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Two Kinds of Europeans

Has the U.S.-backed invasion of Iraq caused a rift among EU member states?

October 7, 2002

Has the U.S.-backed invasion of Iraq caused a rift among EU member states?

When Tony Blair sat down in Britain’s House of Commons in late September 2002 after presenting his 55-page dossier on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, he had something else on his mind: Germany — and his own controversial decision to endorse the re-election campaign of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his allies in the Green Party.

“It was a risk,” he confided to a colleague on Parliament’s front bench. “But it was worth it.”

Here is the oddity. On the one hand, Britain’s Tony Blair is U.S. President George Bush’s most staunch and most prominent supporter in the determination to disarm Iraq. On the other hand, Blair went out on a limb to support the European leader most critical of that policy.

Not only that. Tony Blair also made a point of flying to Sweden just before that to back the re-election campaign of Social Democrat Goran Persson. The Swedish prime minister is another critic of the Bush-Blair approach to the Beast of Baghdad.

It is as though Mr. Blair made a clear distinction in his mind between support for fellow Social Democrats in Europe — and the salient foreign policy issue on which he disagrees with them.

His rationale is easy to see. The Iraqi crisis may go on for some months or even a year. The governments of Gerhard Schröder and Goran Persson, however, will go on for four years. And Mr. Blair has a lot of other fish to fry with them beyond Saddam Hussein.

But there is another issue here. In recent weeks, I have been told by a very senior Pentagon official — and by an almost as senior official in the U.S. State Department, that whenever members of the Bush Administration talk about “the Europeans”, they do not include the British. “The Brits are family,” stressed the Pentagon man.

The importance of the Anglo-American kinship tie is almost beyond argument. But French, German, Spanish, Italian and every other European genetic strain have made their contribution to the building of America.

And there is a severe danger for U.S. interests in lumping the rest of the Europeans into a single basket of under-armed and weak-willed wimps. According to this school, all these Europeans can do is to wring their hands and twitter whenever Uncle Sam does what a superpower has to do.

First, not all the members of the European Union agree with the German stand against war on Iraq. Most European governments are now led by conservatives — and take a more robust view.

Italy under Silvio Berlusconi and Spain under Jose-Maria Aznar are well-known supporters of President Bush. But, the new right-of-center governments in Portugal, Denmark and Holland are also backing the Blair line.

Second, the EU’s candidate members from Eastern Europe — including the seven countries about to become members of the NATO alliance at the Prague summit in November — are far more supportive of the American position.

Immediately after the Prague ceremony, Mr. Bush will wave off a Baltic battalion of peacekeepers heading to Afghanistan. And the Czechs are already talking discreetly about assigning specialist chemical warfare troops to an Iraq mission.

Third, the European allies in NATO have signed up to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s plan for a NATO Rapid Reaction Force. It is capable of putting 21,000 troops into the field at 30 days notice.

Evidently, the Europeans are sidling back alongside their U.S. ally. Why? Well, they made little progress on their own plan for an EU force of 60,000 troops.

It was supposed to be separate from NATO — thus at the core of the EU’s vaunted new “‘Common Foreign and Security Police.”

Fourth, despite all the jokes in Washington about the pleasure of seeing the Germans as enemies again, the Schröder government has proved itself to be a considerable ally over the past four years.

In particular, it proved able to overcome the post-1945 self-restraints on Germany’s international role.

In 1999, Mr. Schröder dispatched the Luftwaffe to bomb Serbia alongside the U.S. and British air forces. And for the first time since World War II, he deployed German combat troops to help in Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan.

These European complexities often seem to be lost on U.S. commentators — as well as on some administration officials who should know better.

Perhaps they are not to be blamed, given President Bush’s blunt challenge of last September: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

All the European allies — and even non-allies like the Serbs and Russians — were prepared to sign up to that. At that moment, now over a year ago, it made sense to talk of “the Europeans” as a collective. Not any more.

Most European governments, more or less willingly, are prepared to swallow the Bush Administration’s broadened interpretation that now aligns Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with “the terrorists.”

With one important caveat. Their consciences and their public opinion need to be calmed by the moral and political cover of a UN mandate.

Some are not, led by Germany. Those countries are discreetly followed by those EU members who still hold to their traditional neutrality: Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria.

In short, it is neither useful nor helpful to talk of “the Europeans." And even if some balk at U.S. policy over Iraq, they remain allies, who have given support in the past — and will on other issues.

As Mr. Blair understood when he endorsed Germany's Mr. Schröder and Sweden's Mr. Persson in their tight battles for reelection, there will be life and alliances long after Saddam Hussein is dust in the winds of history.

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