‘Old Europe’ Can Gloat, but Then What?

Berlin — On the day James Baker’s Iraq report was published, I gritted my teeth and waited for the well-earned, long-awaited, Franco-German “Old Europe” gloat to begin. I didn’t wait long. “America Faces Up to the Iraq Disaster” read a headline in Der Spiegel. In the patronizing tones of a senior doctor, Le Monde diagnosed the “political feverishness” gripping Washington in Baker’s wake. Suddeutsche Zeitung said the report “stripped Bush of his authority,” although Le Figaro opined that nothing Baker proposed could improve the “catastrophic state” of Iraq anyway.

And then, for two weeks . . . silence. If there are politicians, academics or journalists anywhere in Germany and France who have better ideas about how to improve the catastrophic state of Iraq, they aren’t speaking very loudly. There is no question that America’s credibility has been undermined by the Iraq war, in “Old Europe” as everywhere else. There is no question that America’s reputation for competence has been destroyed. But that doesn’t mean there are dozens of eager candidates, or even one eager candidate, clamoring to replace us.

There is, it is true, quite a lot of wishful thinking around. “Iraq is a disaster — now we will have to clean up the mess,” one German diplomatic acquaintance told me. “Germany Mulling Bigger Role in Iraq” read another Der Spiegel headline. But Germany is notoriously averse to sending soldiers, or anyone else, anywhere near combat. At the moment German politicians cannot even agree on whether their troops should be allowed to fight in Afghanistan, where they have been stationed for years. France, meanwhile, has announced that it is removing its troops from Afghanistan altogether. So how, exactly, will this Iraq cleanup take place? What will this “bigger role” be? “We can train judges and police,” my acquaintance explained — after the fighting is over, of course. Whenever that happens.

Scattered across Europe there are also a few diplomatic optimists, people who hope Europe can play “Middle East matchmaker,” in the words of one writer, and maybe get the Iranians and Syrians to be more helpful and kind in Iraq — or at least to stop funding the insurgency. Presumably these are the same optimists who also used to believe that a Franco-German-British diplomatic team could persuade Iran to stop conducting nuclear weapons research. Presumably they didn’t notice that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, held a “Holocaust denial” conference in Tehran last week — not, perhaps, the clearest signal that he wants to make friends with bien-pensant Europeans — or that the French president, Jacques Chirac, recently declared that his views on Syria exactly matched those of his American counterpart.

With some exceptions, the weird reality is that most European governments, whatever their original views on the war, are either officially or unofficially opposed to an immediate U.S. withdrawal: Chaos might ensue. And the chaos would be a lot closer to Europe than to North America. Most European governments, officially or unofficially, are also now worried that the next American president will retreat from world politics or become “isolationist.”

Nor is there anybody here, of any stature, who believes that Europe — for all its recent economic improvement, for all its trading power and for all its dislike of American foreign policy — is going to replace the United States anytime soon. Germany is about to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union, and therefore Germany is discussing E.U. integration policy, E.U. immigration policy and E.U. economics. Germany is not discussing how the European Union will take on a leading military and diplomatic role in the Middle East. And not even Germany wants any of the other potential world powers — Russia, say, or China — to replace the United States in the role of dominant superpower.

In this weird reality, there is a very narrow sliver of hope: Maybe now the Germans, and even the French, will finally come to realize that there is no alternative to the transatlantic partnership, no better international military organization than NATO, no real “role” for any of us outside the Western alliance — even if only because all the alternatives are worse. Maybe the Old Europeans will find inspiration to support and contribute further to the alliance, diplomatically and ideologically if not militarily. Maybe the United States will come to the same realization, too.

Ultimately the only way for the West to deal with the new threats posed by a disintegrating Iraq, a resurgent Iran and a shattered Middle East is through a unified policy — an alliance whose members are not easily played off against one another — and a joint strategy.

Joyeux Noel and Glückliches Neujahr to you all.

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