Foreign Policy

A Gong for Europe

On Iraq, several trans-Atlantic cousins are useless

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Spain's Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, is known by the moniker "Bambi", and a peek will corroborate that he resembles the feeble fawn from the Walt Disney cartoon. But there is more to it than looks: He showed that he merited the nickname after the Madrid train bombings last March, which won the Socialists a surprise election victory against José-Maria Aznar's Popular Party. Bambi reacted to the killing of nearly 200 people by doing what deer do best: He blanched and hightailed out of Iraq.

However, it was a bouncy Bambi who recently met with France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schröder at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid. Notably absent was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and what ensued was a hefty dose of schadenfreude directed at American and British tribulations in Iraq. Chirac declared that the three countries would not change their positions on the conflict, and added: "We have opened a Pandora's box in Iraq that we are unable to close. The situation is very serious and it is not getting better."

Bambi preferred to ram Europe's bête noire, Donald Rumsfeld, and his now copyrighted "old Europe" quip. Characterizing himself and his guests as "fervent pro-Europeans," he remarked: "If I had to describe the atmosphere of this meeting in just a few words, I would say 'the old Europe' is as good as new."

But when it comes to Iraq, things are not as good as new in Europe. In fact, the crashing reality is that European critics of the Iraq war, regardless of whether they were right or wrong on the wisdom of the conflict, are utterly, spectacularly, criminally useless in proposing new ways to address it. They seem to ignore that if Iraq were to spin out of American control (and what we are seeing today can become infinitely worse), this would probably harm Europe even more than it would the United States. Yet instead of action, they offer only a smug "We told you so."

Chirac's statement would have made an ostrich proud. Here is a man claiming to stare disaster in the face, yet whose preferred behavior for months has been to obstruct anything that might signal approval of American actions in Iraq. For example, the French president blocked placing a NATO mission to train Iraqi security forces under a U.S. commander, even though a majority of alliance members approved. Chirac said he feared this might drag NATO into the Iraqi conflict, a cheap red herring since powerful alliance members such as France, Germany and Spain (not to mention increasingly wary American allies Italy and Britain) have no stomach for it. And while a NATO agreement now appears imminent, France delayed valuable progress far too long.

For a time, European critics of the war could pretend that their disapproval bought their citizens in Iraq some safety. That fairy tale came to an abrupt end after two French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, were abducted recently, but also after three Italians openly opposed to the war were also kidnapped, two of them young women; the other, Enzo Baldoni, was executed on video. French envoys, particularly Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, made the rounds in the region to secure the release of the Frenchmen, and initially emitted optimism. That was weeks ago. Nothing has happened, and today the mood is grim. Chesnot and Malbrunot, if they are alive, have survived this long only because their abductors want a ransom.

What can European naysayers do better than what they're doing now? Quite a bit, but short of sending soldiers, which none will accept, they can start by diluting their passion for legalism and openly admit that a meltdown in Iraq would pose a strategic threat to them. At the simplest level, where there is conflict there are migrants, and very many would wash up on Europe's shores. More ominously, an Iraqi civil war could quickly turn into a regional fracas, as Turks, Iranians, Saudis, Jordanians and Syrians enter the fray, endangering a host of vital international interests, most prominently the price of oil.

Following on from this, the naysayers should begin to define what it is they really want from the Americans in Iraq, and what they can realistically expect. The French, for example, have urged the handover of power to the Iraqis, but other than that they've been hazy on the possibilities. Do they demand a quick American withdrawal? In a May interview with Le Monde, Barnier argued that the decision was up to an Iraqi authority emerging from the January 2005 elections. But not even the French really believe a pullout is now attractive, in which case sniping at American setbacks is destructive and demagogical.

A third step may be to play off the changes in Iraq and maintain the momentum for democratic change in the Middle East, even if the Bush administration falters on such ambitions. This won't be easy, since for a long time European states favored realism in their dealings with the region's thugs. The approach sanctified state sovereignty and avoided disrupting lucrative financial deals through the condemnation of brutal Arab regimes. (In that sense, the U.S. was hardly any better.) However, this could be slowly changing: While many Europeans scoff at the Bush administration's democracy project in the Middle East, or what remains of it, their own association agreements with the Arab states of the Mediterranean aim precisely to advance a measure of freedom and open markets—albeit with the caginess for which the Brussels legistocracy is celebrated. The Europeans must accept that their efforts would get a big boost if the Americans successfully set up a pluralist government in Baghdad

The cornerstone of a new European attitude toward Iraq requires that the naysayers change their outlook on the U.K. As Patrick Tyler recently observed in The New York Times: "The estrangement among Western leaders over Iraq has begun to extend again to Britain's relations with Europe and, according to one senior official… has more to do with the struggle over who is the leader of Europe than war in Iraq." Indeed, Tony Blair's segregation from the Moncloa conclave made no sense if Europe is serious about defining a common position on the Iraqi situation.

Potentially easing a European reconciliation is the fact that Blair has started the heavy climb down to his personal Canossa. Upon returning from his summer vacation, the prime minister pointedly avoided the word "Iraq." His foreign secretary, Jack Straw, or subordinates, apparently felt safe enough to leak damaging (and self-serving) documents to the British press suggesting that Blair had been warned of the postwar chaos in Iraq. And London's The Observer reported last weekend that by the end of October the prime minister intends to cut the number of British combat troops in Iraq to two-thirds of their present level of 5,000.

Blair's being turned into a piñata prompted the prominent military historian John Keegan to pen a verbal Stalingrad in his defense in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Keegan reminded readers of the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein, exposed the pettiness of many of Blair's detractors, and concluded by writing: "Western so-called progressives who denounce the war of 2003 as a mistake are in fact illiberal and reactionary. They should be ashamed of themselves. Denunciation of war-making is much more fun than the recognition of the truth that the calculated use of force can achieve good."

That's not a bad coda for European naysayers to embrace if they ever decide to come down off the fence and regard Iraq as more than an opening to heckle George W. Bush and Tony Blair. A policy that is exclusively against something is no policy at all. If that's the best that a Europe as good as new can offer, then it's no surprise that one of its leading lights can get away with a nickname like Bambi.