February 18, 2002

Why Europe Is Wary of War in Iraq


HAMBURG, Germany -- In June 1981, Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, ordered a posse of F-16 jets to take out Saddam Hussein's two nuclear reactors. With vast petroleum reserves, Iraq had no imaginable need for nuclear energy except to make bombs. And Mr. Hussein had openly declared his intention to attack Israel.

Publicly, Begin was scorned for his outrageous breach of international law. Privately, however, many politicians agreed: Why not destroy Iraq's potentially murderous nuclear toys? Mr. Hussein did go on to start two wars. But he lost both, and if he had been armed with nuclear bombs world history could have taken a very ugly turn.

However, while the man is dangerous and crazy, we do not know that he has weapons of mass destruction. He seems to have had precious little connection to Sept. 11. His army has been destroyed. Therefore, two decades after Begin's attack, America's European allies would deplore a repetition of the Persian Gulf war. Their doubts are born from an ingrained sense of realpolitik. Europe learned a lesson in World War I: slipping into a conflict, with no clear moral sense of one's mission or of the likely military outcome, became a basic fear. Europeans' great source of anxiety was the prospect of being caught in an uncontrollable military escalation.

The trauma of World War II, and the experience of senseless and genocidal colonial wars before and after it, combined to telescope this fear into a collective memory that we have today. While American patriotism proudly celebrates its armed forces' power and victories, Europe's diverse loyalties and identities are formed by a war-weary pessimism thoroughly grounded in our history: Wars can be just, certainly those fought in self- defense can; but they can be bloody useless, too. This pessimism may shade, potentially, into appeasement, yet its roots are real. They explain European reluctance to intervene quickly in Bosnia a deplorable reluctance, in hindsight and the present refusal to join arms with the United States against Iraq.

This time, however, the powder keg is not the Balkans but the highly armed, explosive Mideast. Too many guns are drawn, too many fingers are on the triggers, and some of them could be on nuclear bombs. This should be the hour of forceful diplomacy, not to be mistaken for appeasement.

The distance between Europe's leaders and the Bush administration continues to grow. The existence of a new threat global terrorism is undisputed. But Washington's unilateralism, from here, looks like simply a form of America's longstanding isolationism, which is to say that the distance is created by America, not by Europe. Perhaps North Atlantic Treaty Organization members should not whine so much about being left out of Pentagon planning sessions. But the United States might benefit from recalling the late Senator J. William Fulbright's diatribes against "arrogance of power." Europe's liberal and conservative pundits already are.

Technological breakthroughs may have enforced a new military paradigm in the Pentagon. High-tech wars at a distance are now feasible and less dangerous for American forces. Yet the old conundrum of military history what to do with the losers remains unsolved. Who would govern Iraq after Saddam Hussein? Would the shaky mullahs in Tehran take "anti-American" revenge on their domestic, reformist opponents (and seize Iraq's south)? Would Vladimir Putin be able to corral his restless opposition in the underpaid and corrupt Russian army? He would certainly renew Moscow's reflex in times of trans-Atlantic disagreement: to drive a wedge into the Western alliance, this time on the strength of Russia's oil reserves.

In the meantime, general elections are looming in France (May) and Germany (September) along with possible realignments that could draw Europe away from the United States. A war in Iraq would strengthen Germany's pacifist Party of Democratic Socialism at the expense of the Greens and their pro-American leader, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder succeeded by just a few votes in getting approval for German troops to help keep the peace in Kabul. Conflict in Iraq would force him to make the most difficult political commitment of his life: To follow America, come what may. That could cause him to lose in September.

Neither Jacques Chirac nor Lionel Jospin would support war in Iraq. And Tony Blair? He is many things, but he is not Margaret Thatcher. He was indicating before anyone even asked that Iraq would be, for him, an adventure too far.

Ultimately, Washington should return to the fold of its once strong Atlantic partnership, even if it means wasting time and losing military momentum. A fragmented alliance in Europe is much more difficult to repair than a broken pipeline. A truly enforced policy of serious sanctions against Iraq and persuading Turkey to stop breaking them would be more useful. Asking French, English, Russian and German businesses to suspend their lucrative dealings with Saddam Hussein's corrupt cronies, having governments freeze their bank accounts, and rekindling negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be less spectacular than cruise missiles and Navy Seals televised in green night vision. But it could dislodge the enemy without damaging valued friendships.

In the meantime, let's find Osama bin Laden, together. If alive, he is certainly not in Baghdad.

Michael Naumann, former German minister of culture, is editor in chief and publisher of the weekly "Die Zeit."

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