Solidarity forever?

At an emergency meeting, European leaders back a "targeted" campaign against terrorism and applaud Bush's new internationalism.

By Steve Kettmann

Published September 22, 2001 11:09PM (EDT)

Just in case there were any doubts that Europeans are united behind President Bush and his anti-terrorism coalition, more proof came Friday night, when the 15 leaders of the European Union gathered in Brussels for an emergency meeting, and announced that they had lined up as one behind a range of counter-terrorism measures in support of U.S. efforts.

The internationalist tone of Bush's speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday night no doubt helped his cause. The loss of so many thousands of lives from dozens of countries in the World Trade Center attack has Europe determined to take tough action along with the United States. That applies even to the leaders of the generally pacifist Nordic states.

"Solidarity, that is important, that we stand united for democracy and open society," said the Swedish prime minister, Goeran Persson. "We have a very strong mandate to take military action and if the United States does so, they have our support."

There is still evidence that European leaders are worried about a too-aggressive military response by the U.S. Their statement emphasized the need for "targeted" military action that is planned within the larger context of diplomatic and political initiatives. Many would also prefer to see action taken under the auspices of the United Nations, which the Bush administration has so far not embraced. Qualms remain about the American appetite for revenge getting out of hand, and military action spiraling out of control with it.

But the Europeans' resolve to back the United States in its time of need has never been at issue, and even the minor-chord concerns about tactics quieted noticeably after Bush's speech Thursday night. The United States does not at this point appear to want extensive military involvement from other countries. British, French and German special forces are all likely to see action, for example, but the number of soldiers involved figures to be small.

So each of the 15 countries will help militarily "according to its means," the leaders said in a declaration. But they also lined up to support the pledge Bush made early in the crisis: that this would be a fight both against terrorists and the countries that aid them, saying that the targets could be "states abetting, supporting or harboring terrorists."

The leaders endorsed 37 concrete measures to bolster their effectiveness in fighting terrorism by improving police and intelligence across borders, developing a European search and arrest warrant that will let suspects in one country be perused by all 15 states, closing legal loopholes that let suspected terrorists elude capture, agreeing on a common list of terrorist organizations, and other strategies.

Like some of their American counterparts, many European critics of Bush have been pleasantly surprised to see a new, more confident Bush suddenly emerging as a statesman and a multilateralist. Bush has learned that when it comes to reaching out to allies, often small gestures count for a lot. The decision to have British Prime Minister Tony Blair seated next to first lady Laura Bush during the speech was one such gesture. More importantly, the speech hit the emotional high points most everyone agreed it needed to, but it also showed a deeply reasonable side that was just what the Europeans needed to hear. There was nuance and perspective there, just the qualities whose absence characterized Bush's early dealings with Europe.

"There was a sense of relief after the speech," said Jochen Buchsteiner, foreign editor of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, summing up the reaction of German and European politicians and journalists. "In a way you could say his speech was a slap in the face to biased anti-Americanism. This was not the Texas cowboy talking about a showdown, but a president talking about 'patient justice.'"

That does not mean that Bush has silenced all his critics in Europe. But by the end of the week, there was more than enough evidence to reject the sense conveyed at times in some U.S. media reports of European jitters about backing Bush in his war against terrorism.

"We are going to back the Americans," said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, one of Europe's leading commentators on U.S.-European relations. "America saved the democracies of Europe twice in the 20th century. How would it look for us to betray them now?"

Moisi has been an outspoken critic of Bush, and wrote in the July/August Foreign Affairs magazine that "President Bush's foreign policy to date sounds inexplicably anachronistic and arrogant to Europeans."

But even he was willing to give Bush "between a B+ and a B-" for his speech before a joint session of Congress. He would have given it an A, he said, but "in a way you're still missing Clinton in terms of quality of communication."

Most tellingly, there seem few signs of Europeans bickering or carping among themselves. Bush welcomed Blair in Washington with all the warmth and appreciation that comes with the "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain. Only one problem: That special relationship had been in real question in recent months, and respected voices had floated the idea that it had run its course.

Meanwhile, Britain had begun to move closer toward the EU, after years of resistance, working to form a joint European Union policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. And Thursday night, Blair had the honor of standing for all of Europe. Neither the French nor the Germans appear to have felt slighted, even though they are traditionally seen as the tandem that has the most power in European politics.

"Blair took the lead, especially in oratory, in words, on backing the Americans," Moisi said matter-of-factly. "It doesn't mean that the French are negligible or the Germans are secondary."

You could argue that these are all special relationships now, not just the longtime British-American friendship, as represented by the close ties between Roosevelt and Churchhill and Reagan and Thatcher.

"The special relationship was maybe sleeping in a way, and now it's awake," said Buchsteiner. "There is a special relationship between the U.K. and America. But I think Germany is surprisingly close to America these days. I mean, both Schroeder and Fischer leave no doubt that Germany is supporting America's actions. This is not easy for a red-green government."

European leaders are also following their citizenry, who overwhelmingly favor supporting the U.S. in its battle against global terrorism. Moisi cited a poll by the French paper Liberation that showed 73 percent of the French public and 79 percent of the British public support having their countries involved militarily in the U.S. pursuit of the terrorists it believes are responsible for last Tuesday's gruesome attacks.

The poll found that 53 percent of Germans support direct participation in a military campaign. The lower level of support there should not be surprising, since Germany has had only two brief military engagements -- in Kosovo and Macedonia -- in the half a century since the Third Reich was defeated. Also, Germany is led by a coalition between the left-wing Green Party of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the left-center Social Democratic Party of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Even so, both leaders have strongly backed the United States -- and quickly pushed through parliament authorization of military action, which in the case of the Macedonia campaign came only after weeks of debate.

The support of the U.S. allies in Europe may become much more important in the weeks ahead. London's Guardian newspaper reported Thursday that it had obtained a diplomatic cable revealing that the U.S. government hopes to win European approval of a plan to "topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and replace it with an interim administration under United Nations auspices." The Guardian also reported that on Tuesday, two U.S. transport planes flew secret missions to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, on Afghanistan's northern border, and a potential staging area for military action against Osama bin Laden and his associates.

That report could not be independently confirmed Friday, and a State Department spokesperson said the government would have no comment. But it would hardly be surprising if U.S. diplomats are talking in private communications about their desire to topple the Taliban government. Nor is it the least bit unlikely that U.S. planning calls for the creation of a new government there. The interesting part is that the Bush administration, which has openly scorned U.N. nation-building missions of the recent past, would call in the United Nations.

But these are times that upend the assumptions of even the recent past -- such as the notion that Bush cannot get along with Europe, and that Europe could not get along with him. As the French analyst Moisi noted, "These are exceptional times, and exceptional times call for exceptional measures."

Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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