Fateful Triangle: The United State, Europe and the Middle East

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

February 1, 2005

We, Europeans have rarely seen eye to eye with the United States on the Middle East. From the wars waged by the young U.S. Navy against the Barbary States in the early 19th century to the cease-fire imposed by President Eisenhower on the French-British-Israeli military operation at Suez in 1956, America and Europe have generally acted separately in this region, and quite often in opposition to each other. Of course there have been exceptions, such as the first Gulf War in 1991, when the most significant contributors of troops were Great Britain and France. However, the general picture has been one of disagreement and raises real concerns about our common transatlantic future. The Middle East, an area on which we usually disagree but which used to be at the periphery of our common concerns, has now moved to the very center of the American-European geopolitical relationship.

It is easy to see how this U.S-European divergence came about. On the one hand, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a safer Europe has ceased to be at the center of American strategic thinking, and has been replaced by the Greater Middle East and East Asia. Before the demise of communism, Europe was the focal point of American strategic and political calculations, the ultimate geopolitical prize to be defended with all necessary means—including by fighting wars in distant regions of the world in order to maintain the necessary political and military credibility in the European theater. This is no longer the case. President Bush’s announcement in August 2004 that 30,000 to 45,000 American troops would leave Germany in the next decade is simply a delayed result of a new reality. These soldiers will be available to serve where they are really needed: in the Middle East.

Similarly, from the European point of view America is no longer the purveyor of obvious security goods it had been for fifty years. Of course the United States still plays an important role in shaping a peaceful global environment, especially in Asia, or by securing sea-lanes. But this beneficial role is much less apparent to Western European publics, which tend to see only a selfish and reckless America that endangers rather than bolsters their safety. This is especially true with respect to American policy in the Middle East and the war in Iraq. According to a German Marshall Fund poll, released in September 2004 (Transatlantic Trends 2004, available at, 73% of Europeans believe the war has increased the risk of terrorism around the world, fostered general instability, and fueled the perception of the clash of civilizations.

It has been suggested that in contrast to Western Europe, the publics in Eastern Europe hold significantly different opinions on this issue. In Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic, where Russia may still be seen as a potential threat, the assumption has been that the United States and NATO are viewed positively and America enjoys a good image. But recent polling suggests at least two countries in the area defy this assumption. Only 52% of Poles and 47% of Slovaks consider NATO as essential to their country’s security, compared with 70% of the Germans, British, and Dutch. Likewise, 79% of Poles and Slovaks think that the EU is more important than the United States for their countries’ vital interests—a percentage close to the Italians (81%) and significantly higher than the British 57%. While the poll was not taken in the Baltic states, arguably the most likely to favor NATO as an insurance policy against a potentially threatening neighbor, the results are nonetheless revealing.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many commentators saw the rise of China as the next big issue that would preoccupy American geo-strategic thinking in the coming decades. The 9/11 attacks have proven them wrong, and the Greater Middle East has foreshadowed East Asia as the top item on the American strategic agenda. Unfortunately, this issue also puts the Europeans at odds with the Americans. It is not so much a disagreement on principles as a divergence on strategy, which is rooted in European history, geography and domestic politics. Indeed, the Europeans and the Americans agree on many general principles and goals and, on the surface, transatlantic unity seems strong. Both see democratization and economic development in the Middle East as the safest way to stave off the al-Qaeda brand of terrorism and as the right course for any region of the world. Both support the establishment of a Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel. We want to avoid the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region. And we have a common interest in a continuing flow of oil out of this region in the decades ahead.

On the operational level, however, things look much less clear, and this is where the transatlantic divergence appears. A good example is the concept of “transformation” in the Middle East, which figured among the American declared goals of the war against Iraq (along with getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his WMD and getting the U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia). This idea is underpinned by a historical interpretation offered by the American scholar Bernard Lewis. He says that the Arab world (but not the Muslim world as a whole) stopped progressing towards modernity at some point between the 14th and 19th century. The United Nations Development Program reports of 2002 and 2003 confirmed that the region lags behind most of the rest of the world in terms of economic achievement, education and basic freedoms.

By invading and democratizing Iraq, America was supposed to provide a shock that would reverberate in neighboring countries and encourage democratic change throughout the region. At a minimum, claimed some policymakers, it would constitute a break with the immoral tradition of tolerating or even supporting authoritarian regimes for the sake of regional stability and continued oil supplies. On November 6, 2003 President Bush spoke about ending “sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East.” The doctrine became known as the “Greater Middle East Initiative”, later renamed the “Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative.”

When the Bush administration announced the plan, many European governments expressed support and several even offered to send troops to Iraq. Some, such as Great Britain, did it largely because they shared the premises of the Middle Eastern “transformation” and feared Iraqi WMD. Others, especially in Eastern Europe, did it for many reasons, including gratitude for the American role in the demise of the Soviet empire, and a sense of duty as America’s allies. Most of these governments did not have any significant political or commercial relations with the region and no specific views on its future, but were confident that America knew what it was doing.

Others, most notably France and Germany, had strong objections, which largely overlapped with the views of the European public opinion. They believed that Iraq would be extremely hard to stabilize, let alone democratize, after the invasion, and that no “domino effect” would take place. They feared that the war would foster instability and help terrorist recruitment. They assumed that the conflict would deepen the perception of the clash of civilizations, which was good neither for the region nor for their domestic policies. Contrary to the view of the Bush administration that the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad, they also doubted the war would help solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And last but not least, they believed that anti-Americanism in the region would reach new heights, thus undermining any democratic message advanced by the Americans.

Even if it is still too soon to assess the full impact of the intervention in Iraq, it is possible to see how the different visions of the Middle East have played out putting new strains on U.S.- European relations. American analyst Robert Kagan has argued, in his book Of Paradise and Power, that the European preference for multilateralism, negotiations, development aid and the like was simply the rationalization of its military weakness. But the policies of the Bush administration seem to have been at least equally skewed by America’s military might. Besides, in the early 21st century military interventions and occupations are proving as unacceptable to the local populations as they were in the past—even when the interventionists are guided by the best of intentions.

The prevalent EU vision of what needs to be done in the Middle East starts from different premises than the U.S. “transformation” theory. It accepts the fact that democracy is not achievable overnight, but does not consider it a reason for resignation. On the contrary, it believes that by working on daily bases with the Middle Eastern civil societies, by improving the Middle Eastern economy and slowly transforming the region’s governance, which is the very purpose of the Barcelona process initiated in 1995 and its MEDA financial arm, Europe is creating the conditions for democratic change that can only come from the societies themselves. (It is true that so far these programs have not proven to be very efficient.) Europe also gives higher priority to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict by a more evenhanded mediation that would not compromise Israeli security but would not automatically lent support to every decision of the Israeli government. In the area of security, Europe encourages dialogue and promotes adherence to multilateral structures, but is ready to enforce sanctions against states that do not play by the rules. (One good example is Libya in the 1990’s). And Europe considers the war against terrorism as primarily the work of the police, intelligence organizations, special forces, and prosecutors.

Those ideas are not a result of a self-perceived “weakness.”Rather, they are rooted in a specifically European sense of history, in a tradition of intense relationships—both friendly and antagonistic—with the Arab world, and also in a different geographical position. The Middle East is in our direct vicinity and radical solutions, such as wars with their possible benefits, but also immense risks—are carefully weighed. Moreover, Europe is now home to some 12 million to 15 million Muslim persons who make up 5% of the population in Germany and more than 8% in France. When hostile actions undertaken in the Middle East are not seen as legitimate, they may have repercussions at home, too.

These structural differences and the clash over Iraq do not mean that transatlantic cooperation on the Middle East is impossible. Besides, the course followed by the Bush administration during 2001-2004 may not necessarily be replicated by other administrations in the future. But serious debates about the Middle East may lead to new disagreements between the U.S. and Europe. Partners on both sides of the Atlantic will have to resolve them if they wish to reach their shared goals of democratization, security from terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.