The United Kingdom and the United States are, to use that rather disturbing Chinese expression, “as close as lips and teeth.” Their governments rarely disagree in public. Yes, there was that Suez Affair way back when, and some difference in approach to the Falklands War, at least for a few days, during the Reagan-Thatcher years, but for the most part it’s been the coziest of relationships. Tony Blair’s administration, almost alone among foreign governments, has even endorsed Bush’s call for war against Iraq, not, one suspects, out of any genuine enthusiasm, but out of desire to maintain the “special relationship” that suits its long-term interests. So it’s significant when unnamed, high-ranking officials in the British administration tell the London Telegraph (June 30) that the Bush team is “rather unpleasant,” “protectionist and self-interested,” and even (in vetoing the UN Security Council’s mandate to maintain international forces in Bosnia) “crazy.” Or when “leading British civil servantsmainstream, small-c conservative figures whose work, in its different ways, sometimes depends on maintaining good relations with the Americans,” tell the Telegraph’s John Simpson that Mr. Bush is “puerile,” “absurdly ignorant” and “ludicrous.” (The British have been erring on the side of civility, compared with the other Europeans.)
Governments that endorsed the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, and are conscientiously conducting police operations against alleged al-Qaeda cells in Europe, have become deeply worried about where the “War on Terrorism,” and U.S. policy in general (it’s getting hard to separate these two), are heading. That, I submit, is a very good thing. The Europeans are like the sober ones at the family gathering, who first smile nervously at the troubled drunk whose loud chatter and abrasive behavior offends all assembled. They know he’s just suffered a terrible loss and so are inclined to treat him with indulgence. But finally, after exchanging worried glances, they decide to say something.
The turning point was January 29, when President Bush in his State of the Union speech said things so offensive to the intelligence of educated continentals (those whom the Rumseld-Wolfowitz cabal disparages as “European élites”) that they just had to deliberately distance themselves from his statements. Recall, this was the high-profile “address” in which Dubya made no reference at all to Osama bin Laden, and only passing reference to al-Qaeda, while stoking fears that “tens of thousands” of evildoers trained in Afghan camps, and now dispersed throughout the world, posed an infinite threat. (Colin Powell, with the greater eye for detail, and perhaps some sensitivity to the ridicule really foolish misstatements produce on the diplomatic front, reportedly questioned the numbers. About 30,000 foreign Muslims trained in CIA and Saudi-financed camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But it’s not at all clear how many of them are currently linked to the al-Qaeda network. Some in the U.S. government think al-Qaeda as such is down to a few hundred.) More importantly, Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an “axis of evil” threatening the U.S., and hinted at a unilateral U.S. strike against Baghdad.
Former President Jimmy Carter broke tradition in denouncing the standing president’s “axis” formulation as “overly simplistic and counterproductive,” and opined that “it will take years before we can repair the damage done by that statement.” European reaction was similarly negative. Chris Patten, the European Union’s de facto minister of foreign affairs, said, “I find it hard to believe that’s a thought-through policy.” French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told reporters, “We are friends of the United States, we are friends of that people and we will remain so. But we are threatened today by a new simplism which consists in reducing everything to the war on terrorism.” Referring to implicit plans to attack Iraq, he added, “Europeans are unanimous in not supporting the Middle East policy of the White House.” German deputy foreign minister, Ludgar Vollmer, stated, “We Europeans warn against [attacking Iraq]. There is no indication, no proof that Iraq is involved in the terrorism we have been talking about for the last few months… this terror argument cannot be used to legitimize old enmities.”
On February 2, at an international security conference in Munich, the European moderator politely asked U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to explain the meaning of the “axis of evil.” Wolfowitz’s clipped and cryptic response: “Countries must make a choice.” (Now what’s that supposed to mean to an allied government that sympathizes with post-Sept. 11 America, and endorses the campaign in Afghanistan, but thinks an attack on Iraq would be—as Nelson Mandela, a fairly respectably “mainstream” figure, put it on December 3—“a disaster”? It means: “Look, we have the wherewithal to destroy, at our own pace, all the Evil in the world. You can cooperate; or you can stand aside, but if you do so, you’ll face our contempt and wrath.”)
At the same time, Bush adviser, Richard Perle said of the “War on Terrorism”: “This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there … If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage a total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” (Yes. Imagine the stirring ballads one might compose, about the incineration of Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Mosul and the subsequent distribution of Iraq’s oil assets to the several corporations best represented in the Bush cabinet. Worthy of the harps of the minstrels of Rivendell!)
Fortunately the arrogant language has not intimidated all U.S. allies, who continue to pointedly question the White House’s wisdom. On March 15, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said, “We feel that Iraq should not be the subject of military attacks because it would upset the whole Middle East Since the Gulf War, Iraq has been under strict control It is under constant surveillance, so it is not in a position anymore to inflict any harm on its neighbors or even against its people.” (Turkey was joined by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, all of whom have insisted they do not feel threatened by Iraq). German chancellor Gerhard Schröder stated Germany would not support a unilateral US strike against Iraq, while a French government spokesperson declared, “Any kind of military operation should of course exist within that existing UN framework. France agreed to support the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan after September 11 because the situation was new, there was clear proof that al-Qaeda was operating there. The country had been warned, and the strikes were targeted. [But] Iraq is different.” Even the British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, warned colleagues of “major disturbances both internationally and in Britain” if the U.K. were to back a U.S. strike.
On March 17, German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, and the Defense Minister, Rudolf Scharping both announced that German participation in a second Gulf War would not be desirable or feasible. British Minister for International Development Clare Short declared her opposition to new Gulf War, threatening to resign from Blair’s cabinet if it supported an attack on Iraq. Two days later, the leader of the British House of Commons and former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, spoke out against war with Iraq. Former Cabinet member Mo Mowlam accused Blair of disregarding domestic opinion, writing in The Sunday Mirror: “Blair seems to be making it clear that he has more sympathy with the wishes of Washington and their reckless attitude than he does for his own party and even members of his Cabinet.” 130 members of British House of Commons signed a motion against war with Iraq. (In a not unrelated development, a miffed Rumsfeld complained March 28 that U.S. allies weren’t doing enough to keep the peace in Afghanistan. The subtext was: They just complain, while we do the dirty work.)
My point is not to glorify these European officials for expressing doubts about U.S. simplisme and Dubya’s apparent appetite for infinite global war. Surely there are aspects of inter-imperialist rivalry here. Some imperialist countries would suffer greater damage than others should the rage felt in the Arab/ Islamic street spin totally out of control, and their governments are more concerned about that issue than the moral question of bombing more kids. My point, rather, is that contention between the U.S. and Europe at this point seems to have delayed implementation of the Defense Department warmongers’ “total war” vision, and that provides some hope.
On July 5 the New York Times reported on a blueprint prepared by the Defense Department for a three-pronged attack on Iraq to occur next year, based principally in Kuwait but involving eight surrounding countries in all. A Reuters dispatch based on the Times report noted in passing that none of the countries whose cooperation was posited had “yet been consulted” about their involvement in the war. Despite repeated statements by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, even Kuwait, that they do not feel threatened by Iraq; and despite strong Arab League denunciations of U.S. war plans, the acquiescence of sovereign nations to U.S. diktat is merely assumed. The Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz cabal smugly assures us that “behind the scenes” U.S.-friendly regimes are cooperating with the war plans, or will be threatened or cajoled into compliance. Maybe, indeed, they will; and perhaps Europe, too, will be bullied into a supportive role, promised in exchange some slices of the (postulated) postwar pie. (There has, for example, been some talk about garnering Turkish cooperation in return for some border adjustments that will give Ankara the oil fields of Mosul.)
But there’s another scenario. The U.S. may indeed go it alone. Europe may decide to be neither “for or against” bullying America, but remain anxiously neutral, fearing that Washington’s terror war on Iraq might explode into World War III, pitting the Muslim world (about 20% the world’s population, with many decades of accumulated—and thoroughly legitimate—anger towards imperialism) against the West. Mainstream politicians may then (appropriately) intensify their criticisms of the puerility and craziness prevalent across the Atlantic, and the mainstream European press (routinely derided in this country as “anti-American”) may then really take off the gloves (not because it’s really very leftist or radical, but just, in a relative sense, sane at this point). NATO may suffer a fatal blow. All of this, totally fine.
The worst scenario involves Europe, alongside Japan and the oil sheikdoms of the Arab world, marching lockstep into an unjustified war (with no “legitimatising” link to Sept. 11), guaranteed to revolt and provoke not only Muslims, but the masses of the Third World. (These of course include people of all faiths, and of no faith, who know all too well the terror of imperialist attack and subjugation.) This is the scenario of a truly apocalyptic and elemental war: Imperialism versus the Human Beings of the Planet Earth.
Europeans (and “their” governments) should “just say no” to the terror war plans. If they do, perhaps, years from now, their children will compose great songs about them.
Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org