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The Western Alliance After Iraq

Will the transatlantic alliance learn an important lesson from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Iraq?

February 18, 2003

Will the transatlantic alliance learn an important lesson from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Iraq?

There certainly are lots of storm clouds over the Atlantic these days. Optimists in Washington and London and Brussels note that the Atlantic Alliance has been through such crises before — and got over them.

And, they add, that no matter how hopeless relations with Paris and Berlin may look now, diplomats earn their pay by overcoming such crises.

Such optimism, however, has to overcome another big challenge looming large.

In the aftermath of Iraq, the "other" Middle East crisis will immediately jump to the top of the agenda.

Israel will have a new coalition government. Yasser Arafat has already agreed to appoint a new prime minister. Israelis and Palestinians will have to talk peace again.

But the United States and its European allies are almost as far apart on Israel as they have been over Iraq. With one big difference, which may make matters even more acrimonious from Washington's perspective — compared to the controversy over Iraq.

While the United States could count on firm British support over Iraq, on the issue of Israel not even Tony Blair and his government are in agreement with the Bush Administration.

And considering the emotional and political force that Israel generates in the United States, this could very soon rival the current row over Iraq.

What this means for the transatlantic relationship is simple: We had all better start seeking ways to ensure the row does not get out of hand.

Here is one principle that will actually help mend fences, whether the issue is Iraq — or Israel. It is a lesson all "Westerners" — whether they live in the United States or the "Old Europe" – could learn from Eastern Europeans.

After all, the Eastern Europeans spent way too many years under Soviet domination to relish being told how to think, whether by Western Europeans or Americans.

And no matter how bad transatlantic relations seem today, they will be a great deal worse in the aftermath of Iraq if this kind of thought control and loyalty test starts to take hold.

Just think about the example of Britain. The British are with the United States on Iraq — but probably not with them over Israel.

Forget about the merits of each case and focus on the principle.

The British are free people who want to have it both ways, as loyal members of NATO, good Europeans — and firm friends of America.

And why not? The reason that the Atlantic alliance prevailed in the Cold War is that NATO was a partnership of free and sovereign nations.

When France asked U.S. troops to leave its soil in 1966, they did. When the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968 tried to leave the Warsaw Pact, the Red Army tanks rolled in. That was why the West deserved to win.

It is the same today. If the French and Germans cannot support war in Iraq, that is their free choice. And if Bulgarians and others want to back the United States over that same issue, that is their right.

As it is the right of the British to be free to differ from Washington over the issue of Israel.

If we cannot all agree on that bedrock principle as the Iraqi aftermath looms, then the Atlantic alliance may not be worth saving.

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