U.S. Must Fight for Europe’s Soul

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

June 2, 2003

Last month’s Security Council vote authorising the American-led occupation of Iraq was seen by many in Washington as vindicating a certain style of American leadership: if we lead they will follow. While the US could not win United Nations or Nato support for starting the Iraq war, its military victory has left others with little choice but to acquiesce to US designs.

It is true that nothing succeeds like success. Those who tried to prevent American intervention before did not dare attempt to deny it legitimacy this time round. But Americans would be mistaken in believing that Europe’s Iraq debate—or Europe’s America debate—is over. It is striking how differently the war’s outcome is perceived on each side of the Atlantic. While this gap persists, so will questions about the transatlantic alliance—and Washington’s ability to win European support in the future.

Most Americans think victory has freed the Iraqi people, eliminating a threat that has dogged us for more than a decade. According to a Gallup poll last week, 80 per cent of Americans now see the conflict representing a “turning-point” or a “major achievement” in the war on terrorism.

Nearly 70 per cent believe military action was justified and that the world is a safer place as a result. Even the failure to find weapons of mass destruction has not tarnished President George W. Bush’s aura of victory.

Europe’s assessment could not be more different. While Europeans are hardly nostalgic for Saddam Hussein, large majorities in France, Germany and even Britain believe the world is now more dangerous. Only in a few European countries do a majority think the war was justified. The European press describes Iraq as on the verge of chaos, facing the spectre of radical Shia rule, ethnic clashes and threats against occupying troops.

In Paris two weeks ago a senior French official told a delegation of Americans that France’s prediction that an Iraq war would create “a thousand new Bin Ladens” was being confirmed with the recent terrorist attacks in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya. And where, Europeans ask, are the weapons of mass destruction? Where is the proof of Mr Hussein’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda? Did America lie to its European allies in order to sell a war it was determined to wage?

The next time US officials solemnly step forward to present intelligence-based accusations of misbehaviour—on Iran’s nuclear programme, or Syrian support for terrorism, for example—Europeans will be even more reluctant to believe them.

Americans should not be complacent about Europe’s take on the war, dismissing it as the same sort of misguided or irrelevant Euro-whining that led some allies to oppose it originally. If it is true that the desire to side with the US led some European governments to override public opinion and back the war, it has not spurred the faith in American leadership that Washington believes it deserves. The bruising experience has only fuelled desires to build Europe as a counterweight to the US. Round one in the contest with Paris and Berlin over Europe’s future went to Washington and London. But decisive battles over Europe’s soul lie ahead. If the leaders who backed America on Iraq are not prepared to do so next time—or, worse, are booted from power—America will be forced to act alone.

The US needs to do more than rely on raw power if it wants to ensure a Europe that is not hostile to its aims. The first requirement is to succeed in Iraq. The administration’s failure to prepare for chaos and looting was a gift to its critics. If Washington wants to win over sceptical Europeans, it must make it impossible to argue that the war was not worth it. We remain far from that. Particularly if no weapons of mass destruction are found, the legitimacy of invasion will be judged on whether we leave Iraq in better condition than we found it.

Second, Washington needs to give others a stake in success. If not, critics—at least subconsciously—will wish for failure to justify their opposition and curb American arrogance. The new UN resolution and willingness to involve Nato are a good start. The next steps should include sending UN weapons inspectors back to Iraq and then to deploy a Nato force, including French and German troops. Just as the west overcame its divisions in the Balkans only once Nato deployed on the ground, in Iraq we shall remain divided until we have a collective interest in stability and success.

Last, it is time for Washington to stop the silly practice of “punishing” those who did not support the war. French policy on Iraq was not helpful and it was disappointing that Paris chose to lobby against the US at the UN despite acknowledging the validity of the American legal case based on Resolution 1441. But French policy was also the legitimate expression of the will of a democratic ally. It does America no good to try running the Atlantic alliance as if it were the Warsaw Pact. Petty retaliation against the French by the Pentagon—including cancelling joint military exercises—only undercuts our friends in Europe and provokes those who want to build up the EU as a counterweight.

A dose of magnanimity in victory could mend some frayed ties and begin to focus a vital alliance on the future.