Party, but from life-long, card-carrying Republicans — and even from the party's conservative wing.

Authoritative voices expressing their doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq have included Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf War, and Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations — and a leading practitioner of Realpolitik.

Brent Scowcroft, a close associate of George Bush, Sr. and National Security Advisor during the first Gulf War, wrote a critical op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Even the President's congressional allies — including Dick Armey and Richard Lugar — have made their skepticism public.

Some politicians are undoubtedly protecting themselves in case military action goes awry. After all, even Gen. Schwarzkopf expressed concern that invading Iraq in 2002 or 2003 may prove a lot tougher than expelling the Iraqi occupation force from Kuwait in 1991.

But there is also a more intriguing possibility. Could it be that U.S. political leaders on the right have become concerned about the damage inflicted on the transatlantic political and ideological alliance by U.S. unilateralism? By siding with Western Europe, are they trying to strengthen the historical ties that have become so badly frayed in recent years?

In any event, Gerhard Schröder may take some comfort in the fact that his cautious views on going after Iraq apparently are shared by quite a few influential Americans with very different ideological backgrounds.

It is good to see that a lively culture of open and honest debate continues to exist not only in transatlantic relations — but increasingly in the internal U.S. debate over Iraq. That, after all, is the only way a workable consensus on what to do about Iraq can emerge.

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