Europe's impotent outrage

Officials across the Atlantic are steaming about President Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric, but there's not much they can do about it.

Published February 14, 2002 10:47PM (EST)

Once again, as in the infancy of the Bush presidency, European leaders are complaining about the arrogant unilateralism of his administration. Only this time, there's no room for debate over whether a new president might be mistakenly sending mixed signals to valued allies. It's all too clear that President Bush and his advisors knew his "axis of evil" State of the Union speech would stir up key European partners to varying degrees of anger -- and didn't care.

There is almost no support in European capitals for a military strike against Iraq, and even less backing for moves against Iran or North Korea, Iraq's putative partners in the so-called axis. The spectacle of normally consensus-building Secretary of State Colin Powell suggesting to Congress Tuesday that the U.S. might have to go it alone in a military action to topple Saddam Hussein pushed many partners over the edge.

On Wednesday, Turkey warned the U.S. it would "not tolerate" a strike against Iraq. "We do not want to experience chaos on our borders with unpredictable consequences," Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said in a speech. Turkey has been a key ally in the Afghanistan-based war on terror, a majority Muslim country lending not just verbal support but soldiers to U.S. efforts there. Turkish leaders -- along with other NATO allies -- are angry that the U.S. hasn't even shared whatever intelligence led Bush to threaten to widen the war beyond Afghanistan.

"So far as NATO has been concerned, we have not been formally informed of any country besides Afghanistan sponsoring terrorism," Turkey's ambassador to NATO, Onur Öymen, told Salon Monday in a phone interview. "We know some countries are considered not dependable governments, but we have not heard concretely about any other governments sponsoring terrorism." Öymen says Turkey has even made an effort in recent days to serve as a go-between, given the frost between Baghdad and Washington, but little had come of that effort so far.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, widely respected in Europe, offered perhaps the most pointed rejoinder to the talk coming out of Washington.

"The international coalition against terror is not the basis to take action against someone -- least of all unilaterally," he told Die Welt in Tuesday's editions. "All European foreign ministers see it that way. This is why the phrase 'Axis of Evil' leads nowhere ... An alliance partnership among free democrats can't be reduced to submission. Alliance partners are not satellites."

But as passionately as Fischer and other European leaders have spoken out against Bush's tendency to go it alone, despite his consensus-building efforts after Sept. 11, others in Europe are trying to draw lessons from the latest political rebuff. Rather than seeing U.S. unilateralism as some bad habit the world's only superpower can be talked out of -- or scolded out of -- these voices are focusing more on getting Europe's house in order, so that America has no choice but to listen.

"America is more powerful, Europe is less," Dominique Moisi, a leading French commentator on U.S.-European relations, said in a phone interview. "Emotions of the Europeans are quite different from the emotions of the Americans. Europe feels that America is the other, despite of the fact that we said we are all Americans, we are all New Yorkers. Nevertheless, America is the other. What happens next all depends on the American strategy. If the Americans were to attack Iraq, and if that attack was not immediately successful, that would necessarily disrupt the coalition."

Some analysts think Bush's lack of regard for Europe may be just what the continent needs to show the kind of resolve it often lacks. They point to the way his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming actually helped push that stalled agreement toward greater acceptance. Until Bush rejected the international agreement on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, most experts thought it was in trouble, and unlikely to be adopted by many countries. Since then, the Europeans have surprised their critics -- and the White House -- by forging ahead with an agreement on pursuing a watered-down version of Kyoto by themselves.

But so far, at least, Europe remains far too weak economically and politically to be taken as a serious force by Bush and his aides, let alone seen as any kind of real partner to be consulted, rather than merely informed of decisions. As the front page of Germany's influential weekly Die Zeit put it, "With, without or against America -- that is not the question. Only an economically strong Europe will find itself heard in Washington." Those words appeared under an illustration of a giant cowboy hat settling down over planet Earth and over the words "Neue Weltordnung," or "New World Order."

The president's "axis of evil" speech, both in tone and substance, served to bring this point home in Europe with exaggerated clarity. Not only did it lump Iran, Iraq and North Korea together in a style many in Europe consider simplistic and disturbing, it ignored Europe in a way that was dramatically at odds with Bush's crucial Sept. 20 speech to a joint session of Congress. In September, the White House seated British Prime Minister Tony Blair right next to first lady Laura Bush, as an honored symbol of U.S.-European relations; this time, neither Blair nor Britain was so much as mentioned, and "Europe" popped up only once in the 3,800-word address.

Blair has refrained from defending Bush's "axis of evil" remarks against European attacks -- but he hasn't joined the attacks yet, either. His foreign minister, Jack Straw, suggested that American voters, not foreign leaders, were the intended consumers of Bush's tough talk, citing the congressional elections coming up in November. But Blair ally Chris Patten, the European Union's external affairs commissioner, blasted U.S. foreign policy as "absolutist and simplistic" in an interview published in Saturday's Guardian.

Most European analysts believe an actual U.S. attack on Iraq remains unlikely, at least in the near future. Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke up on Monday, warning Bush against taking unilateral action against Saddam, it was clear that the United States could pay a severe price in the international diplomatic realm if it let administration hawks dictate its approach to Iraq. That's not to say that Europeans dismiss such a possibility. But they believe that for it to happen, the Bush administration would first have to engage in energetic diplomacy to sell the need for war -- and either persuade the allies to join in the fight, or to agree not to criticize it. Such an effort has been notably lacking so far. The United States has not even taken the basic step of sharing intelligence information implicating Iraq -- or Iran or North Korea -- in terrorist activity.

If even Turkey has not been consulted, as its NATO ambassador told Salon, it speaks volumes about the gap between administration rhetoric and deeds. As a neighbor of Iraq, Turkey could expect to face a huge problem with its own large Kurdish minority if an independent Kurdistan were to form out of the remains of a collapsed Iraqi state. Not only that, Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the United States, and serves as an important bridge to the Arab world in its role as the only Muslim country in NATO.

NATO allies may be expected to take Bush's "axis of evil" talk as mere posturing, but it would not be the European way to let words pass without comment. Whether this represents European substance over American superficiality, or merely the European knack for contention, is open to question. What's undeniable is that a variety of voices seem to be making similar points.

London's Independent newspaper struck a more mournful note of criticism than most, arguing in a recent editorial that the State of the Union speech showed that Bush had "betrayed hopes of a kinder and gentler globalization." In what has been a constant refrain across Europe, the editorial wondered why U.S. military action in Afghanistan had not been followed up with similar resolve to rebuild that country and help those around the world who are in need. "Remember when the world was never going to be the same again?" it asked. "When people across the United States struggled to understand what had happened to make their nation the target of such a shocking assault? When sales of the Koran leapt as Westerners tried to learn more about Islam? When George Bush surprised the world with his restrained and considered response to the murder of thousands of his fellow citizens?

"[We have] seen too many examples of how the good intentions of last year have been dissipated. President Bush's State of the Union address took the campaign against terrorism in the sterile direction of aggression towards the 'axis of evil,' naming three unconnected countries, one of which, Iran, has been moving in recent years towards reintegration in the world community."

But some European leaders insist they will not force the U.S. to treat it as an equal partner until it is one. Hans-Joachim Otto, a leader of the opposition Free Democrats in Germany's Bundestag, sees German economic weakness, reflected in the reprimand it took last week for deficit spending, as one key to Europe's depressed international status. He thinks there's no way out for the continent until Germany -- Europe's largest economy -- can grow stronger.

"Bush now goes in a new direction on his policy toward Europe," he said. "Generally it's a demand for more burden sharing. I think the Europeans have to accept that the most heavy burden of the Afghanistan war has been on the shoulders of the United States, and a little bit less on the shoulders of Great Britain. Now I think it's time for the European partners, especially Germany, France and some others, to take on some more burdens.

"For me that's a tough issue. We all know we need a lot of additional funding for the German army, for the French and British, but that costs lots of money -- to be in Kosovo, to be in Afghanistan, and so on. In Germany we don't have that at the moment. We don't have additional resources to fund more strategic projects. So at the moment we have to postpone it."

That means waiting -- not just for additional resources, but also for additional respect. For the time being, the common European currency continues to sag disappointingly, compared to the U.S. dollar, and Europe can neither offer robust economic competition nor military capability that is more than a shadow of the American high-tech military. So it will either make the difficult decisions required to solve one or both of these problems, since that's what it says it wants to do, or it can continue to master the Rodney Dangerfield art of complaining loudly and memorably about not getting enough respect.

But Europe may well have more power than internal doubters believe. The partnership of Tony Blair was invaluable in the early days of the war against terror. The British prime minister was able to argue the case against Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban in a way the language-challenged, untravelled Texan in the White House could not.

And European Union commissioner Chris Patten says it's time for Europeans to speak up and keep the Bush administration from launching into "unilateralist overdrive," adding, "Gulliver can't go it alone, and I don't think it's helpful if we regard ourselves as so Lilliputian that we can't speak up and say it."

By 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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