Monday, Feb. 21, 2005
Why Europe Ignores Bush
Iraq has telegraphed limits on U.S. power, allowing others to say no to Washington

Machiavelli's advice to political leaders was that it's more important to be feared than to be loved. That's no help for President Bush on his European tour; in spite of the warm words he's exchanging with European leaders, the reality is that the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community — increasingly, it is simply being ignored.

New evidence of this trend, which has developed in the wake of the war in Iraq, emerges every week: Last Friday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin pooh-poohed the U.S. claim that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and Moscow agreed to move ahead with delivering the nuclear fuel for Tehran's reactors despite Washington's opposition. And in case you missed the message, Russia has also agreed to supply advanced surface-to-air missiles to Syria, the latest focus of U.S. ire in the Middle East — again in defiance of Washington's stated wishes.

It's hard to avoid the irony in Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's suggestion, in the wake of the fall of Baghdad, that the U.S. should “forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France” for opposing the war. On this trip, and Rice's preparatory one, it's more than clear that in fact they're trying hard to forgive France and Germany. And it's equally clear that Russia has no interest in U.S. “forgiveness” — President Putin is ignoring the Bush administration.

Nor is Putin alone in shrugging off U.S. calls to abandon trade deals that threaten Washington's strategic interests. The European Union is going ahead with its plans to lift the arms embargo imposed on China after Tiananmen Square, despite urgings by the Bush administration to avoid selling weapons to Beijing.

In their efforts to put a bright face on the administration's diminishing strategic influence, the Bush administration is accentuating the positive — the Europeans have agreed, they point out, to help train Iraqi security forces. Sure, they've agreed to train 1,000 Iraqis a year at a location outside of Iraq. To put that in perspective, the current U.S. goal is to train a further 200,000 Iraqis by October 1 — in other words, the NATO contribution will amount to 0.5 percent of the total. That's a little like the geopolitical equivalent of a Hallmark good-luck greeting card.

Iraq, of course, is where the problem began in earnest, even before the war. By pressing ahead to war two years ago without the evidence to back its case and without waiting for UN inspectors to complete their work, the Bush administration inadvertently created a rupture in the international system of alliances that has proved disastrous. It created a situation where longtime U.S. allies found themselves with no choice but to say no to Washington on a strategic priority — and then not only to face no negative consequences, but to see the U.S. struggle under the weight of its occupation mission and then return to Europe calling for fences to be mended without the Europeans having changed their position. Well, not quite true: a number of European countries have changed their positions — they've pulled their troops out of Iraq. As the old gangster movie adage goes, "You run this town only because people think you run this town." Now when President Bush comes calling offering quotes from French existentialists — “Albert Camus said that freedom is a long distance race,” the president said Monday — sweet talk about the environment and promises to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a top priority, the Europeans know the reason is that Washington has been humbled by events. Indeed, it may be a measure of how the strategic balance has shifted that President Bush not only tosses around bon-mots from the existentialists; he hosts a dinner for President Chirac — a European leader he plainly detests, and who has not given an inch in his opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. France won't even consent to U.S. pressure to make the relatively meaningless gesture of putting Hezbollah on a terrorist list.

The net effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom has not been to make U.S. enemies tremble in the face of American power. Instead, it has made them more aware of the limits of that power. A two-year occupation by 150,000 U.S. troops has failed to subdue an insurgency by a Sunni Muslim force that U.S. officials insist numbers no more than 12,000. Today, U.S. officials concede that the insurgency can't be defeated militarily, and it has long been evident to the Europeans and others that Washington's military resources are badly overstretched by the mission in Iraq — and that Washington's bean-counters are not amused by the $5 billion monthly bill for its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran may be sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan, but it's not acting as if it believes it's in any danger of being invaded. And in light of the difficulties it has faced in Iraq, it's hard to imagine the U.S. managing to invade and occupy a country three times as large and as populous as Iraq, and unlikely to be any more welcoming of American troops than the Iraqis have been.

The Europeans certainly welcome the shift in tone from Washington, but that won't alter the fundamental strategic differences that transcend the common values President Bush tried to highlight. Look no further than Iran for a reminder that the transatlantic strategic divisions that opened over Iraq are, if anything, even wider than they were two years ago. The U.S. and Europe certainly agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a bad idea, but their ways of dealing with the problem remain poles apart. The Europeans are trying to negotiate a deal that takes account of what they deem Tehran's legitimate security concerns — i.e. fear of being attacked and toppled — and offers Iran guarantees and incentives to stay off the nuclear path. Fine, says the Bush administration. We hope that works, but don't expect us to be part of it. But the U.S. is, rightly or wrongly, the very personification of Iran's security concerns, and any deal offered to Tehran is meaningless without Washington's involvement.

Administration hawks may think they're cleverly lining up support for tougher action on Iran by letting diplomacy run its course and fail. If so, they could be in for a nasty surprise. The Europeans will almost certainly blame the U.S. refusal to come to the table for the failure of diplomacy. And they're unlikely to see a nuclear-armed Iran as a reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. Don't worry says Bush, Iran is different from Iraq — Saddam violated 16 UN resolutions, while the Iran matter hasn't even gone to the UN yet. The operative word, of course, is “yet.” Rice made clear that the U.S. intends to take the matter there, and has been lobbying to unseat IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei to help ease the path to refer Tehran to the Security Council. ElBaradei has refused to endorse Washington's charge that Iran is covertly running a weapons program, despite demanding more transparency and cooperation from Tehran. But the Europeans are opposing Bush administration efforts to unseat him, perhaps more mindful than the Bushies are of just how much credibility the U.S. lost in international eyes by the total collapse in the face of reality of the case for war against Iraq it presented to the UN two years ago. And even if Washington did manage to get the Iran matter onto the Security Council agenda, its chances of getting the Council to pass the sort of resolution Washington wants are negligible. President Putin has signaled Russia is in Tehran's corner on this one, and China's $30 billion investment in Iran's oil and natural gas fields make it a relative certainty that Beijing would veto any resolution designed to impose sanctions or otherwise isolate Tehran.

The rift between the U.S. and Europe is evident on issues as diverse as the Kyoto treaty and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. But it's likely to be felt most acutely in the strategic realm, in which the Europeans plainly no longer see themselves as hitched to the U.S. on matters of global conflict and security. The Europeans will make their own policy on Iraq, building their own relationships with its new government independently of the U.S. And presumably, so will others — as power shifts toward a government dominated by groups historically closer to Iran than they are to the U.S., don't be surprised to see China step forward with aid and investment.

All over the world, new bonds of trade and strategic cooperation are being forged around the U.S. China has not only begun to displace the U.S. as the dominant player in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC), it is fast emerging as the major trading partner to some of Latin America's largest economies. The European decision to lift its arms embargo may reflect an awareness of the strategic significance of Beijing's emergence as an economic power — a dynamic that will dwarf the U.S. war with al-Qaeda in terms of its impact on the global strategic balance. And as China emerges alongside other new players such as India and Brazil, the U.S. will find itself forced to engage with a growing share of the international community that no longer deems it necessary to subordinate their own interests to Washington's, nor to assume that the two are one and the same. French foreign policy think tanks have long promoted the goal of “multipolarity” in a post-Cold War world, i.e. the preference for many different, competing power centers rather than the “unipolarity” of the U.S. as a single hyper-power. Multipolarity is no longer simply a strategic goal. It is an emerging reality.

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