Europe to Kerry: Help (for Iraq) is Not on the Way

If John Kerry's only solution to the Iraqi mess is bringing in allies, he's in trouble.

| Wed Sep. 29, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

If the United States is the Earth's last great imperial power, then the election of its leader is indeed a global event. On this event, in fact, the world has already spoken -- in opinion poll terms at least. According to a recent Program on International Policy Attitudes poll (pdf format) of 35 countries on their election preferences, in only three (the Philippines, Poland, and Nigeria) was George Bush by relatively close margins the preferred candidate; in two (India and Thailand), the vote was split; in the rest the response was resounding. Kerry, for instance, swept Latin America and took Europe, Poland aside, by enormous margins (Norway, 74% to 7%; Germany, 74% to 10%; France, 64% to 5%; Italy, 58% to 14%; Spain, 45% to 7%; and Tony Blair's UK by a remarkable 47% to 16%). Overall, Kerry was favored globally by a 2-to-1 margin. Even in most countries whose governments had contributed troops to Iraq, significant majorities favored Kerry and believed strongly that U.S. foreign policy was "on the wrong track."

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This may simply be an accentuation of the anybody-but-George vote in the United States raised to a global level and magnified. Because we Americans live in our own off-planet bubble, we have at best only a partial sense of exactly how much dismay, puzzlement, and anger has built up globally around Bush administration policies and George's own person -- and how much this has affected views of the United States. In Egypt, for instance, "just two years ago, Zogby [International] found that 76 percent of Egyptians had an unfavorable impression of the US. Today, that number is 98 percent." On a planet never lacking in at least a modest percentage of "don't knows," such figures are unheard of.

As it happens, of course, only Americans are eligible to vote on the fate of the planet -- and only a little more than half of those eligible to do so will. Still, part of John Kerry's amble to the rescue here, has been a claim, when it comes to our disaster in Iraq, that he will fix matters by somehow bringing our allies and their troops into the mix. His is really a Vietnamization policy globalized -- others should die for our mess -- that's hardly likely to appeal to those allies. To give him credit, though, his plan is far less vague (and a good deal more venal) than it's usually made to sound. If you look at his NYU speech on Iraq, given last week, buried deep inside it is the following telltale, if hardly discussed, line:

"The president should convene a summit meeting of the world's major powers and of Iraq's neighbors, this week, in New York, where many leaders will attend the U.N. General Assembly, and he should insist that they make good on the U.N. resolution. He should offer potential troop contributors specific but critical roles in training Iraqi security personnel and in securing Iraqi borders. He should give other countries a stake in Iraq's future by encouraging them to help develop Iraq's oil resources and by letting them bid on contracts instead of locking them out of the reconstruction process."

While the Bush plan had been to turn over the "development" of what his administration carefully referred to as Iraq's sacred "patrimony," aka its oil, to American energy companies like you know which one (and in the process cut the weakling Europeans and clamoring Russians out of the mix), Kerry's is clearly to reshuffle the deck and redistribute some of those Iraqi oil rights to our allies. Below, Swiss journalist Bruno Giussani, in a calm review of European attitudes toward a future Kerry administration, suggests that, when it comes to Iraq at least, whatever the offer, help will not be on the way.

Interestingly, even in the months before our invasion of Iraq, polls reflected the American public's desire not to go to war essentially alone; and evidently the unending war in Iraq has only magnified an American urge toward multilateralism that was never on the Bush agenda. In the latest, authoritative (if underreported) Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll, according to Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, "overwhelming majorities of both the public and the elite said that the most important lesson of 9/11 is that the nation needs to ‘work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism' as opposed to ‘act more on its own.'" Similarly large majorities rejected both a vision of the United States as the globe's sole "policeman" and the President's policy of "preventive war." ("Only 17 percent of the public and 10 percent of leaders said that war was justifiable if the ‘other country is acquiring weapons of mass destruction that could be used against them at some point in the future.'")

And yet, if the Europeans aren't going to ride to John Kerry's rescue in Iraq, neither will they be capable of doing so in the election campaign. Kerry's recent attacks on the President's Iraq and al-Qaeda policies -- ("The president continues to live in a fantasy world of spin") -- have been simple, clear, effective, and backed up by the news from Iraq. But if his only solution to the Iraqi mess is bringing in allies, he's in trouble nonetheless.

Memo to Kerry from Europe:

Help (for Iraq) Is Not on the Way
By Bruno Giussani

As the series of presidential debates starts off in Florida, it is easy to guess what the candidates will say about Iraq.

President Bush will repeat that things there "are going in the right direction" and reiterate his intention to "stay the course." John Kerry will describe the situation as a "crisis of historic proportions" and point to his four-point plan, outlined in a speech last week at New York University, to turn things around. The first point has now made it into his television ads as a four-word sound bite: "Allies share the burden."

I am in doubt about the exact meaning that Senator Kerry gives to the word "allies." He may well be thinking of Russia or Pakistan; but if, as I suspect, he means Europe, well, here is another four-word sound bite: "That will not happen."

True: as recent surveys have shown, if Europe could vote in November Kerry would be elected in a landslide. American travelers to Europe these days can expect to be asked time and again, in a hopeful tone, whether Kerry is going to win come November. Earlier in the campaign, the Democratic candidate himself contended that foreign leaders privately favor him over President Bush: an admittedly clumsy claim, not backed up by names, that nonetheless wasn't wrong.

Not since the 1960s has a U.S. presidential contest stirred such passions, hopes, and fears across Europe. Most Europeans feel that they have much at stake in the November election; that its outcome will also determine the shape of their future. Citizens and elites alike are broadly convinced that a change of leadership in the White House is necessary not only to modify the terms of the Euro-American relationship (which are abysmal) but also for the future of the world's governance.

In designing his foreign policy plans however, Senator Kerry may be counting on that European sympathy a bit too much. Let's recap a few of his recent statements.

During his speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston (July 29), he said that he knows what to do in Iraq: "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers." And he made the crowd recite with him the mantra: "Help is on the way."

A few days later, on August 3, he got more specific in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying that he thinks he could attract enough international help in Iraq to make it a "reasonable" goal to replace most of the 140,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there with foreign forces within a first term as president.

On August 9, talking with reporters during a campaign stop in Arizona, he upped his commitment by saying that his goal as president would be to reduce American troop levels in Iraq during his first six months in office -- that is, by August 2005. "I believe if you do the kind of alliance-building that is available to us that it is appropriate to have a goal of reducing our troops over that period of time," he said.

On September 1st, while addressing members of the American Legion convened in Nashville, he repeated almost word for word the lines from his Boston speech.

And on September 20, in that speech at NYU, he encapsulated his plan in the following words: "The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: We must make Iraq the world's responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden."

From a European perspective, this is funny talk, particularly from a man who knows Europe well and who, by the admission of his own advisers, has not so far held any discussions with foreign leaders about committing more troops. Kerry is promising something whose likelihood is very close to zero. Help is not on the way for Iraq. Europe will not rush to "share the burden," nor to significantly reduce the cost of the Mesopotamian adventure to American taxpayers. Truth is, the United States will have to see Iraq through mostly by itself.

On one matter, Kerry is right: It is undoubtedly in everyone's interest to encourage some form of democratic stability in Iraq and to prevent it from becoming a failed state. But European politicians are not suicidal and that won't change even if John Kerry is elected.

A reminder: on March 15 the citizens of Spain voted out Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. He had supported the war despite overwhelming domestic opposition and had then, for political convenience, tried to manipulate the significance of the terrorist attacks that hit Madrid four days before the voting took place. (191 were killed, 1800 wounded.) Even though, in the American political narrative, the Spanish vote was translated as "surrendering to the terrorists," the ousting of Aznar was a textbook example of a healthy democracy at work.

It was also a powerful reminder of just how widespread public rejection of the war in Iraq is, not just in Spain but in Europe as a whole. ((I know that "Europe" is a simplification of a complex reality, but bear with me.) Despite sympathy for American and British soldiers serving in the Middle East and for their families, a vast majority of Europeans consider the war in Iraq not only unnecessary and unjustified, but manufactured by the Bush administration for its own ends.

European politicians have continued to put on polite faces but public opinion, particularly in France and Germany, countries that could make a difference, is vehemently against the idea of sending troops to Iraq or offering any other kind of significant direct help to "clean up Bush's mess" -- a sentiment I heard again and again during my two trips to Europe this summer. Those countries already engaged in Iraq (notably Italy and Poland, along with Britain which is a special case) will probably remain there, at least for the time being, despite growing public discontent: Their governments have no interest in opening a rift with the U.S. and feel, in any case, that they can't afford to contradict their own positions domestically. However, they are unlikely to step up their efforts.

Other European countries seem open to providing modest support, such as offering to relieve some of Iraq's debts (though why exactly Iraq should be given priority over poorer countries on this matter has never been adequately explained by American officials). Limited developmental and reconstruction aid or aid in training future Iraqi police and technocrats are also possibilities. But no country is eager to send soldiers.

A vast engagement of European forces under the NATO flag also looks improbable -- at least without a serious American commitment to real partnership in the development of the alliance. Even Kerry's recent suggestion that a United Nations High Commissioner might be appointed to oversee reconstruction and elections wouldn't modify the situation significantly, unless the Commissioner's mandate included command over U.S. troops in Iraq -- something that goes well beyond what even Kerry seems willing to concede.

This is not to say that as president Kerry wouldn't enjoy significant leverage with his European peers. Europeans have not forgotten 9/11. They agree that terrorism is a very serious threat; they've suffered from it for decades and understand it better than most. However, Europeans strongly disagree with the whole notion that invading Iraq was a necessary step in fighting terrorism. They believe, as do a growing number of Americans, that the focus on Iraq and on its delusional dictator has been a severe distraction from the very real dangers that have arisen from the debris of the Cold War: network-based catastrophic terrorism, nuclear and biological weapons proliferation, and the failure of global governance.

To "bring the allies to our side," Kerry will have to take the bold step of explicitly and categorically uncoupling the war in Iraq from the wider fight against terrorism. On this premise, there will be plenty of support and help available from Europe for reconstructing Afghanistan, tracking down Osama Bin Laden, sharing intelligence, disrupting terrorist financing networks and blocking their assets, identifying and neutralizing sleeper cells, stopping the spread of WMDs, dealing with rogue states, devising a real(istic) path to peace for Palestine, supporting moderate Islamic governments and organizations with democratic leanings, securing global networks and transportation systems, and so much more.

The sympathy for Senator Kerry in Europe relies neither on his fluency in French, nor on the boarding-school year that he spent in Switzerland, although these are pluses. Nor are Europeans naive to the point of believing that a Kerry Administration would steer America in a fundamentally different direction on matters of security and foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East: the differences between the two presidential contenders are mostly in the nuances. But Kerry is perceived as having a more multilateral and pragmatic approach that favors consensus-building over threats and empiricism over ideology, and his election might at least make a dialogue between ever more estranged friends possible again.

A Bush second term, on the other hand, would probably make the current transatlantic gap a permanent feature of the global system, with unpredictable consequences for that system's stability. President Bush is almost universally despised in Europe (as in most of the rest of the world). In polls, less than one out of ten Europeans rates him positively. His administration's arrogant "with-us-or-against-us" attitude has alienated significant numbers of genuine friends of the United States, who have turned suspicious, if not outright hostile. Many can't fathom how a majority of American voters could even consider re-electing him, a feeling that is creating a curious state of suspension in Europe. Many prefer to imagine that the last three years have been but an anomaly in history that will end on November 2; after which, with a new tenant in the Oval Office, normalcy in international relations will resume.

Let's be clear: most Europeans believe that the United States is a force for good in the world and they can differentiate between a people and the policies of its government. Most of the current aversion focuses in remarkably personal terms on President Bush and his inner circle. A change in administrations could therefore by itself ignite renewed transatlantic cooperation. It would certainly yield a general sigh of relief in Europe and simultaneously, without Bush as a collective excuse for inaction, it might force Europeans to get their act together and take the global responsibilities of the "old continent" more seriously.

But none of this should be mistaken for a blank check for a future Kerry presidency, nor for a commitment of more European boots-on-the-ground in and around places like Fallujah and Samarra. By now, in many respects, Iraq is, as journalist James Fallows termed it, the 51st state of the United States, and Europeans have no desire to interfere in the "domestic affairs" of an ally. For the rest of the world's troubles, here is the European four-word sound bite for Kerry: "John, let's talk."

Bruno Giussani is a Swiss writer, a 2004 Knight Fellow at Stanford University and an Affiliated Fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies. His work has appeared on the New York Times' website, in the European editions of Time and of The Wall Street Journal, and other European and American venues. He can be reached at www.giussani.com/contact.

Copyright C2004, Bruno Giussani

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.

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