As the Mideast Comes Apart, America and Europe Come Together

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2006

Over the past several years, no region in the world provided better support for the thesis that America and Europe were drifting apart than the Middle East. The Iraq crisis was the most serious split in the Atlantic alliance for at least fifty years. On Iran, the US talked about an “axis of evil” while the Europeans wanted to trade and talk. On Israel-Palestine, Europeans denounced American “disengagement” from the peace process while Americans accused the Europeans of being soft on terrorism. Today, there are signs that this pattern is changing. The Middle East is coming apart – and Americans and Europeans are coming together.

Consider what is happening in Iran. The US decision last year to let Britain, France and Germany take the lead in negotiating the nuclear issue has helped unite the West. Having staked their credibility on their ability to negotiate a compromise over the nuclear programme, European leaders cannot now simply back down in the face of Iranian intransigence, and they are standing firm. The new Iranian president’s rejection of the EU’s offers and his outrageous statements about Israel and the Holocaust make it hard for Europeans not to join the Americans in opposition to the regime. Indeed, it is now the French president who warns of nuclear strikes in retaliation for state-supported terrorism and the French foreign minister who states most clearly that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. The Americans, meanwhile, overstretched in Iraq, are embracing diplomacy.

There is also convergence on Israel- Palestine. True, France vaguely supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the leaders of Hamas. But the French and EU positions remain what was agreed in the Quartet (Russia, the EU, US and UN) – that foreign assistance to a Hamas-led government would be linked to its “commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations”, while the Americans are looking for ways to keep the Palestinians afloat. With a different outcome in the Palestinian elections there would have been extraordinary European pressure on the US to push Israel to compromise on issues like refugees, security, and settlements – which the US would have resisted. But Europeans will find it much more difficult to call for compromise with Hamas unless it makes significant changes.

The Danish cartoon crisis, unexpectedly, also pushed the Western allies closer together. Americans have long believed that Europe’s large Muslim populations were the cause of US-European divergence in the Middle East because they made Europeans afraid of provoking Muslims. There may be some of that, but the cartoon crisis woke up a lot of Europeans to the reality of Muslim extremism, and Europe’s defence of the common Western values of freedom of expression and the press has been more stalwart than America’s. Seeing Danish embassies burned and Norwegian peacekeepers attacked has given some Europeans a better sense of what it feels like to be an American – and thus a target.

Even on Iraq, the West’s differences are fading. In 2003, Americans may have been from Mars and Europeans from Venus, but today a majority of Americans consider that the invasion was a mistake. Neither side has a good plan for what to do now, but their interests in trying to promote a stable Iraqi government are exactly the same. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, NATO’s European allies have just agreed to deploy an additional 6,000 soldiers to fight alongside the Americans. And Europeans and Americans are jointly defending Lebanon’s independence from Syria and demanding accountability for Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination last year.

Obviously, the issues that have divided Americans and Europeans in the Middle East for decades have not disappeared overnight. Both sides still have different attitudes to the use of force, different relationships with Israel, and different responsibilities in the region. A new transatlantic clash can hardly be excluded. At the same time, the glib assumption that America and Europe must be at odds in the Middle East clearly no longer holds. That’s a good thing, because only a determined and united Western approach offers any realistic hope of dealing effectively with a region where so much is at stake and where so much could go wrong.