Letter from Holland: Iraq & War through European Eyes

By Schilling, Timothy P. | Commonweal, February 28, 2003 | Go to article overview

Letter from Holland: Iraq & War through European Eyes


Schilling, Timothy P., Commonweal


I live in a Dutch city where there aren't many other Americans, and I am often asked to account for the actions of my native country. At the same time, I am in a position to observe world events through a European lens. In that regard, some things are clear. There is widespread doubt in Europe about the necessity of a war with Iraq, at least under the present circumstances. The challenge is to recognize and sort through the complex entanglement of interests at work in the European reaction. It is important to keep in mind that at the moment Europe itself is divided and struggling to find its own future. While the continent struggles with unification, its love-hate relationship with America also continues. In this context, the doubts about war find expression in the following questions. What actual threat does Saddam Hussein pose? (And is war necessary to counter the threat?) Why is it now suddenly so urgent to go to war with Iraq? Isn't this war plan really about something else (desire for hegemony, oil, revenge)? These doubts are underscored by President George W. Bush's style which alienates Europeans. Americans have shown a soft spot for Bush's down-home Texan approach to things. No soft spot exists here for his antics.

The evidence that Europeans are not convinced of the need to take military action at this time is abundant. Disapproval of the bellicose intentions of the United States toward Iraq turns up not only in opinion polls in France, Germany, and Belgium, but in the controversial stance those countries have taken within NATO in refusing to plan for the defense of Turkey in case of war. Popular mistrust of the Bush administration's war plans also can be seen in Spain and England, countries that politically have more closely aligned themselves with the American position. In a London Times poll released February 11, 57 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the United States and Great Britain had shown convincingly that military action against Iraq is necessary, and 86 percent felt that the weapons inspectors in Iraq should be given more time. The same poll found that support for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party has fallen to its lowest level in ten years.

Yet this is not to say that Europeans are all on the same wavelength. The sixteen-to-three split in NATO in support of Turkey's defense has made that clear enough. And European states do not necessarily trust one another. In the Dutch press, one finds abundant cynicism about the motives of the Belgians, French, and Germans in undermining NATO's unified stance. The Belgians are being opportunistic: they wouldn't dare consider a veto if France were not doing the same. A similar charge is leveled at German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who reversed his position on Iraq to win reelection. And then there is France, which is obsessed with the traditional French agenda: minimizing America's influence and maximizing France's.

There is also much talk here about the uncertainty clouding NATO's future. The Iraq crisis has revealed NATO's lack of clarity about its own purposes and objectives in the post-cold war world and in the absence of a common enemy. An editorial in the February 12 Amsterdam Volkskrant suggested that the NATO fight will soon be resolved, but that the deeper divide will remain. "NATO won't disappear immediately, but it is hard on its way to being irrelevant." Other Dutch observers express a similar concern for the European Union itself. The successful introduction of a common currency a year ago cannot disguise the fact that the Union has great difficulty mustering a unified front. At some point internal divisions are likely to come to the fore.

And what about relations with the United States? Is there a future for the transatlantic alliance? …

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