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U.S. Iraq Policy and European Objections

Von Nicole Schley und Felix Neugart

03.02.2003 · TIESWeb


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The devastating terrorist attacks of September 11 have redefined U.S. foreign policy and made the war on terrorism a top priority. The crushing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists around the globe were widely perceived as legitimate acts of self-defense. Yet, in the last months the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq came to dominate the transatlantic if not the global agenda. This new emphasis put on Iraq combined with the serious questions it raised about international legality and the stability of the Middle East region confounded and alarmed many observers, especially among some of the European Union partner states. The fact that the Bush administration has at various points referred to different motivations for its aggressive policy against Iraq contributed to their doubts. At the risk of considerable over-simplification three clusters of arguments made by U.S. officials may be discerned, none of which managed to convince European skeptics.

First, the administration claims that Saddam is poised to renew his severely crippled WMD program in violation of several resolutions of the UN Security Council. These weapons, officials claim, are bound to become a direct threat to the U.S. in the near future, especially if passed on to terrorists. This line of reasoning, however, raises the question of other countries developing weapons of mass destruction that are not subject to U.S. threats of military force. The recent disclosure of North Korea's nuclear programme and the administration's rather relaxed reaction is a case in point. Moreover, Saddam is without doubt a very aggressive contender for regional power, but he is very unlikely to attack the U.S. given its overwhelming military superiority. His very rational sense for survival prevents him from choosing self-destruction.

Second, at several points administration officials have pointed to a linkage between the international terrorism of al-Qaida and Saddam's regime. It has however failed so far to present any compelling evidence to substantiate this assertion. The alleged meeting between the ringleader of Al-Qaida's Hamburg cell, Muhammed 'Atta, and an official of the Iraqi embassy in Prague seems to be rather improbable, and is passionately rejected by Czech officials. Nonetheless, it is likely that there were contacts between Iraqis and al-Qaida members, but there were also contacts with many regimes in the region, among them even America's allies. Generally, authoritarian regimes like Iraq are well aware of the risk of giving WMD to groups beyond their control.

Third, administration officials pointed towards the record of internal repression and regional aggression that characterizes Saddam's regime. There is no doubt that Saddam's Iraq is the most oppressive and brutal dictatorship in a region not short of authoritarian political systems. It is true, Saddam twice attacked his neighbors to pursue his ambitions for regional hegemony and plunged his people into bloody and expensive wars. Yet, making authoritarian suppression or aggressive foreign policy the norm for triggering U.S. military action would render too many targets to swallow, even for the world's sole remaining superpower.

What then does explain the new zeal on Iraq among top U.S. officials? Many observers point to the alleged determination of the U.S. to control the global supply of oil, especially given that Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. Yet, while oil undoubtedly plays an important part in the overall picture and adds profoundly to the strategic value of the Gulf region, there is little evidence that the increasing global dependency on Gulf oil is the prime mover for US action. Others suggest that Bush junior may have been determined to settle accounts with Iraq from the very start of his presidency, given the "unfinished family business" of 1991 and the assassination attempt on his father in Kuwait somewhat later. However, it was only after September 11 that Bush was able to command sufficient support among the political establishment and among the public to seriously contemplate waging a war on Iraq.

Changed perceptions of U.S. decision makers and public opinion

Two crucial changes of perception have taken place. First, the perception of external threat has profoundly changed. The basic feeling of "splendid isolation" from global problems that many Americans at least subjectively shared was unsettled by the events of September 11. The conclusion that the problems "out there" could become a danger to national security strengthened the support for targeted prevention against real or imagined threats. Since the presence of a diffuse threat is an experience Europeans have been living with for decades, the change in the U.S. public mood is not easily comprehended by a European mind. This process helps to explain that, while many Americans are rather uneasy about waging war against Iraq, most do support preventive action against any future threat, be it in Iraq or elsewhere. The idea of preventive strikes against terrorists and WMD in the hands of rogue states became enshrined in the new American national security doctrine endorsed by the administration recently.

Second, in the wake of September 11 many key actors in Washington, especially on the political right, are convinced that a basic transformation of the Middle East is unavoidable. The fact that the perpetrators of 9-11 were overwhelmingly from Saudi origin and received financial and ideological support from significant population sectors of this and other friendly countries suggested that even allies cannot be trusted anymore. They pointed to the lack of political participation in most countries of the region and the symbiotic relationship of religion and politics in some. Against this background the regime change in Iraq received new urgency and was increasingly understood as key to the solution of the problems of the region. Some conservative Washington think tanks are already spreading the gospel of a democratic "new Middle East" under a Pax Americana. They argue that from a U.S.-dominated Iraq, pressure for change could be increased, not only on Iran which remains for many the real mastermind of global terrorism, but also on Syria and others. Saudi-Arabia, a close ally whose credibility was seriously compromised after 9-11, would lose automatically in strategic importance and would be much more vulnerable to American pressure. It is unnecessary to add that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would finally be settled under the new umbrella of U.S. hegemonial power. These ideas are bound to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East for some time to come.

The European Approach

Europeans generally disagree with the idea of pre-emptive strikes without the cover of international law. They dislike the idea of re-making a whole region in one fell swoop given the potential repercussions and dangers involved. But, Europeans share the idea that, at least in the long run, the costs of maintaining the status quo will exceed those that are to be invested in profound change. The European vision as enshrined in the Euro-Mediterranean partnership envisages a liberal transformation process in the region where countries become increasingly interlinked through multilateral cooperation. Europe is well advised to develop this framework into a credible and operational alternative for the region. And it seems that the support for this approach is growing, not only in Great Britain, where Tony Blair is increasingly criticised, but even in the U.S., given the many voices and demonstrations against waging war against Iraq.

Transatlantic Implications

1. This assessment of the American Middle East policy implies that the U.S. and European countries have different threat perceptions. As a consequence the partners needed to make it clear what they consider to be the main features of the threat and what the appropriate means will be to counter this threat. This and a closer cooperation of intelligence will have to be the starting point of future cooperation negotiations.

2. The U.S. Middle East policy has a negative effect on transatlantic relations. It implies that as long as the European partners are willing to cooperate or follow the American approach, they are well-perceived; otherwise Europeans will become increasingly irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy planning. In the history of military interventions it has always been the case that states, including the United States, have formed coalitions. If the United States is interested in pursuing this configuration of military security policy, it will have to learn to listen to the concerns of its partners, and start taking these concerns into consideration.

3. A main set of dispute between the U.S. and the EU and other U.S. partners is based on different opinions on the plans for pre-emptive strikes. The EU and many others follow the provisions of international law declaring pre-emptive strikes to be acts of commencing an offensive war. And so the commonplace historical observation once again comes true: Hegemony generates opposition. In order not to end up a lonely superpower for a long time to come, the U.S. needs to follow the recently indicated "I am a patient man" stance and thereby indirectly follow the lines of European foreign policy ideals.

4. The UN Security Council meeting on February 5, 2003 will be the next crossroad for future developments. Secretary of State Powell will then present the long-expected evidence a) that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and b) that there is a connection between Iraq and the al-Qaidi terrorist network. The European partners will then have to take their final decision either for or against the U.S. and a war against Iraq.


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