Iraq, the US and the End of the European Coalition

The disintegration of the Soviet bloc permitted American unilateralism on a scale the modern world has never seen. But with its war against Iraq the United States for the first time openly massed its military power and then invaded another nation, justifying the war in the name of the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and “regime change.” At the same time, it staked the very future of its existing alliances–NATO above all–but also the United Nations. NATO’s demise is a major outcome of the war against Iraq.

Washington intended to recast its European alliance, especially after its war against Serbia in the spring of 1999 revealed that the NATO principle of unanimity among its 19-members was a major inhibition on its freedom of action, but today its European coalition is disintegrating prematurely for reasons it both failed to anticipate and deplores.

Despite its military success, the Afghan war was a political failure for the U.S. The country is today ruled by warlords, its economy is in shambles, and even the Taliban is again attracting followers. The U. S. has never been able to translate its superior arms into political success, and that decisive failure is inherent in everything it attempts. Iraq is very likely to confirm this pattern; its regionalism and internecine ethnic strife will produce years of instability. Rational assessments of these repeated political failures would lead America to act far less frequently, and its vision consciously excludes alliances that will inhibit its actions.

The war with Iraq is only the first step in the United States’ astonishingly ambitious project to recast the world. It has identified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil.” Even today there is growing and formidable pressure on the Bush Administration to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, thereby courting an even broader regional war. But as its “Nuclear Posture Review” to Congress made clear in January 2002, Syria and Libya are also “immediate” dangers, while China and even Russia “remain a concern.” The Iraq war is the beginning of a cycle.

On September 19, 2002 Bush proclaimed the United States’ commitment to fighting “pre-emptive” wars against “rogue states” that have weapons of mass destruction or harbor “terrorists.” His vision extends far beyond the constraints inherent in alliances, much less agreeing to conform to the decisions of the United Nations. This “new” era in international relations, with momentous implications for war and world peace, in fact began long before then, but it was inevitable that the unilateralists now in charge of America’s foreign policy bring it to its logical conclusion.

Washington has decided that its allies must now accept its objectives and work solely on its terms, and it has no intention whatsoever of discussing the merits of its actions in NATO conferences. This applied, above all, to the war against Iraq–a war of choice.

The U. S. submitted the Iraq issue to the UN Security Council only because of a vain effort by Secretary of State Colin Powell to stem the unilateralism of the dominant entourage around President Bush, but the entire crisis revealed the impotence of traditionalists in the State Department. The Americans based their case for military action on the alleged existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as Hussein’s purported links with Al Qaeda terrorists. But Israeli intelligence reported to the U.S. that Hussein had no ties whatsoever to Bin Laden. The CIA concurred, and many of its analysts complained publicly that the White House was forcing them to lie on this issue.

As for WMD, the UN inspectors did not find any and the CIA was convinced that by 1995 Hussein had few, if any, left. Much more important, he did not use them against the invading American army, which so far has not found any. The single most important U.S. public justification for the Iraq war proved to be an utter falsehood. This catastrophic lie will haunt the U.S. for years to come, because although it proved in Iraq that it militarily could quickly defeat what was, at best, a second-rate army, it has no political credibility whatsoever. France saw the issue as primarily one of the rule of agreed international law in guiding international affairs of all nations, and regarded American behavior as both arbitrary and unilateral. To this extent, the Iraq crisis was broader and impinges directly on NATO’s future. The French and German refusal to support what was an obvious American obsession to eliminate a regime that it ( and Israel) deplored was vindicated, although the Security Council could not constrain arbitrary and dangerous American action. But it embarked on war anyway. Its real goal was political–regime change–and it is the beginning of a cycle of interventions that may last years; its ultimate consequences are utterly unpredictable.

The crisis in NATO was both overdue and inevitable, the result of a decisive American reorientation, and the time and ostensible reason for it was far less important than the underlying reason it occurred: the U.S.’ growing realization after the early 1990s that while NATO was militarily a growing liability it still remained a political asset. The United Nations and Security Council was strained in ways that proved decisive but the U.S. never assigned the UN the same crucial role as it did its alliance in Europe. The Iraq war was the final step in NATO’s demise.

Today, NATO’s original raison d’être for imposing American hegemony–which was to prevent the major European nations from pursuing independent foreign policies–is now the core of the controversy that is now raging. Washington cannot sustain this grandiose objective because a reunited Germany is far too powerful to be treated as it was a half-century ago, and Germany has its own interests in the Middle East and Asia to protect. Germany and France’s independence was reinforced by wholly inept American propaganda on the relationship of Iraq to Al-Qaeda (from which the CIA and British MI6 openly distanced themselves), overwhelming antiwar public opinion in most nations, and a great deal of opposition within the U. S. establishment and many senior American officers to the war with Iraq. The furious American response to Germany, France, and Belgium’s refusal, under article 4 of the NATO treaty, to protect Turkey from an Iraqi counterattack because that would prejudge the Security Council’s decision on war and peace was only a contrived reason for confronting fundamental issues that have simmered for years. The dispute was far more about symbolism than substance, and the point was made: some NATO members refused to allow the organization to serve as a rubber stamp for American policy, whatever it may be.

Turkey’s problem was simple: the U. S. pressured it, despite overwhelmingly antiwar Turkish public and political opinion, to allow American troops to invade Iraq from Turkey–in effect, to enter the war on its side. The U.S. wanted NATO to aid Turkey in order to strengthen the Ankara government’s resolve to ignore overwhelmingly antiwar domestic opinion. The arms it was to receive were superfluous. But the Turks have always been far more concerned with Kurdish separatism in Iraq rekindling the civil war that Kurds have fought in Turkey for much of the past decade, and the conditions they demanded on these issues put Washington in a very difficult position from which it could not extricate itself. The U.S. naively took Turkey for granted, as it has for many decades, tying up its most modern armor division offshore its coast on the assumption it could also invade Iraq from the north. An important faction of the government deliberately protracted negotiations with the U.S. in the hope of preventing the war altogether.

Turkey’s best–and most obvious–defense was to stay out of the war, which the vast majority of Turks wanted. After incessant haggling, it ended up doing so, and its relations with the U. S. are now very strained, perhaps irreparably. Meanwhile, tens of thousands Turkish troops are massed at the Iraq border and they will march if the Kurds keep Kirkuk, declare de facto independence, or in some way threaten Turkish interests. A crisis may not occur in the coming weeks, but it is a constant threat in the future. For the U.S. it is a nightmare which can easily become reality.

Geopolitically, the consummately ambitious American plan for restructuring the Middle East’s politics, making it more congenial to itself as well as to Israel, is very likely to fail. Arab opinion–even among those once friendly to the U.S.–was overwhelmingly antiwar and passionately angry, a fact that will only increase terrorism’s appeals and its dangers to Americans and their allies. The vast majority of Arabs believe that the outcome of the war on Iraq will be instability for the entire region.

There is no longer an Iraqi balance to Iranian predominance in the Gulf region, a fact that has untold geopolitical implications. Saudi Arabia at the end of April asked the United States to abandon its ultra-modern bases quickly, which it has agreed to do, and the Saudis have made a grudging move to make peace with the detested Iranian Shia regime. Washington supported Hussein in his war with Iran throughout the 1980s, providing him credits, intelligence, and vital military support, solely to contain Iran, and now Iraq is incapable of playing that role. Turkey is likely to intervene, one way or another, to control the Kurds in northern Iraq–what may occur there is wholly unpredictable and will be a vital question in the years to come. But while America will very likely keep a much larger military presence in the region for many years to come, using Iran as an excuse, it cannot oppose the Turks without shattering the illusion of its alliance with it–and NATO. War with Iraq has created a vast number of uncontrollable geopolitical dangers throughout the region.

Iran’s role is of overwhelming importance to the U.S.–and to Israel. It is militarily far more formidable than Iraq and will have nuclear weapons in due course–the timing is much disputed. Iran’s principal concern is Israel, its nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and Iran has neither the intention nor the technology to reach beyond it. The obvious solution is to create a nuclear-free zone enforced by international inspection, an option Israel is most unlikely to accept.. “The war in Iraq is just the beginning,” former prime minister Shimon Peres said on Israeli television last February. Will the U.S. “drain the swamp” in the region, as the neoconservatives advocate, even including Saudi Arabia among the regimes to be toppled? Washington is divided on this specific issue but not on the question of its commitment to an aggressive foreign policy globally. What inhibits it most is Iraq’s political chaos, which it may increasingly feel obligated to resolve before it confronts more wayward nations, and the immense costs of the American way of making war–costs its former allies are unwilling to share.

The End of Alliances

America still desires to regain the mastery over Europe it had during the peak of the Cold War but it is also determined not to be bound by European desires–or indeed by the overwhelming European public opposition to the war with Iraq. Genuine dialogue or consultation with its NATO allies is out of the question. The Bush Administration, even more than its predecessors, simply does not believe in it–nor will it accept NATO’s formal veto structure; NATO’s division on Turkey has nothing to do with it. Washington cannot have it both ways. Its commitment to aggressive unilateralism is the antithesis of an alliance system that involves real consultation. France and Germany are now far too powerful to be treated as obsequious dependents, and the meeting at the end of April between these two nations and Belgium–although still vague in its implications–is an important step in the direction of NATO’s breakup and the creation of an autonomous bloc that Washington cannot control. These states also believe in sovereignty, as does every nation which is strong enough to exercise it, and they are now able to insist that the United States both listen to and take their views seriously. It was precisely this danger that the U.S. sought to forestall when it created NATO over 50 years ago.

The controversy over NATO’s future has been exacerbated by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s attacks on “Old Europe” and the disdain for Germany and France that he and his close adviser, Richard Perle, have repeated. But the underlying problems over the alliance’s future have been smoldering for years. Together, the nations that opposed a preemptive American war in Iraq and the Middle East–an open-ended, destabilizing adventure that is likely to last indefinitely–will influence Europe’s future development and role in the world profoundly. Although they do not have armies comparable to the American, they have great and growing economies. If Russia cooperates with them, even only occasionally, they will be much more powerful, and President Putin’s support for their position on the war makes that a real possibility.

Eastern European nations may say what Washington wishes on Iraq, but economically they are far more dependent on Germany and those allied with it. When the 15 nations in European Union met last February 17 their statement on Iraq was far closer to the German-French position than the American, reflecting the antiwar nations’ economic clout as well as the response of some prowar political leaders to the massive antiwar demonstrations that have taken place in Italy, Spain, Britain and the rest of Europe. There is every likelihood that the U.S. will emerge from this crisis in NATO more belligerent, and more isolated and detested, than ever.

The Bush Administration does not believe it needs allies, and this erroneous presumption is changing the nature of global power and will lead to the U. S. being isolated. It is folly to guess the next American move, for the war in Afghanistan also destabilized Pakistan–a nuclear power–and North Korea is high on the president’s list of evil states. Given its global ambitions and commitments, the U.S. may very well be drawn elsewhere, and soon. The men who lead it now are capable of anything.

The world has reached the most dangerous point in recent history, one full of threats of wars and instability unlike anything which prevailed when a Soviet-led bloc existed. The war against Iraq and those very likely to follow it are the logic of United States foreign and military policies, one that assumes it has a near monopoly of power, that emerged first after the collapse of Communism. The Bush Administration has brought them to their inevitable culmination.

There should be no doubt that the Cold War geopolitical legacies are ending and a new configuration of nations is in the process of being created. It is a mistake to think that America’s quick defeat of the demoralized, corrupt Iraqi regime reflects its new technological military prowess rather than Hussein’s political weakness. Rumsfeld wishes to trumpet to strength of the Pentagon’s arms but this conclusion is scarcely justified by the facts. Military triumph, in any case, can scarcely be equated with political success–and it is politics that counts most in the long run.

The reality is that the world is increasingly multipolar, economically and technologically, and that the U.S.’ desire to maintain absolute military superiority over the world is a chimera. Russia remains a military superpower, China is becoming one, and the world should have confronted and stopped the proliferation of destructive weaponry 20 years ago. It can only be done, if it is still possible, by international accords and bodies–such as the UN–which the United States rejects as a constraint on its power. The U.S. has no alternative but to accept the world as it is, or prepare for doomsday.

Unfortunately, there is not the slightest indication America will acknowledge the limits of its aspirations. The crisis in NATO and the dissolution of its dominant role in Europe reflects this diffusion of all forms of power and the diminution of American hegemony, which remains far more an unattainable aspiration than a reality.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at:


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience